WE CAN rebuild it. Make it better than it was before.
That was roughly the motto of the '70s TV hit "The $6 Million Man," and that was the message last night from the first president of that generation of tail-end Baby Boomers, Barack Obama, as he sold his more than $1 trillion plan to the American people before a joint session of Congress.
The man whose iconic 2008 campaign image and motto spelled out "hope" strived to return to that core theme after five weeks of what his critics complained was too much "gloom" - amid a fast-sinking stock market and increasingly grim economic stats.
"The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach," Obama said in a speech that was not formally a State of the Union address but had all the trappings of one. "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."
In addition to seeking a more upbeat tone, Obama's speech also carried a populist touch and a slightly more relaxed vibe. He told Americans that "I get it" about their anger over corporate greed, and warned CEOs who doled out big bonuses after accepting government bailouts that "those days are over."
He joked that a task force led by Vice President Joe Biden will cut waste "because nobody messes with Joe," one of the numerous times he was interrupted by applause in the Democratic-majority chamber. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, seemed almost giddy as she introduced the first president from her party since 2000, and the first African-American president ever.
Just 35 days into a presidency that started during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Obama laid out plans for improved health care, eliminating waste and fraud in government spending and reducing the nation's record budget deficit.
But there was little doubt about Obama's main mission: Trying to find the right words that will reassure Americans, in a time of rising joblessness and mortgage foreclosures and plunging 401(k)s, that things will eventually get better - without sugar-coating the dire current situation.
For weeks, the 44th president has been dogged by pundits and political foes complaining that his early words on the economy have emphasized a bleak landscape in a way that might discourage consumers and businesses from spending money, the thing that could speed the end of the recession.
Many urged Obama to somehow combine the best words of New Deal Democrat Franklin Roosevelt in the depths of the Great Depression with government-is-the-problem Ronald Reagan, who took office amid an era of stagflation, to form a kind of tear-down-this-recession-and-fear-itself bravado.
Although it's too early to know if any of Obama's words last night will be placed alongside those of FDR or the Gipper, the president clearly sought to summon a nation's can-do spirit one more time.
"But while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before," the president said.
Pundits said that now that Obama has signed a $787 billion economic-stimulus package into law, and is putting final touches on a plan for infusing more cash into the nation's troubled banks, he is likely to bring the message back to hopefulness.
Howard Fineman, the Newsweek writer and pundit, said that the Obama message will shift now to "clarity and comfort - they think they've spelled out a plan that they are now committed to and want to be enthusiastic about. You will start seeing what the administration hopes will be self-fulfilling prophecies as crisis is replaced by confidence."
That confidence was not shared last night by Republicans, who continued to assault the stimulus plan - which every Republican in Congress opposed except for three senators, including Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter - as filled with wasteful government pork that will not aid the recovery.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who delivered the Republican response to Obama's address last night, has ridiculed the bill's $8 billion for improving high-speed rail as financing "a train from Disneyland to Las Vegas."
"The way to lead is not to raise taxes and put more money and power in hands of Washington politicians," said Jindal, a possible 2012 GOP presidential candidate. "Who among us would ask our children for a loan, so we could spend money we do not have, on things we do not need?"
Obama, for his part, continued to pay lip service to bipartisanship in his speech, even as he seemed to rip into the previous Bush administration as the root of many of today's problems.
"We have lived through an era where, too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election," Obama said. "A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future."
The president also spoke broadly about an array of issues, including:
* Health care: Obama said that he wants to see a bipartisan effort to bring about affordable health care for every American, coupled with new medical-record technology and a push to eliminate cancer "in our time."
* Energy: The president urged Congress to send him legislation setting a market cap on carbon emissions and promoting renewable energy and wind power, and he pledged to spend some $15 billion annually on the development of alternative fuels.
* Education: Obama set a goal that echoed John F. Kennedy's famed 1960s moon target, pledging that by 2020 Americans would again produce a higher percentage of college graduates than any other developed nation.
Ironically, one of the most newsworthy aspects of Obama's future plans didn't make his speech: It was reported last night that he plans to somewhat slow the pace of troop withdrawal from Iraq later into 2010 and to keep as many as 50,000 non-combat soldiers stationed there. *