STEVEN R. HURST Associated Press Writer WASHINGTON
President Barack Obama speaks before Congress tonight in a nationally televised message aimed at softening up the balky Republican minority and assuring Americans he will spare no effort to ease their economic pain. Obama will drive home his plans for massive federal spending to save the collapsing economy even as he daringly promises to halve the spiraling American debt by the end of his first term. The address carries the trappings of a State of the Union speech, an annual presidential tradition that Obama is too new in office to deliver. The president faces the daunting task of inspiring Americans caught in the gloom of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s while also trying to steer partisan Republicans toward support for his agenda. In his first month in office, Obama has pushed through $787 billion in spending to stimulate the moribund economy, promised a program of government and private sector spending of as much as $2.5 trillion to save the Nation's banks and allocated $75 billion to put a floor under the collapsing housing market. But his efforts have been met with relentlessly bad economic news. The U.S. stock market plunged again Monday, hitting its lowest levels in 12 years with no bottom in sight. In his speech to the joint meeting of Congress in the chamber of the House of Representatives, Obama will make it clear that he inherited the ballooning U. S. deficit from the Bush administration and that Congress is complicit in leaving behind a debt that cost $250 billion in interest last year alone more than three times what was spent on education. The deficit for the current fiscal year will be at least $1.2 trillion. Former President George W. Bush took office with a budget surplus. "The president has the theory that you treat Americans like adults and tell them where we are and where we need to go," top Obama adviser David Axelrod said this morning on MSNBC television. At the same time, spokesman Robert Gibbs sought to squelch growing criticism of Obama's treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, whose lone public appearance to outline a banking rescue effort has drawn heavy criticism for its vagueness. Gibbs said Obama "absolutely, 100 percent" has faith in Geithner and will provide more details tonight about the financial stability plan to get banks lending and credit flowing again. Federal regulators said Monday they will launch a revamped program to shore up the nation's troubled banks that includes the option of increasing government ownership in financial institutions. On Congress' turf, the president will spell out how he thinks all the country's economic pieces are entwined. The moving parts include ensuring health coverage for all Americans, expanded educational opportunities, diversification of U.S. energy sources, containing sacred entitlements like the Social Security retirement system all by cutting the soaring budget deficit by half in four years. Obama will send a budget proposal for next year to Congress on Thursday. It will contain a fiscal spending and income forecast for the next 10 years. Gunning for so much at once is complicated, both in terms of the issues themselves and the politics. Axelrod acknowledged in previewing the speech on Monday that there is risk in taking on too much all at once. But, he said, "I think the bigger concern is to not be aggressive at a time when a tepid approach could really consign us to a long-term economic catastrophe. We believe the times demand vigor and aggressive action, and so we're having to do a lot of things at once." The White House was consumed on Monday by meetings on the economy, as Obama met with the country's state governors before convening an economic summit. Obama's message: "If we confront this crisis without also confronting the deficits that helped cause it we risk sinking into another crisis down the road. We cannot simply spend as we please and defer the consequences to the next budget, the next administration or the next generation." Obama issued his deficit-cutting vow shortly after telling state governors he was sending them $15 billion to help with health care payments for poor people a first outlay of Obama's economic stimulus plan. Before traveling to the Capitol for the speech, Obama holds his first White House meeting with a foreign leader a session with Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, whose nation's economy was severely crippled throughout most of the 1990s. A senior administration official, meanwhile, said Obama had chosen his third candidate for the job of U.S. commerce secretary after his previous two picks withdrew their names from nomination. The president's choice, former state of Washington Gov. Gary Locke, was the first Chinese-American U.S. governor when he served two terms in the Washington statehouse from 1997 to 2005. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement has not yet been made. ___ Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Liz Sidoti contributed to this story.