by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, and Ryan Powers
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Thirty-five days after being inaugurated as America's 44th president, Barack Obama discussed his economic agenda before a joint session of Congress last night. He focused on three priorities -- health care, energy, and education -- that will form the backbone of his long-term vision for economic growth and development. Those three core policy areas also received significant attention in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which Obama signed into law earlier this month. "Now is the time to act boldly and wisely -- to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity," Obama said last night. Although the President came into the House chamber with sky-high approval ratings, Americans remain deeply worried about the recession. He offered them not just a budget plan but what he called "a vision for America -- as a blueprint for our future." He declared, "We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before."
MOVING IMMEDIATELY ON HEALTH CARE: Obama emphasized health care reform as the key to both restoring economic health and ensuring that the American dream lives on, and he made it clear he would not wait to move on a bold plan. "So let there be no doubt: health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year," he said. Congress is already acting. In November, Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, released his own principles for health reform and has since held numerous meetings on restructuring the system. And under the direction of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), "many of the leading figures in the nation's long-running health care debate have been meeting secretly in a Senate hearing room" and "appear to be inching towards" a consensus that real reform will require every American to have health insurance and find ways to make it affordable. The Wonk Room's Igor Volsky notes that Obama left the details of reform up to Congress -- and "the devil will certainly lie in the details." Still, as Obama pointed out, he and Congress have already "done more to advance the cause of health care reform in the last thirty days than we have in the last decade," including passing landmark health IT innovation, new incentives for disease research, and unprecedented funding for preventive care, all in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He also signed a law providing health insurance to 11 million children, a bill Bush vetoed twice.
'IT BEGINS WITH ENERGY': Obama's vision for restoring robust economic growth and reclaiming new opportunity for all "begins with energy," he said. The recovery plan has already taken big steps to advance the goal of clean energy: It made huge investments in renewable energy, efficiency, and building a new, clean electrical grid. But Obama went further last night, challenging Congress to pass a broad cap-and-trade program that places a price on dirty fuel and invests in renewables -- and will allow the U.S. to "to truly transform our economy, to protect our security and save our planet from the ravages of climate change." The Obama administration is serious about implementing cap and trade; its budget factors in revenues from carbon pricing starting in 2012. Transforming how America gets its energy will go a long way toward rebuilding the American economy as well. A Center for American Progress study found that a $100 billion investment in green energy and technology creates two million jobs within two years. This week, the Center for American Progress Action Fund hosted the National Clean Energy Summit, where political leaders from across the ideological spectrum joined business, labor, and environmental leaders to discuss the urgent need to shift to a clean energy economy. They identified a national clean energy smart grid as a top priority in transforming America's energy economy -- and CAP is leading the way, with a report explaining how such a grid would work, enumerating the jobs it would create, and recommending the policies needed to implement it.
EDUCATION IS 'A PRE-REQUISITE': The recovery plan Obama signed into law this month enacted "the largest increase in federal aid since Washington began to spend significantly on education after World War II," spending $150 billion on school districts, child care centers and universities. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised the bill, saying it would "avert literally hundreds of thousands of teacher layoffs." The bill also included $13.9 billion in added funding for Pell Grants. Rebuilding crumbling schools and injecting needed funds into university scientific research, however, is not enough. "In a global economy, where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity. It is a pre-requisite," Obama said, announcing a goal "to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education." He earned a prolonged standing ovation when he declared that dropping out of high school "is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself; it's quitting on your country." Obama asked Americans to commit to at least one year of higher education or career training -- a goal that will require more flexible university programs as well as a renewed focus on secondary education to prepare students for higher learning.