WASHINGTON - President Obama offered a grim portrait of America's plight in an address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, but he promised to lead an economic renewal that would lift the country out of its current crisis without bankrupting its future.
Striking his most hopeful tone in weeks, the president used the speech to outline how he believed his stimulus plan, bank bailout proposal, housing programs and health care overhaul would work in concert to turn around the nation's struggling economy. And while he bluntly described a country beset by historic economic challenges and continued threats abroad, he said the solution lies in directly confronting -- not ignoring -- those problems.
"The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach," he said. "They exist in our laboratories and universities, in our fields and our factories, in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth."
The remarks -- while not officially a State of the Union address, since Obama has been in office only five weeks -- had all the trappings of one: a national television audience, the walk to the rostrum through glad-handing lawmakers, the ordinary Americans sitting in the gallery and pointed out as living examples, and the series of standing ovations.
While he largely avoided partisan rhetoric and did not directly point the finger of blame at his predecessor, Obama did describe an "era" of greed and short-term profit that he said the nation was now putting behind it, and he stressed that he had not created but rather "inherited" the $1 trillion deficit, along with what he called "a financial crisis and a costly recession."
Obama again lectured Americans that the economic crisis is the product of prizing short-term profit over long-term prosperity, of gutting government regulations and of putting off difficult decisions. "Well that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here," he declared.
He also warned taxpayers will probably have to put in more money to rescue the financial system and fix the credit crisis, which he said could choke off an economic recovery. At the same time, he acknowledged anger many Americans feel at the bailout for Wall Street, and he pledged to hold executives accountable.
"I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now, especially when everyone is suffering in part from their bad decisions. I promise you -- I get it," he said. "But I also know ... we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment. My job -- our job -- is to solve the problem."
He warned members of both parties in Congress that they will be forced to sacrifice "worthy priorities" as the crisis continues.
But he made clear he was not prepared to retreat from his own ambitious agenda. The president called on Congress to pass a market-based cap on carbon pollution. He vowed a renewed effort to provide health care to all Americans. And he called on Americans to attend at least one year of college or vocational training, pledging the country will again lead the world in the proportion of college graduates by 2020.
After weeks of persistent questions about whether he had grown too downcast in describing the ongoing economic crisis, White House officials said Obama was seeking to strike an appropriate balance between hope -- the mantra of his campaign -- and realism in an era of serious problems. He sought to juxtapose those ideas repeatedly Tuesday night, saying at one point: "While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken; though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before."
Hope has been difficult to supply as the economic collapse that began in late September has deepened and spread wider. The nation's biggest banks are on the verge of collapsing without government investment that could lead to a nationalization of the industry. Foreclosures continue to chase Americans from their homes in record numbers. The auto industry is failing despite the infusion of billions from the federal treasury.
Under pressure to explain the necessity of a bank bailout program that many see as a reward for bankers on Wall Street, Obama made a detailed case for continuing to pour government money into the financial sector. "There will be no real recovery unless we clean up the credit crisis," Obama said.
Defending his stimulus package, Obama cited "57 police officers who are still on the streets of Minneapolis tonight because this plan prevented the layoffs their department was about to make." The line was prepared in consultation with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a co-chair of Obama's campaign in Minnesota.
Obama also touched on the wars in Iraq, where he plans to withdraw most U.S. combat troops by the summer of 2010, and Afghanistan, where he is dispatching 17,000 more troops.
But the ailing economy was the dominant theme in the address, with the president urging worried Americans to unite to get through a crisis he said would eventually abate.