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In key speech, Obama pledges to create jobs

President hopes to reverse public opinion with hopeful claims

Posted: January 27, 2010 10:20 p.m.
Updated: January 28, 2010 4:55 a.m.

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday.

 

WASHINGTON (AP) — An embattled President Barack Obama vowed in his first State of the Union address Wednesday to make job growth his topmost priority, as he looked to reignite his stalling presidency.

Speaking to a politician-packed House of Representatives chamber and a television audience of millions, Obama urged lawmakers to come together around new stimulus spending and short-term economic relief.

Defiant despite stinging setbacks, he said he would not abandon ambitious plans for longer-term fixes to health care, energy, education and more.

“Change has not come fast enough,” Obama said.

He compared the United States to other nations: “Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China’s not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany’s not waiting. India’s not waiting.”

Obama looked to use the high-profile speech to change America’s conversation from how his presidency is troubled — over the messy health care debate, a limping economy and the missteps that led to Christmas Day’s barely averted terrorist attack — to how he is seizing the reins on the economic worries foremost on Americans’ minds. He spoke to a nation gloomy over double-digit unemployment and federal deficits soaring to a record $1.4 trillion, and to fellow Democrats dispirited about the fallen standing of a president they hoped would carry them through this fall’s midterm congressional elections.

Democrats fear that the fallen standing of the president could hurt them in November’s congressional and gubernatorial elections.

Just last week, Republicans scored a stunning victory by winning the Senate seat long held by the late Edward M. Kennedy.

Republicans applauded the president when he entered the chamber and craned to welcome Michelle Obama. But bipartisanship disappeared early, with Republicans sitting stone-faced through several rounds of emphatic Democratic cheering and as Obama took a sharp jab at Republican congressional strategy. “Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership,” he said.

Democrats jumped to their feet and roared when Obama said he wanted to impose a new fee on banks, while Republicans sat stone-faced. Democrats stood and applauded when Obama mentioned the economic stimulus package passed last February. Republicans sat and stared.

The president devoted about two-thirds of his speech to the economy, emphasizing his ideas for restoring job growth, taming budget deficits and changing a polarized Washington “where every day is Election Day.” These concerns are at the roots of voter emotions that drove supporters to Obama but now are turning on him as he governs.

He looked to rescue the health care plan, his top domestic priority. The plan was on the verge of passage, then got derailed after opposition Republicans captured the Massachusetts seat. The United States lacks universal health care.

“Do not walk away from reform,” he implored. “Not now. Not when we are so close.”

In a remarkable shift from past addresses, and notable for a president whose candidacy caught fire over his opposition to the Iraq war, foreign policy was taking a relative back seat.

On national security, Obama proclaimed some success, saying that “far more” al-Qaida terrorists were killed under his watch last year in the U.S.-led global fight than in 2008.

Also, hoping to salve growing disappointment in a key constituency, Obama said he would work with Congress to repeal the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. But in a concession to concern among Republicans and in his own party’s right flank, Obama neither made a commitment to suspend the practice in the interim nor issued a firm deadline.

Throughout the speech, Obama aimed to show he understands Americans’ struggles to pay bills while big banks get bailouts and bonuses. Trying to position himself as a fighter for regular people, he urged Congress to blunt the impact of a Supreme Court decision last week handing corporations greater influence over elections.

“I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities,” he said.

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