Barack Obama has a tough act to pull off. He must simultaneously petrify people and also restore their confidence. He must scare us to death and calm our fears.
He must convince the nation that the times are so dire we must carry out his bold plans immediately, and then he must persuade us to be patient and give his plans time to work.
Obama gave two shows Monday: a matinee in Elkhart, Ind., and an evening performance in Washington. He was calm and forceful at both. He made one joke at his town meeting in Elkhart about drinking beer and one joke at his news conference in Washington about how much Joe Biden talks (always good for a laugh).
But other than that, he was utterly serious. Make that grim.
Some people who have lost their jobs "have no idea what to do or who to turn to," he said at the news conference. Some people are going hungry, and food banks "don’t have enough to meet the demand."
He used phrases like "full-blown crisis" and "vicious cycle." And he said that unless we do something quickly, "we may be unable to reverse" the crisis we face.
Nor should his stimulus and bailout plans, as massive as they are, be considered a complete fix. "Given the magnitude of the challenges we have, any single thing we do is going to be part of solution and not all of the solution," he said.
"The party," he said, "now is over."
Oh, and the war in Afghanistan isn’t going that well, either. "It is going to be difficult" to win there, and, "I do not yet have a timetable for how long it is going to take," he said.
And for those who look for relief in sports, don’t look for relief in sports.
Asked about Alex Rodriguez’s admission he used steroids, Obama said it was "depressing news on top of what’s been a flurry of depressing items when it comes to Major League Baseball. It tarnishes an entire era to some degree."
It was that kind of day.
So where is the guy who once symbolized hope? Well, he is still there. Roughed up a little already, but still there.
The massive spending bill Obama is now shepherding through Congress is not how he envisioned spending his time. "Look, I would love not to have to spend money right now," he said. "The thought that I came in here ginned up to spend $800 billion, that wasn’t how I envisioned my presidency beginning."
But that is how it is beginning. If we unite, however, and "change our bad habits," and Congress agrees to do something, then we can climb out of this. Slowly. Not this year.
"My hope is after a difficult year — and this is going to be a difficult year — if we get things right, starting next year we can see things improving," Obama said.
But he also said, "I am absolutely confident that we can solve this problem."
What he refuses to do, however, "is return to the failed theories of the last eight years, which got us into this fix in the first place."
Which means that, contrary to what Republicans tell us, government is not the problem, government is the solution — and right now the government is going to have to spend a lot of money to get us out of this mess.
"As long as I hold this office, I will do whatever it takes to put this country back to work," Obama promised. "I have full faith and confidence."
We can do it, he said. We must change our attitudes and ways, and act swiftly and decisively even though some in Congress want to do nothing.
Which is what Congress is best at, isn’t it?
But don’t worry. Things will get better.
"I am the eternal optimist," Obama said
I am glad that somebody is.
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