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Obama says US faces 'day of reckoning'

IN his first address to Congress, President Barack Obama said the United States has reached a dire "day of reckoning" after years of shortsighted economic decisions. But he promised worried Americans that better days are ahead.

Obama assured lawmakers and a nationwide television audience of millions last night that his efforts to rescue the US economy will not derail his long-term goals of creating a national health care system, improving education and developing alternative energy sources.

"The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation," Obama said. "Tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before."

To deal with the current crisis, deepening each day, the president said more money will be needed to rescue troubled banks beyond the US$700 billion already committed last year. He said he knows the bailout billions for banks are unpopular, but he also said that was the only way to get credit moving again to households and businesses, the lifeblood of the American economy.

Along with aid for banks, he also urged Congress to move quickly on legislation to overhaul outdated regulations on the nation's financial markets.

"I ask this Congress to join me in doing whatever proves necessary," Obama said. "Because we cannot consign our nation to an open-ended recession."

The speech had the trappings of a State of the Union address, the annual presidential presentation to Congress. Technically it was not one, though, because Obama has been in office just five weeks, not long enough to present such a speech.

Still, it was a night for the president to sketch out his priorities in a setting unmatched for the rest of the year. Obama was speaking to both chambers of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Cabinet and special guests.

Cheered robustly as he entered the chamber of the House of Representatives, Obama grinned, shook hands and kissed lawmakers. He stopped for a lengthy embrace with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, back on the bench only this week after surgery for pancreatic cancer.

Obama offered a sober assessment of the recent past, when "short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity" and difficult decisions were put off for another day.

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

He urged the country "to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face and take responsibility for our future once more."

Obama came to Congress as a powerful leader who enjoys strong approval ratings across the nation.

He was addressing ebullient Democrats, who have increased their majority in Congress, as well as embattled and reinvigorated Republicans, who have taken a stand against what they see as wasteful spending in Obama's US$787 billion stimulus package.

In the Republicans' response, televised after Obama's speech, Louisiana's young, charismatic governor, Bobby Jindal, exhorted fellow Republicans to be Obama's "strongest partners" when they agree with him. But he signaled that will not happen much, calling Democrats in Congress "irresponsible" for passing the stimulus.

"The way to lead is not to raise taxes and put more money and power in hands of Washington politicians," Jindal said, according to excerpts of his remarks released by the Republican Party.

Jindal, the first Indian-American to lead a state, is considered a likely presidential contender in 2012.

Obama spoke at a time when Americans face a constant stream of bad economic news. Some 3.6 million jobs have disappeared so far in the deepening recession, which now ranks as the biggest job destroyer in the post-World War II period. Americans have lost trillions of dollars in retirement, college and savings accounts, with the stock market falling nearly half from its peak of 16 months ago.

New polls - some with Obama's public support rising higher, others with it dropping - show that the political climate can be as precarious as the economic one. Aware that his and his party's fortunes will suffer if he cannot right the economic picture, Obama sought to blend the kind of grim honesty that has become his trademark.

In contrast to many State of the Union addresses by George W. Bush, Obama did not emphasize foreign policy. He touched on his intention to chart new strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan and to forge a new image for the United States around the world even as he keeps up the fight against terror.

He said the United States was working with the G-20 group of nations "to restore confidence in our financial system, avoid the possibility of escalating protectionism, and spur demand for American goods in markets across the globe."

"For the world depends on us to have a strong economy, just as our economy depends on the strength of the world's," he said.

Obama also urged Congress to pass legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon emissions that are blamed for global warming.

He said the United States will invest US$15 billion a year to develop wind, solar and other energy technologies. He said the US needs to do so to become more competitive.

"We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century," he said. "And yet, it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient. We invented solar technology, but we've fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it. New plug-in hybrids roll off our assembly lines, but they will run on batteries made in Korea."


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