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Jobs top priority in 2010: Obama

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Document”> President Barack Obama has named job creation as his top priority in 2010, seeking to revive America’s belief in his crusade for change after a first year in office haunted by economic decay.

Announcing a three year spending freeze for the majority of government, as well a clear focus on achieving jobs and growth by the medium of small business and entrepreneurship, the President was greeted warmly by the audience, including extensive cheering from some quarters.

“Jobs must be our number one focus in 2010, and that is why I’m calling for a new jobs bill tonight”, the President said.

Evoking history in his fluid style, Obama started by saying the future of America has not always been certain – and the country is again being tested.

“We must again answer history’s call”, the President said.

Obama stressed in the opening moments the decisive action his government to took to deal with the economic ‘storm’, before wasting no time moving onto ways in which ‘middle Americans’ and ‘American families’ have had to deal with the recession.

It was a speech in which the President and his speechwriters acknowledged that the concerns of everday Americans focus on the economy, and job creation in particular.

“These struggles are the reason I ran for President”, Obama said.

“I hear about them in the letters I read each night.”

The White House has been eager to reiterate the work that was cut out for the President upon taking office.

“When the President took office a year ago, he faced an array of historic challenges – an economy in freefall, job losses averaging almost 700,000 a month, a middle class under assault, two wars and badly frayed global alliances, and a staggering $1.3tn budget deficit,” senior advisor David Axelrod said shortly before Obama gave his speech.

With such a cavalcade of issues, there was a clear attempt to purvey hope in the address.

“I have never been more hopeful about America’s future than I am tonight”, the President said. “Despite our hardships, our union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit. We don’t allow fear or division to break our spirit,” Obama said.

There was rapturous applause.

It’s the economy

Obama quickly focused on unemployment benefits and the passing of 25 tax cuts.

In a broadside to conservative critics, Obama listed groups his government had assisted. “Let me repeat”, he said. “We cut taxes.”

“I thought I’d get some applause on that one”, he joked.

Moving on to the stimulus bill, he said it was a success which received support from the left and right.

“After two years of recession, the economy is growing again.”

“But I realise for every success story, there are other stories” he said, ensuring the ears of everyday Americans.

“That is why jobs must be our number one focus in 2010, and that is why I’m calling for a new jobs bill tonight.

There was again a standing ovation, before the President received further applause for stressing the importance of small business and entrepreneurship, and the need for lending.

Obama proposed US$30bn to help community banks fund small businesses, calling for small business tax credits to go to businesses hiring new workers or increasing wages, and announced a plan to eliminate capital gains tax on small businesses.

The deficit and planned spending freeze

Perhaps in a reference to calls to be tougher on critics, Obama wanted to ‘set the record straight’, emphasising that it was not his government’s policies that drove the US’s deficit so deep.

“If we had started in ordinary times I would have liked nothing more than to bring the deficit down, but we took office in a crisis”, he said.

He thus announced he wanted a freeze on spending for 3 years from 2011, with the exceptions of national insurance and the military. It would begin next year, he said, as the economy would be stronger.

“If I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will”, he said to applause.

Clean energy, nuclear energy

High-speed railroads and clean energy were cited, with muted applause, as well as calls for rebates for Americans making their homes more energy efficient.

But he returned to clean energy. “China’s not waiting, Germany’s not waiting, India’s not waiting” he said in reference to clean energy jobs. “I do not accept second place for the United States of America.”

He also called for “safe, clean nuclear power plants” in the US, and the making of ‘tough decisions’ on offshore oil – which was received with more cheers in some quarters.

But there was much bigger applause for a proposal to end tax breaks on companies ‘shifting jobs overseas.’

Talk of passing the climate bill last year, and advancing a bi-partisan bill in the senate brought smiles to his face, as well as the faces of Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi behind him.

Troops home from Iraq by August

On defence, the President said all combat troops would be out by the end of August, but largely skirted the issue of Afghanistan.

“We will continue to partner with the Iraqi people”, he said.

“Make no mistake, all of our troops are coming home'”

But Obama distanced himself from President Bush preceding him, calling for an end to the ‘false choice’ between protecting American poeple and ‘upholding our values’,

He also spent time speaking about the arms control treaty with Russia, stessing acting on arms “so they never fall into the hands of terrorists”

There was siginifcant applause for tough sanction-related talk on North Korea and Iran.

Trust in Washington

Prior to address, White House aides announced that the speech would be based on two themes -and both of them to do with gaining trust in an increasingly divided electorate: Reassuring millions of Americans that he understands their struggles, and convincing people that he is working to change Washington even as he finds himself working within its old political ways.

The President appraoched the topic of morality in the capital, sticking to his campaign pledges from 2008 to get tough, by announcing stricter rules for lobbyists.

He said doubts about Washington had been growing for years, but stressed what had already done by refusing lobbyists certain jobs. He called for more action, including the passing of bills, and more transparency from congress – achievable by increasing publicity of spending on government websites.

The President acknowledged philosphical differences, but ‘speaking to both parties’ he called for an end to the blocking of progress just for the sake of political point scoring.

Healthcare reform

The contentious issue of healthcare didn’t escape the President’s attention, with the President saying that this year more Americans would lose health insurance, premiums for those that had coverage would go up, and more patients would be denied the care they need.

“I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber,” Obama said.

“Let’s clear a few things up”, Obama said as he began the topic, ensuring a few laughs when announcing he didn’t take it on because it was ‘good politics”.

“We are closer than ever” to reform, he said.

He thanked his wife Michelle Obama for her stressing the importance of tackling childhood obesity.

But he said healthcare alone is not enough to pull the US from it’s huge deficit.

Deep uncertainty faces the comprehensive health care reform plan Obama has been trying to pass for the last year, with Democrats in Congress trying to find a way to pass some or all of the measure, despite its controversial nature.

Obama at his best on big issues

Other contentious issues were planned into the speech.

Obama pushed for the end of the so-called ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy of the military, whereby openly gay and lesbian people are not permitted to serve. Pay equality for women in the workforce was also broached.

Obama was at his oratorical finest when speaking on the big overarching issues that closed his speech, with near silence in the room when he tackled the issues of hope and change.

“I never said change would be easy” he said, but challenged his detractors:

“We don’t quit, I don’t quit.. let’s seize this moment to strengthen our union once more.”

Popularity taking a beating

Polls show the President’s popularity amongst the public at or below 50 per cent, with a recent BBC/Harris poll showing the economy and employment were far and away the topics Americans wanted the President to focus on.

The President took heed of this, admitting to an interviewer last week that he hasn’t always been successful at “breaking through the noise and speaking directly to the American people.”

A Gallup Poll found Obama to be the most politically polarising President in recent years – 88 per cent of Democrats approve of his job performance, but a meager 23 per cent of Republicans do so.

The White House will now be hoping the President has put himself and his party in a good position prior to congressional elections later in the year.