Obama Stakes His Presidency on Job Growth

In his first State of the Union address, President Barack Obama pledged to forge ahead with his ambitious domestic agenda despite his decreasing popularity and increasingly dicey political waters heading into the key 2010 congressional races. During a lively speech before Congress, Obama declared that job growth would be "the number one focus" of his second year in office, and he defended his government's $787 billion stimulus package.

In a speech designed to reset his political agenda -- and indeed recalibrate expectations for his success -- Obama told the country that "despite our hardships, our union is strong."He pledged to make job growth his number one priority for 2010. He proposed that the U.S. use $30 billion in repaid Wall Street bailout funds for small business loans, and he called for a small-business tax credit to help up to 1 million companies create jobs or raise wages.

The president tried to deflect criticism that he has it out for Wall Street: "I'm not interested in punishing banks, I'm interested in protecting our economy."

Blaming Bush, Wall Street

With the national economy only beginning to emerge from the deepest recession in decades, Obama sought to capitalize on public fury toward Wall Street -- and he firmly laid blame for the country's fiscal and financial woes on the previous administration of George W. Bush.

"A year ago when I took over as President, our financial system was on the verge of collapse," Obama said. "Experts told us that if we did not act we might face a second Great Depression so we acted immediately and aggressively."

Notably, Obama did not push strongly for a second stimulus package, something his liberal economic advisers have endorsed for months.

Defending his administration's $787 billion stimulus plan -- most of which remains unspent -- Obama eviscerated Wall Street banks for their role in the crisis and added to the outcry over lavish bonus spending. "One year later, the emergency is past but the devastation remains. Many people don't understand why bad behavior on Wall Street is rewarded but middle-class hard work isn't."

In perhaps the most memorable line from the speech, Obama declared: "We all hated the bank bailout. I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal."

Renewing the Health Insurance Reform Push

The president also reiterated his vow to fix the costly and inefficient U.S. health care system. The Democrats' push to pass their health care bill was dealt a severe blow last week, when Republican Scott Brown rocked the political Establishment by defeating Democrat Martha Coakley to win the U.S. Senate seat held by for 46 years by Ted Kennedy. Senate Democrats will lose their 60-vote filibuster-proof super-majority when Brown is seated.

Obama implored Congress to come together to pass a healh care reform bill. "Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades, it's time for something new," the president said.

Obama's aim was to retrench politically after a bruising several months during which his presidency lost its initial shine. But while the president gave ground on some goals, he remained firm on his big-picture objectives: reining in Wall Street, stimluating the economy, creating jobs through government spending and passing a health insurance reform bill he can hang his legacy on.

Congressional GOP leaders may have glared back at Obama with stony diffidence, but now they know that he's equally unwilling to back down on the major issues.
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