Obama Faces the Nation
When President Obama stands in the well of the House of Representatives, he will address a joint session of Congress -- and the American people -- at one of the most perilous times in its history. Despite today's triple digit Dow upswing, the economy is in free fall. Retirement savings are drying up. Jobs are disappearing. Homes are being lost. The nation is fearful and angry at the financial sector. And the president knows it. But don't expect Obama to preach gloom and doom or to stoke the populist fire that's raging against Wall Street.
At a background briefing for a clutch of opinion writers this morning, a senior White House official said that tonight's address will be a calibrated mix of cold reality and optimism that America will pull itself out of the economic hardship it faces. Obama wants to leave people more hopeful but mindful of the problems we face, the official said. Tonight's address, estimated to clock in around 60 minutes, will not revisit the history of how the U.S. got into the financial mess. It will focus, we were assured, on how the country will get out of it.
Look for the president to talk about how the massive stimulus package he signed into law is not the sum total of what needs to be done. The priority is to unlock the credit markets. The cash they're sitting on is what's needed to finance payrolls and procurements and other purchases that keep the economy humming. Obama will talk about the housing markets. And he will argue that while he has to cut the budget (in the name of long-term fiscal discipline), there are areas the nation must invest in for its long-term future. These areas include health care reform, energy independence and education. Because the president is expected to discuss international affairs at length later this week, the senior official said Obama will touch only briefly on foreign policy.
Woven throughout Obama's speech will be a call for accountability and responsibility. And true to tradition, watch for the president to cast his attention to the balcony to someone sitting with the first lady who exemplifies those attributes. Kathleen Parker already noted that Ty'Sheoma Bethea of Dillon, S.C., will be there. Also look for Leonard Abess Jr., CEO of City National Bank of Florida. He shared some of the $60 million in proceeds he received from the sale of the bank last November with employees. There could be others in the balcony who came to Obama's attention by way of the ten letters, culled from the thousands that arrive at the White House daily, that are given to him every day.
Over the last week, there have been grumblings from supporters, most notably former President Clinton, that Obama needs to up the optimism quotient when talking about the sorry state of the nation's economy. Much to my surprise, the Obama camp said they were thinking the same thing before that conventional wisdom became a sensation on cable television. But it's not like Obama has been dressed in a cloak and carrying a sickle every time he talked about the financial mess. Yes, he's been pretty blunt about things getting worse before they get better. (Sadly, that's been true of late). But he always insists that things will get better because that's the American way.
While we will get a strong dose of much-needed optimism in tonight's address, the senior White House official was right when he said that this wouldn't be a night for high-flying rhetoric. The president's job is to make sure the American people understand the problems the country faces. In just a few hours, we'll know if he succeeded.
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