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04 October 2023

On 'day of reckoning' Obama vows US will recover

US President Barack Obama smiles during his address to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (GETTY IMAGES) 

President Barack Obama vowed to lead a fearful America through its torment to emerge stronger than ever, declaring a "day of reckoning" after an age of excess ended in economic meltdown.

In an ambitious, policy-heavy debut address to Congress, the new president demanded national sacrifice and responsibility in a bold show of confidence, meant to restore his nation's optimism and revive its moribund economy.

"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," Obama said, triggering riotous cheers from US lawmakers.

Obama shook hands and hugged lawmakers before etching another moment of history, becoming the first black president to address lawmakers before a huge American flag in the House of Representatives.

"At this crossroads of history, the eyes of all people in all nations are once again upon us, watching to see what we do with this moment, waiting for us to lead," Obama said.

In a blizzard of programs and reforms, the president demanded an overhaul of financial regulation and warned he may need more than the $700 billion (Dh2.6 trillion) already earmarked to save the debt-riddled finance industry.

He tried to blow away clouds of gloom, promising to wrench America forward to a future powered by renewable fuels and new generation cars, where all Americans get health care and kids no longer drop out of school.

Targeting the crippled finance sector, Obama announced a government lending plan to thaw frozen credit markets, and to fund auto and home purchases.

He assured Americans their savings were safe, and argued that saving banks did not mean shoveling tax payer cash to avaricious fat cat executives.

"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," Obama said.

"It's not about helping banks, it's about helping people."

Turning to a global stage, Obama declared a new era of US diplomatic engagement had begun, told lawmakers to fund an expansion in US armed forces and promised "swift and certain justice" for captured terrorists.

Obama warned the price for recovery would be a new economy in which people spent within their means, and turned their backs on a chase for easy wealth and quick profits.

In a sharp critique of former president George W Bush, and even his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, Obama warned Americans had for too long been prizing short-term materialism over long-term security.

"We failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election," Obama said.

"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."

Obama promised he would lead the fight for savings, saying his aides had been combing the federal budget in line with his vow to halve the deficit, forecast to reach $1.3 trillion this year, by 2013.

"We have already identified $2 trillion in savings over the next decade," Obama said.

"We'll eliminate the no-bid contracts that have wasted billions in Iraq, and reform our defense budget so that we're not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don't use."

The president also vowed to end the Bush administration's practice of keeping the hundreds of billions of dollars cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq off the federal books.

"For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price."

As he mulls new plans for the twin wars, Obama also made good on one of his earliest campaign promises.

"To relieve the strain on our forces, my budget increases the number of our soldiers and Marines," Obama said.

He vowed to make long-term investments in "new jobs, new industries, and a renewed ability to compete with the rest of the world."

Shredding Bush administration reluctance to tackle climate change, Obama called on Congress to fund a chase for "clean, renewable energy."

"I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America."

At the same time, he said America could not ditch its iconic automobile industry.

"Millions of jobs depend on it. Scores of communities depend on it. And I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it."

In his short time in power, Obama has already driven a $787-billion stimulus plan through Congress, unveiled a $275-billion home foreclosure prevention plan and tried, so far unsuccessfully, to steady the banking industry.