Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Fate of the Union address

It may be the signature visualization of the machinery of American government: amid a backdrop of the flag, the President of the United States, flanked by the Vice President and the Speaker of the House, addresses that body and the American people in a joint session of Congress.

The joint session that took place last night was both no different and something else again. With the nation in unprecedented financial turmoil, prosecuting two wars at astronomical expense, President Obama made his first address before Congress.

A lot was said by the punditburo beforehand about how the president would need to invest the moment with drama, with theater. They needn’t have bothered; there’s enough theater built in to any joint session of Congress.

But Obama seized the power of this special hour with a warning to the banking industry; a demand for that industry to resume lending to everyday people; a catalog of planned initiatives; a preview of his first federal budget, soon to be submitted; and a ringing oratorical profession of his faith in the American people to not only endure but prevail in the worst times most of those American people have ever seen.

◊ ◊ ◊

He set the tone right out of the gate: “I know that for many Americans watching right now, the state of our economy is a concern that rises above all others. And rightly so. If you haven’t been personally affected by this recession, you probably know someone who has – a friend; a neighbor; a member of your family. You don’t need to hear another list of statistics to know that our economy is in crisis, because you live it every day. It’s the worry you wake up with and the source of sleepless nights. It’s the job you thought you’d retire from but now have lost; the business you built your dreams upon that’s now hanging by a thread; the college acceptance letter your child had to put back in the envelope. The impact of this recession is real, and it is everywhere.

“But 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.”

◊ ◊ ◊

What followed was an address that combined oratorical styles: by turns a fireside chat, a toughlove expression, a policy statement and a shot across the bow of those forces complicating the national recovery.

The whole 55-minute address had many high points; if you want the whole thing, here it is. Otherwise, excepts of what may be the best speech presented by an orator with a track record of stellar speeches will do.

On the role of banks in the current economic crisis, and the prospects of further bailouts by the government:
”[W]e will act with the full force of the federal government to ensure that the major banks that Americans depend on have enough confidence and enough money to lend even in more difficult times. And when we learn that a major bank has serious problems, we will hold accountable those responsible, force the necessary adjustments, provide the support to clean up their balance sheets, and assure the continuity of a strong, viable institution that can serve our people and our economy.

“I understand that on any given day, Wall Street may be more comforted by an approach that gives banks bailouts with no strings attached, and that holds nobody accountable for their reckless decisions. But such an approach won’t solve the problem. And our goal is to quicken the day when we re-start lending to the American people and American business and end this crisis once and for all.

“I intend to hold these banks fully accountable for the assistance they receive, and this time, they will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer. This time, CEOs won’t be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over.

On his forthcoming budget:
”So often, we have come to view these documents as simply numbers on a page or laundry lists of programs. I see this document differently. I see it as a vision for America – as a blueprint for our future.

“My budget does not attempt to solve every problem or address every issue. It reflects the stark reality of what we’ve inherited – a trillion dollar deficit, a financial crisis, and a costly recession.

“Given these realities, everyone in this chamber – Democrats and Republicans – will have to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars. And that includes me.

“But that does not mean we can afford to ignore our long-term challenges. I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves; that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity.”

On the ailing auto industry:
“[E]veryone recognizes that years of bad decision-making and a global recession have pushed our automakers to the brink. We should not, and will not, protect them from their own bad practices. But we are committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win. Millions of jobs depend on it. Scores of communities depend on it. And I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it.”

On the need for health care reform:
“This is a cost that now causes a bankruptcy in America every thirty seconds. By the end of the year, it could cause 1.5 million Americans to lose their homes. In the last eight years, premiums have grown four times faster than wages. And in each of these years, one million more Americans have lost their health insurance. It is one of the major reasons why small businesses close their doors and corporations ship jobs overseas. And it’s one of the largest and fastest-growing parts of our budget.

“Given these facts, we can no longer afford to put health care reform on hold.

Already, we have done more to advance the cause of health care reform in the last thirty days than we have in the last decade. When it was days old, this Congress passed a law to provide and protect health insurance for eleven million American children whose parents work full-time. Our recovery plan will invest in electronic health records and new technology that will reduce errors, bring down costs, ensure privacy, and save lives. It will launch a new effort to conquer a disease that has touched the life of nearly every American by seeking a cure for cancer in our time. And it makes the largest investment ever in preventive care, because that is one of the best ways to keep our people healthy and our costs under control.”

On education:
“In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity – it is a prerequisite. …

“[W]e know that our schools don’t just need more resources. They need more reform. That is why this budget creates new incentives for teacher performance; pathways for advancement, and rewards for success. We’ll invest in innovative programs that are already helping schools meet high standards and close achievement gaps. And we will expand our commitment to charter schools.

“It is our responsibility as lawmakers and educators to make this system work. But it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it. And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American.”

On these and other issues the president laid out a kind of road map of principles and ideas before the real road map: his first budget, which will, finally, line by line, lay out the specifics of the long trip back to solvency.

If nothing else, the country’s getting comfortable with Obama behind the wheel; early reaction gauged by snapshot online and post-address telephone flash polls found that the American people generally gave the president high marks for both the style and substance of the speech.

This was more than making the right noises. Among other things, Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress was a bid to effect a joint venture of Congress, a rethinking of the usual partisan political reflexes — on behalf of the citizens who put them in Congress in the first place. The president used the phrase “Democrats and Republicans” to hammer home the point that politics as usual has failed us, and it persists at the peril of the American economy, and the well-being of the American people.

The strict observers of the doings of our government will rightly contradict those who say this was a State of the Union address; that formally happens after a president’s first year in office. But no matter: on his 35th day in office, President Obama delivered a speech with an urgency of timing that was a match for the urgency of the times — a state of the Union address in everything but the name.
Image credit: San Francisco Chronicle front page: San Francisco Chronicle.


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