Barreling ahead on a mammoth agenda, Barack Obama is ready to offer a detailed sketch of the first year of his presidency, casting the nation’s bleeding economy as a tangle of tough, neglected problems.
In a prime-time speech from the House of Representatives, Obama will make his case Tuesday that much more has to be done to turn around the economy — a message he knows he must explain.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that Obama will provide more details about his financial stability plan and measures to help the economy while delivering “a sober assessment about where we are and the challenges we face.”
“He’ll say we’re on the right path to meeting these challenges, and there are better days ahead,” Gibbs said.
Already, the nation is nearly dizzy keeping up with what’s emerged from Washington during Obama’s first weeks as president, from a staggering $787 billion stimulus plan to a revamped bailout for the financial sector to a rescue plan for struggling homeowners.
The president has also said reforming health care, including burgeoning entitlement programs, is a huge priority.
Although Obama is too new in office to be delivering a State of the Union address, his speech will have all the same trappings. It comes two days before he delivers a budget blueprint to Congress. Unlike that detail-driven document, his address will be broad, spelling out what he wants and how he will do it.
The economy, in its worst tailspin in decades, will dominate. Obama will touch on foreign policy, but that will largely be left for other upcoming speeches. This will not be a rollout of one policy initiative after another.
Obama will make clear that the trillion-dollar-plus deficit is one he “inherited.” In other words, he wants to remind people that President George W. Bush and the previous Congress left him a big hole, forcing him to pursue the costly stimulus package.
The president will push for movement on ensuring health coverage for all Americans. He will seek to expand educational opportunities, and diversify the country’s energy sources, and contain sacred entitlements like Social Security, and halve the soaring budget deficit in four years.
Gunning for so much at once is complicated, both in terms of the issues themselves and the politics. Senior presidential adviser David Axelrod acknowledged Monday there is a risk in taking on too much.
“I think the bigger concern,” he said, “is to not be aggressive at a time when a tepid approach could really consign us to a long-term economic catastrophe. We believe the times demand vigor and aggressive action, and so we’re having to do a lot of things at once.”
Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the top Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said Obama’s speech amounts to a coming-out party.
“You never know what a salesman’s going to sell you until he shows up at your door,” Issa said of his expectations. “If he gives us a narrow set of priorities that can be executed, and they don’t just involve more spending, then I think it will be refreshing. If he gives us a long laundry list, which most presidents do, then although it will set the agenda … it won’t be as meaningful.”
In many ways, though, Obama will be speaking directly to the American people. Daily followers of Obama’s rhetoric are not likely to be surprised by Obama’s words, some of which will be repeats. He is trying to reach millions of people who don’t get to hear him every day.
So Obama will say that the crises facing the nation are so large they can only be solved in bipartisan ways. He will be blunt about the country’s woes but try to balance that talk with optimism. He will talk about his travels as president so he can focus on the stories of communities outside Washington.
Asked in an MSNBC interview how the president plans to make good on his pledge to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term, Gibbs said, “The biggest thing we’re going to do is cut the amount of money we spend each year in Iraq.”
He said Obama also planned to talk about necessary investments and about taxes.
“I think the president believes very clearly that we have to be honest about where we are,” Gibbs said. “Tonight, he will tell the country that we’ve faced greater challenges than we face now and we’ve always met those challenges.”
There is sure to be ceremony as Obama arrives in the well of the House. His speech is tentatively at 45 minutes, accounting for applause time.