Exorcising Bush's Ghost

By Dan Froomkin
12:08 PM ET, 02/25/2009

Obama addresses Congress last night. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Simply by being there, President Obama and Vice President Biden created powerful imagery of change at last night's joint session of Congress. There was no Dick Cheney skulking over the president's right shoulder. Gone was the tongue-tied Texan staring blankly into the TelePrompter, replaced by a commanding and self-possessed African-American Democrat. And up there in the first lady's box? A radiant black woman.

But sometimes bygones won't be bygones.

Indeed, absolutely central to Obama's argument last night for his massive economic recovery package and his hugely ambitious plans in the areas of energy, health and education was his conclusion that the previous administration so utterly failed to rise to the challenges facing the nation that we are now facing "a day of reckoning."

Here's the transcript, as delivered.

Obama went into last night's address with enormous popular support. But he still needed to turn the country's faith in him into faith in his far-reaching agenda. To fully make the case for such dramatic action, he had to more clearly explain his thought process.

He did that in three fundamental steps. First, by describing the profound irresponsibility that brought us here in the first place. Then by reminding us that the American government has a history of achieving greatness in times of crisis. Then by hearkening to this country's indomitable spirit. It was a potent combination.

And that first part amounted to possibly the most damning summary of the Bush legacy yet.

"The fact is, our economy did not fall into decline overnight. Nor did all of our problems begin when the housing market collapsed or the stock market sank," Obama said. "We have known for decades that our survival depends on finding new sources of energy, yet we import more oil today than ever before. The cost of health care eats up more and more of our savings each year, yet we keep delaying reform. Our children will compete for jobs in a global economy that too many of our schools do not prepare them for. And though all of these challenges went unsolved, we still managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our government, than ever before.

"In other words, we have lived through an era where too often short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity, where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election. A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations -- regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market. People bought homes they knew they couldn't afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway. And all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day.

"Well, that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here.

"Now is the time to act boldly and wisely, to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity."

Since the day after the election, Obama has been accused of overreaching. But in what I consider the second major part of his central argument, he argued that now is not the time to think small:

"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, for history tells a different story," he said. "History reminds us that, at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry. From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age. In the wake of war and depression, the G.I. Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history. And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world.

"In each case, government didn't supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise. It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive.

"We are a nation that has seen promise amid peril and claimed opportunity from ordeal. Now we must be that nation again.

"That is why, even as it cuts back on programs we don't need, the budget I submit will invest in the three areas that are absolutely critical to our economic future: energy, health care, and education."

And Obama made the third part of his central argument with the help of a Skutnik -- one of the carefully-selected guests in the first lady's box that presidents have held out as examples to the nation ever since Ronald Reagan in 1982 lauded Lenny Skutnik, the government worker who weeks before had leapt into the icy Potomac River to rescue a survivor of an Air Florida crash.

Obama's chief Skutnik was Ty'Sheoma Bethea, an eighth-grade student from a crumbling junior high school in South Carolina.

"She had been told that her school is hopeless," Obama explained. "But the other day after class, she went to the public library and typed up a letter to the people sitting in this chamber. She even asked her principal for the money to buy a stamp.

"The letter asks us for help and says, 'We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself, and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina, but also the world. We are not quitters.'

"That's what she said: 'We are not quitters.' These words -- (APPLAUSE.) These words and these stories tell us something about the spirit of the people who sent us here. They tell us that, even in the most trying times, amid the most difficult circumstances, there is a generosity, a resilience, a decency, and a determination that perseveres, a willingness to take responsibility for our future and for posterity.

"Their resolve must be our inspiration. Their concerns must be our cause. And we must show them and all our people that we are equal to the task before us."

Of his three major priorities, Obama was most emphatic about health care. Almost shouting, he declared: "[L]et there be no doubt: Health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year."

He also responded to several populist concerns about his financial rescue plan.

Notably, he placed a good deal of distance between himself and how the Bush administration apportioned the first chunk of bailout money: "Now, I understand that when the last administration asked this Congress to provide assistance for struggling banks, Democrats and Republicans alike were infuriated by the mismanagement and the results that followed. So were the American taxpayers; so was I.

"So 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. But I also know that, in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger or yield to the politics of the moment."

He vowed: "This time -- 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."

And he offered one big reason to discount the largely negative judgment of Wall Street on his bank rescue plan thus far: "I understand that, on any given day, Wall Street may be more comforted by an approach that gives bank bailouts with no strings attached and that holds nobody accountable for their reckless decisions, but such an approach won't solve the problem."

Obama defended his anti-foreclosure plan, alluding to the fact that it won't cover investors or people who can't make even reduced payments: "It's a plan that won't help speculators or that neighbor down the street who bought a house he could never hope to afford, but it will help millions of Americans who are struggling with declining home values, Americans who will now be able to take advantage of the lower interest rates that this plan has already helped to bring about."

And he identified some modest cuts he intends to make in his budget, including "direct payments to large agribusinesses that don't need them," "no-bid contracts that have wasted billions in Iraq," and "Cold War-era weapons systems we don't use."

He said he would raise taxes by ending tax breaks for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans: "Let me be absolutely clear, because I know you'll end up hearing some of the same claims that rolling back these tax breaks means a massive tax increase on the American people. If your family earns less than $250,000 a year, a quarter million dollars a year, you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime."

One of the biggest surprises of the night was his rousing call for individuals to pursue their schooling. "[D]ropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself; it's quitting on your country," he said, also asking "every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training."

He also asked Congress "to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution."

There were only a few lines in his speech that actively pit the two sides of the aisle against each other. One came when Obama spoke of the importance of drawing down the debt. Republicans cheered wildly. "See, I know we can get some consensus in here," Obama ad-libbed. But when he returned to his text -- saying "With the deficit we inherited..." -- it was the Democrats' turn to roar.

And rather than explicitly reaching out to Republicans on any particular issue, Obama chose instead to speak more generally about common ground: "I know that we haven't agreed on every issue thus far," he said. "There are surely times in the future where we will part ways. But I also know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed. I know that. That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months and where we return after those debates are done. That is the foundation on which the American people expect us to build common ground."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company