Obama Has Tough Talk For Tough Times

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Only seven days after winning a bruising battle over his stimulus plan, President Obama will use his first address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday to stress the urgency of further action to regulate financial markets, stem the wave of foreclosures and prepare for a painful effort to gain control over deficit spending.


But the televised address will be only one part of a week of bad news for the nation. The worst of that news will be the deficit numbers to be included in a budget framework to be released two days after the speech to Congress. Some of those numbers will also be discussed today in a White House summit on fiscal responsibility.


A White House aide promised the budget presentation will be "pretty meaty" and leave a better understanding of the deficits to come. "We have an unsustainable path long term in our budgets," said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. "Some of the actions that we are going to take that are out there are some honesty in budgeting that give people a fuller picture of what's going on, putting some of the worst spending back on budget, putting some disaster spending back on budget."


Gibbs added that the budget presentation "will show you... a deficit far bigger and far redder than what might have first been imagined, because for many years we've used tricks and gimmicks to mask the size of our irresponsibility." But he said the president will use his Tuesday speech to show what has to be done "collectively to get ourselves back on a path toward some sustainable fiscal track."


The address, summit and budget numbers -- taken together -- are likely to be sobering reminders that the stimulus spending has sent the deficit soaring and that it will be a long time before signs of economic recovery will be seen. One aide said the week will serve as "a magnifying glass on the fiscal health of our country."


The week presents a major challenge to the president, who enjoys strong public approval despite the gloomy economic picture and his failure to deliver on promises of bipartisanship in the stimulus fight.


The White House said the president will use the address to talk about that red ink and the budget. But Gibbs promised "a much broader economically themed speech, not just the budget." He said Obama will "talk about the recovery plan; he'll talk about foreclosures; he'll talk about financial stability ... and the reregulation of the financial industry to ensure we don't encounter the same problems again."


While not a State of the Union address -- new presidents do not give those in their first year -- it will have that feel, requiring some discussion of foreign policy. But with the stock market tanking, foreclosures soaring, employment plummeting and credit tight, the economy will dominate. And, with some wounds still fresh on Capitol Hill from the stimulus fight, the stakes are high for the president's relationships with both Congress and the public.


"I really can't remember a time like this," said Bruce Buchanan, an expert on the presidency at the University of Texas. "I haven't picked up this kind of widespread borderline panic in all my decades of watching this process. I've seen anger, rejection of the status quo and the like. But this is different." Because of that, he said, it's time for Obama to go beyond gloom-and-doom talk about how bad the economy is. "He has done the downside; now, it's time for hope," he said.


Gibbs said the president is acutely aware that some past presidents "have not been up front with the American people and where they were and the progress or the lack of progress that was being made." Obama, he said, "believes it's important that we do that in a forthright and honest way." But he said the president will be "confident and hopeful" in the address to balance the gloom.


Kenneth Collier, a presidential scholar at Stephen F. Austin State University, said the address is also an opportunity for Obama to heal any wounds opened in the battle over the stimulus package. "This speech is the first chance after the first battle to reconcile. He can use this also to take another stab at bipartisanship and build a coalition for the next round of battles," he said.


With the public still demanding the parties work together, the president is not likely to pull back the hand he extended to the Republicans, despite his failure to secure their votes for the stimulus. "But I think he is shifting away from expecting to get votes in the short term," said Buchanan. "What he's now emphasizing is bipartisanship as a more civil tone rather than give the people who lost the election what they want in a bill in order to get their vote."


Pollster John Zogby said the public will be looking for this because, "What voters want is problem solving and consensus-building." He said Americans still give their new president high marks. But he did suffer some damage in the stimulus fight. "The image of everybody has been tarnished," he said. "The voters don't give any of the three parties -- the president, the Democrats, the Republicans -- good marks on bipartisanship. What he needs to do is say we will get back to the promise of bipartisanship." He said the stakes are high because of widespread unhappiness with the way Washington operates. "The presidency and Congress are really on trial," he said. "The message has been clear that these institutions are accustomed to working on a very partisan basis and in the eyes of most Americans have grown dysfunctional."


Zogby said the public also wants Obama to borrow a page from Franklin D. Roosevelt and leaven his litany of woes with a promise that things will get better. "People don't need to be reminded how bad things are," he said. "A president always has to lay out for them that he's cognizant of how bad things are. Now, he doesn't need to sugarcoat anything. America gets it."

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Cyra Master

Cyra Master is a W.E.B. Du Bois fellow at the Atlantic. Previously, she was an editor at the nonprofit Center for Law and Social Policy and was a reporter for the New Hampshire Eagle Tribune. She is a graduate of Emerson College.
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