Reckoning & Responsibility

Posted Feb. 25, 2009, at 6:53 p.m.

Balancing optimism with reality is a difficult task, doubly so during a recession. President Barack Obama achieved this balancing act Tuesday in his first address to Congress. The budget he is expected to release later this week, which he called “a blueprint for our future,” will help determine whether he lives up to the responsibility he repeatedly called upon the rest of the country to demonstrate.

President Obama recognized the severity of the U.S. economic situation — continued job losses, families’ inability to borrow money for college or a new home and growing debt — but quickly highlighted America’s resilience in the face of adversity. “We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States will emerge stronger than before,” he said to applause.

But, like the father he is, the president reminded lawmakers and television viewers that they had shirked their responsibilities. Although it has long been known that we need new sources of energy, that the American health care system is not sustainable and that living beyond our means can’t go on indefinitely, we, collectively, have not devoted serious attention to solving these problems.

President Obama promised to devote his attention to three key areas: energy, health care and education.

These are the right priorities, but he was short on details. For example, how will $15 billion a year move toward the president’s goal of doubling the country’s supply of renewable energy within three years? How will he increase the proportion of college graduates in America so it is the highest in the world by 2020?

More important, how much will these and other initiatives cost — and where will the money come from — at a time when the U.S. economy remains perilously weak?

President Obama was also vague about how he proposes to fix the country’s banking system, a necessary cornerstone of economic recovery. He spoke of a housing plan to help “responsible families” meet their mortgage obligation and a new lending fund to provide money for small businesses and families. In neither case did he explain where the money would come from or how the programs would work.

At the same time, accounting for the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the federal budget, which the Bush administration long shirked, is an important step toward fiscal responsibility. So, too, renouncing torture returns America to one of its core values.

It is very early in the Obama administration so it is natural that many questions remain unanswered. But, with such an ambitious agenda — and staunch Republican opposition, as witnessed by the lack of GOP support for the recently passed $787 billion stimulus bill — the president has a limited time to move forward.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, giving the Republican response to the president’s speech, set the right standard for his party. “Where we disagree, Republicans have a responsibility to be candid and offer better ideas for a path forward,” he said. Unfortunately, he quickly turned to the well-worn Re-publican play book to suggest tax cuts, charter schools and defense spending as an alternative to the Obama administration’s approach.

As important as details is the tone set by the new president. Neither his optimism nor his calls for greater responsibility were misplaced.

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