It was a night of reckoning. It was a night to face up to the mistakes of the past, the calamity of the present and the hopes of the future.
It was a night when Barack Obama showed why he had been elected president.
“As we stand at this crossroads of history, the eyes of all people in all nations are once again upon us,” he said in his address to Congress Tuesday night, “watching to see what we do with this moment, waiting for us to lead.”
It was, he said, “a tremendous burden, but also a great privilege — one that has been entrusted to few generations of Americans.”
It was not a night of sugar plum fairies dangled before us or sweet nothings whispered into our ears. We have had plenty of those over the years.
President Obama used the word “crisis” repeatedly, because what, after all, could you call the current state of our economy? He spoke of Americans facing “sleepless nights” with their dreams “hanging by a thread.” He spoke of “a trillion-dollar deficit, a financial crisis and a costly recession.”
And he also spoke of who was to blame: us.
Us and the people we have, term after term, elected to represent us. “And though all these challenges went unsolved, we still managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our government, than ever before,” he said.
The “critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day,” he said. “Well, that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here.”
At moments, his speech had almost Churchillian rhythms to it. At a time of great peril to his nation, June 4, 1940, Winston Churchill said: “We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. … We shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender.”
At a time of great peril to his nation, Tuesday night, Barack Obama said: “The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation. The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth.”
The speech brought to mind another World War II image: Rosie the Riveter, the tough factory worker, rolling up her sleeves to get the job done, unshakeable in her belief that “We Can Do It!”.
“We don’t do what’s easy,” Obama said. “We do what is necessary to move this country forward.”
Those gathered in the House of Representatives applauded throughout the speech. They always do. But the real question on many minds was: How will the Dow react? How will the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which has dropped more than 2,000 points since Obama’s election, react to what he had to say?
But that was not Obama’s immediate concern. Wall Street has gotten what it has wanted for years. And where has it gotten us?
“I understand that on any given day, Wall Street may be more comforted by an approach that gives banks bailouts with no strings attached, and that holds nobody accountable for their reckless decisions,” Obama said. “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.”
Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, who gave the Republican response to Obama’s speech, said: “The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and enterprising spirit of our citizens.”
But Obama had already addressed that. “I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves; that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity,” Obama said.
It was a time, he said, to show what we are made of, both as a nation and as individuals.
“We are,” Obama reminded us, “not quitters.”
It is a time of reckoning. We can do it.