0

Obama pledges job creation in 1st State of Union

Photo by Evan Vucci

Photo by Evan Vucci

WASHINGTON -- Declaring "I don't quit," an embattled President Barack Obama vowed in his first State of the Union address Wednesday night to make job growth his topmost priority and urged a divided Congress to boost the still-ailing economy with a new burst of stimulus spending.

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 acknowledged before a politician-packed House chamber and a TV audience of millions. "As hard as it may be, as uncomfortable and contentious as the debates may be, it's time to get serious about fixing the problems that are hampering our growth."

Obama looked to change the conversation from how his presidency is stalling -- over the messy health care debate, a limping economy and the missteps that led to Christmas Day's barely averted terrorist disaster -- to how he is seizing the reins. 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 elections.

With State of the Union messages traditionally delivered at the end of January, Obama had one of the presidency's biggest platforms just a week after Republicans scored an upset takeover of a Senate seat in Massachusetts, prompting hand-wringing over his leadership. With the turnover erasing Democrats' Senate supermajority needed to pass most legislation, it also put a cloud over health care and the rest of Obama's agenda.

A chief demand was for lawmakers to press forward with his prized health care overhaul, which is in severe danger in Congress. "Do not walk away from reform," he implored. "Not now. Not when we are so close."

Republicans applauded the president when he entered the chamber, and even craned their necks and welcomed Michelle Obama when she took her seat. But the warm feelings of bipartisanship disappeared early.

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 just stared.

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.

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

The president devoted about two-thirds of his speech to the economic worries foremost on Americans' minds as recession persists. "The devastation remains," he said.

Obama emphasized his ideas, some new but mostly old and explained anew, for restoring job growth, taming budget deficits and changing a Washington so polarized that "every day is Election Day." These concerns are at the roots of voter emotions that once drove supporters to Obama but now are turning on him as he governs.

Declaring that "I know the anxieties" of Americans' struggling to pay the bills while big banks get bailouts and bonuses, Obama prodded Congress to enact a second stimulus package "without delay," specifying it should contain a range of measures to help small businesses and funding for infrastructure projects. Also, fine tuning a plan first announced in October, Obama said he will initiate a $30 billion program to provide money to community banks at low rates, provided they agree to increase lending to small businesses. The money would come from balances left in the $700 billion Wall Street rescue fund -- a program "about as popular as a root canal" that Obama made a point of saying "I hated."