WASHINGTON // An embattled President Barack Obama vowed in his first State of the Union address to make job growth his topmost priority, as he looked to reignite his stalling presidency. Speaking to a packed House of Representatives chamber yesterday and a television audience of millions, Mr Obama urged politicians 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," Mr 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." Mr 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 (Dh5.1 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. Republicans sat stone-faced through several rounds of emphatic Democratic cheering as Mr 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 Mr Obama said he wanted to impose a new fee on banks, while Republicans sat stone-faced. Democrats stood and applauded when Mr 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, emphasising his ideas for restoring job growth, taming budget deficits and changing a polarised Washington "where every day is Election Day".
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, Mr Obama proclaimed some success, and said "far more" al Qa'eda terrorists were killed under his watch last year in the US-led global fight than in 2008. Also, hoping to salve growing disappointment in a key constituency, Mr 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, Mr Obama neither made a commitment to suspend the practice in the interim nor issued a firm deadline.
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. Declaring that "I know the anxieties" of Americans' struggling to pay the bills while big banks get bailouts and bonuses, Mr Obama prodded Congress to enact a second stimulus package "without delay," specifying that it should contain a range of measures to help small businesses and funding for infrastructure projects.
Also, Mr Obama said he will initiate a $30 billion scheme to provide money to community banks at low rates. The money would come from balances left in the $700 billion Wall Street rescue fund - a programme "about as popular as a root canal". * AP