Duty Calls

President Obama uses his congressional speech to warn Americans that the "day of reckoning" has arrived.

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It was a poor man’s State of the Union—but we are all poor now! And, like a responsible parent, President Barack Obama wouldn’t let us forget it last night. Despite the sobering tumbles of financial markets and the steady uptick in job-loss numbers, the president asked the American people and their elected leaders in Congress to stay and fight. "What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more," he said. Echoing the words of a young girl from South Carolina who wrote to Congress asking for help with her crumbling school building, he said: “We are not quitters. We are not quitters.”

The speech, which was not an official State of the Union address, was previewed by advisers as “Reaganesque," and it lived up to the hype. With Reagan’s sunny style, Obama delivered a hybrid speech, mixing the gloomy global prognosis of his inaugural address and the call to responsibility that rang through some of his most memorable moments as a candidate. The starkly progressive address was a firm, impassioned call to “claim opportunity from ordeal.”

That’s a fancy way of asking America to make lemonade from lemonsthough Obama has proven himself a master at pricking the national conscience while still winning our admiration (as with the 67 separate ovations the Democratic Congress offered its new leader). In the first, most populist, third of his speech, the president went heavy on the admonitions. “If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that for too long, we have not always met these responsibilities—as a government or as a people.” He called out bankers in search of “quick profit at the expense of a healthy market” and CEOs who “use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet.” All this was in line with the tone struck at this week's White House fiscal responsibility summit, held in advance of the unveiling of Obama's first budget tomorrow.

This disciplinary section had two clear targets: sickly financial markets, as well as homeowners and working families teetering on the brink. Obama connected the dots between the series of confusing bailouts and stimulus packages and problems on the ground. He explained how the freeze in lending means businesses can’t make payroll, consumers can't consume, and why government must step in. He touted a sweeping tax cut—coming to most Americans on April 1. And he promised big business that the Treasury would keep handing out cash—“probably more than we’ve already set aside” to keep the economy from collapsing. He announced a new lending fund to help small businesses, car buyers, and students attending college, and flagged his previously announced $75 billion housing plan to help families refinance their mortgages. And he pledged to help the american auto industry recover from it current woes: "I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it."

But he warned of even leaner times ahead, insisting that “Democrats and Republicans will have to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars. And that includes me.”

The sacrifice part was hard to find; Obama dished up domestic policy goodies for nearly everyone—and the chamber roared as each new course was served: energy action, health care reform, “a complete and competitive education.” These expensive and ambitious “big three” investments anchored his plan for economic recovery—an almost unthinkably progressive platform, given the climate in Washington just last year.

Cleverly, Obama frequently wove the story of what the nation needs in with what his American Recovery Act already does—giving a sense of breathless energy to what’s been, by some accounts, a tumultuous month in office. Thanks to the stimulus package passed by the Congress, “we will double this nation’s supply of renewable energy in the next three years,” he said, later adding: “We have done more to advance the cause of health care reform in the last 30 days than we have in the last decade.” The Congress was only too happy to applaud its own work.

The forum shone a Klieg light on the state of “bipartisanship” in Washington. Many Republican legislators who grabbed for the president’s hand as he strode into the chamber seemed slightly hypocritical when they refused to stand on big applause lines like the middle-class tax cut. Some who torpedoed the Recovery Act cheered like gangbusters when Obama mentioned the 3.5 million jobs the bill would create. And when the president praised a new law that will provide doctors to “11 million American children whose parents work full-time,” the Republican caucus sat sourly in their seats. This doesn't bode well for their future electoral prospects; who wants to join the party of mean girls? (Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor and former healthcare administrator who delivered the GOP response, offered only an underwhelming defense of private insurance in a wooden, scattered rebuttal.)

Conspicuously muted was the political issue that catapulted Obama to the head of the Democratic class in 2008—Iraq. The president did not mention either ongoing conflict until 45 minutes into the address, and even then the wars were couched in the same call for national debt management that he hammered home all night. Though he promised not to “hide the price” of war in his first budget, 44 didn’t offer much substance beyond the tough talk on defense patented by his predecessor.

In his inaugural address, just a month ago, Obama promised “a new era of responsibility.” Throughout this riveting follow-up, he seems to have wagered that this same sense of duty is better motivation than either blind hope or blind fear. Citing the brave letter from Ty’Sheoma Bethea in South Carolina, Obama spoke directly to young Americans about their education and created a brilliant riff on the Kennedy family legacy: To drop out of school is “not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country.” Line by line, the president seemed to be issuing a similar schoolyard challenge to America, to buck up and rebuild itself, even in the most dire circumstances. “In our hands lies the ability to shape our world for good or for ill,” he said.

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