WASHINGTON — Acknowledging Americans' frustration with the slow pace of the nation's economic recovery, President Barack Obama dedicated more than half of his first State of the Union address Wednesday night to pocketbook themes, from jobs to tax breaks to taming the national debt.
Throughout a 70-minute speech, the president strained to signal that he understands how angry, disappointed and even cynical the American people are over their economic insecurity and Washington's failure to deliver change they can believe in.
Americans "face more than a deficit of dollars right now," Obama said. "We face a deficit of trust, deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years."
"I campaigned on the promise of change," Obama said. "I know there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change — or that I can deliver it."
Never miss a local story.
He took responsibility for the Democrats' failure to pass his major initiative to overhaul the nation's heath care system, but offered no roadmap for how to salvage the effort. "I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people. I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, this process left most Americans wondering what's in it for them."
He urged critics to reconsider their position "as temperatures cool," and vowed to keep fighting for the legislation. "I will not walk away from these Americans," he said of the uninsured. "And neither should the people in this chamber."
The president returned repeatedly to one of the hallmarks of his 2008 presidential candidacy — the notion that he'd change the culture of Washington — in a populist-sounding bid about repairing the public trust along with the nation's treasury.
"I am not naive. I never thought the mere fact of my election would usher in peace, harmony, and some post-partisan era," Obama said. "But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day . . . So no, I will not give up on changing the tone of our politics."
He revived his campaign theme that Republicans and Democrats must work together for the nation's good — as he said previous generations did for centuries, to do "what's best for the next generation."
That, he said, is the legacy today's leaders in Washington must seize: "We don't quit. I don't quit. Let's seize this moment — to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our union once more."
At the same time, he urged congressional Democrats not to chicken out on their agenda for fear of a backlash at the polls — and hinted that they should consider hardball tactics to force bare-majority votes on big issues through Congress.
"Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills."
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who in November became his state's first Republican governor in eight years, gave the official Republican response.
He said that under Obama, "the federal government is simply trying to do too much." He said one plan Obama detailed in his speech, a three-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending, is "a laudable step, but a small one."
McDonnell called for limited government and lower debt. He criticized the Democrats' approach to overhauling health care: "All Americans agree, we need a health care system that is affordable, accessible, and high quality. But most Americans do not want to turn over the best medical care system in the world to the federal government."
The GOP governor did have one unequivocal bit of praise for the president. "We applaud President Obama's decision to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. We agree that victory there is a national security imperative," he said. However, he criticized the government's decision to try the alleged terrorist in the failed Christmas Day airline bombing in civilian courts with full legal rights.
While domestic programs dominated his delivery, the president turned briefly to foreign policy. He defended his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan even as he vowed that despite the recent spasms of violence and political unrest in Iraq, "this war is ending and all of our troops are coming home."
He called for a broader international coalition to halt the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. He underscored threats the U.S. faces from al Qaida. He also touted his own leadership in forging global alliances to combat worldwide problems from climate change to AIDS.
He didn't lay out new demands or deadlines for Israelis and Palestinians to move the peace process forward, after both sides resisted last year's calls. Nor did he set a new timeline for closing the terrorist detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which he'd originally hoped to do in his first year.
On the economy, Obama said the economic stimulus passed last year helped stave off a depression and that the economy is turning around, even as jobs lag. While more than 3.5 million net jobs have been lost since Obama took office, Obama said it could've been worse. He argued that the stimulus had saved or created 2 million jobs and is on track to save or create another 1.5 million by year's end.
The president also outlined several plans for short- and long-term economic improvement, some of which the administration had leaked in the days leading up to the speech.
He called for using up to $30 billion from funds federal bailout funds repaid by big banks to help community banks lend money to small businesses.
He promoted other small-business tax incentives to encourage hiring.
He said he's issuing an executive order to create a commission to recommend ways to cut the debt, after the Senate fell short of the bipartisan votes needed to do so.
As expected, he announced plans to for a three-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending. Critics say the $250 billion it could save over a decade is less than a third of what last year's economic stimulus, now projected to cost $862 billion, will add to the deficit over the same period, and that the freeze won't affect a $154 billion jobs bill Congress is considering, which Obama called on the Senate to pass.
He said he'd find $20 billion in budget cuts to propose next week for fiscal year 2011. He also called for more tax credits for the middle class, including for parents and people who build their savings. He said that passing financial reform legislation is essential if Wall Street is to change.
The speech came as the president's once-high job approval ratings have slid below 50 percent, and the Democrats brace for big losses in midterm elections.
Obama also urged Congress to require lobbyists to disclose all professional contacts with lawmakers and the administration, and to publish all of their own spending requests for earmarks, or pet projects, on a Web site for voters' review.
The president reiterated but broke no new ground on his support for liberalized immigration policy, cap-and-trade emissions control legislation and ending the military's ban on openly gay soldiers.
(Kevin G. Hall, David Lightman and William Douglas contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY