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Obama's Call to Rebuild

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This wasn't really a budget speech, or even a State of the Union. It was a call to rebuild a country -- from its infrastructure, to its economy, to its values. Last night, Barack Obama called a new generation to a new American future. And from the "twittering" and Facebook status updates I am aware of going on last night, the new generation stayed up late to watch and got the speech they wanted--a vision for the new America they hope to raise their children in.

There hasn't been as much political vision or ambition in the chamber of the House of Representatives for decades as there was last night. It wasn't just a list of little ideas or a recitation of familiar symbols; it was a substantial diagnosis of America's crisis and the bold promise to find the solutions necessary. If the inaugural speech disappointed some for being more sobering than visionary, the call to action they were waiting for came last night.

The new president boldly declared that it is time to meet the big challenges. After telling Americans for the last month what we were up against, he said that America can and will rise to meet the challenge.

... 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.

After succeeding in passing the most aggressive economic recovery plan in memory, despite a united opposition, Obama sounded absolutely optimistic about the budget he will present this week.

In the next few days, I will submit a budget to Congress. So often, we have come to view these documents as simply numbers on a page or laundry lists of programs. I see this document differently. I see it as a vision for America - as a blueprint for our future.

He said both his stimulus plan and his budget will focus on beginning to fix the biggest issues--energy dependence, broken health care, and failed education. He said our crisis has come from ignoring, neglecting, and postponing solutions to core problems like these while, at the same time, spending money we didn't have to buy things we didn't need.

But the "day of reckoning has arrived," said the new president, and "now is the time" to solve our biggest problems--and while the problems are great, we will solve them.

Some of the most important ideas, lines, and promises were:

Stressing that the economic recovery is "not about saving banks, but helping people."

Reminding us that "responsibility for our children's education begins at home."

Promising to support both soldiers and veterans, but to also get rid of outdated Cold War weapons systems.

Pledging to cut unnecessary subsidies to agribusiness and eliminate no-bid contracts like in Iraq -- big tasks that politics has been unwilling to take on.

Committing that we will no longer hide the price of war in the budget.

Stating emphatically that "the United States of America does not torture," especially saying it the night after Jack Bauer and 24.

Recognizing that the biggest deficit we face is the "deficit of trust" that Americans feel for their leaders and their lack of solutions.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a rising star for the Republicans, could not muster a compelling vision counter to what the president proposed. He admitted that his party had failed the country but then used the story of incompetent political appointees and the bureaucratic mess they created in response to Katrina to try to make a point that government never works. But that didn't work.

In contrast to the simple Democratic reliance on the government or the Republican mantra of the invisible hand of the market to solve our problems, Obama called for a new commitment to the common good, collective action, and a new combination of both personal and social responsibility.

He said, in closing:

Those of us gathered here tonight have been called to govern in extraordinary times. It is a tremendous burden, but also a great privilege - one that has been entrusted to few generations of Americans. For in our hands lies the ability to shape our world for good or for ill. I know that it is easy to lose sight of this truth - to become cynical and doubtful; consumed with the petty and the trivial.

But in my life, I have also learned that hope is found in unlikely places; that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary.

Some people don't like strong leadership. I do. And this is the kind of leadership that calls and inspires people to act themselves and be part of the solutions we need. I like that too. And it's a new kind of leadership that invites being held accountable to results. That's fair.

Obama has a vision and last night offered a road map. And he invited citizens across the political spectrum to bring their own ideas but to join the journey and stop standing by the side of the road with their arms folded in critique. Disagreement comes with a responsibility to offer better ideas, says this president.

The words of Ty'Sheoma, a school girl from South Carolina, sitting in the gallery next to Michelle Obama, were lifted up by President Obama last night. She wrote the Congress to ask for help for her school but wanted them to know, "We are not quitters."

Jim Wallis is the author of The Great Awakening, Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners and blogs at www.godspolitics.com.

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