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President aims to ease unemployment anxiety

Jan. 28, 2010

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Associated Press
President Barack Obama

By Jennifer Loven
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Declaring "I don't quit,'" President Barack Obama fought to recharge his embattled presidency with a State of the Union vow to get jobless millions back to work and to stand on the side of Americans angry at Wall Street greed and Washington bickering. Defiant despite stinging setbacks, he said he would fight on for ambitious overhauls of health care, energy and education.

"Change has not come fast enough," Obama acknowledged Wednesday night 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.

Obama acknowledged "my share of the blame" for not adequately explaining his plans to the public and connecting with their everyday worries. At the same time, he offered an unapologetic defense of pursuing the same agenda on which he won.

The president is keeping to the tradition of taking his themes on the road. He will travel to Florida on Thursday to announce $8 billion in grants for high-speed rail development, to Maryland on Friday to a House Republican retreat, and to New Hampshire Tuesday to talks jobs. Cabinet officials were fanning out too.