President Barack Obama delivered a nationally-televised address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night with, for the first time in American history, two Catholics poised behind him to hear this traditional speech. Vice President Joseph Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, second and third in the line of succession to the presidency, looked on approvingly as President Obama outlined the scope of the problems that lie before America and the world.
Catholics could be proud of more than just their continued political ascent in American government. Mr Obama outlined a legislative and budget program that addresses some of the most pressing moral priorities of our time. He declared the end of government approved torture, and the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison where it had taken place. He reaffirmed the intent to end the war in Iraq by next year, and to reap the savings from that military misadventure for meeting human needs at home. He outlined practical measures for making Americans more energy-efficient, and with them a moral model for ecologic sustainability.
Although he did not refer directly to the moral challenge of abortion, he cited a number of measures the administration has already taken to address root causes of unintended pregnancy. He said the recovery package would create 3.5 million new jobs. He talked about tax cuts for 95% of working families. He spoke of the education emergency related to the half of all young people who drop out of high school. He alluded to the one million additional Americans who have lost their health insurance in each of the last eight years. All four of these problems represent modifiable risk factors that have been shown to affect the risk for unintended pregnancy.
Citing three problems of particular concern--foreign energy dependence, soaring health care costs, and the lag in educational achievement--he framed the problem like this:
"We have known for decades that our survival depends on finding new sources of energy, yet we import more oil today than ever before. The cost of health care eats up more and more of our savings each year, yet we keep delaying reform. Our children will compete for jobs in a global economy that too many of our schools do not prepare them for. And though all of these challenges went unsolved, we still managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our government, than ever before.
In other words, we have lived through an era where too often short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity, where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election. A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future."
He had the opportunity to point to a string of early successes in dealing with these hard scrabble problems. He cited the new S-CHIP legislation that will insure 11-million children and bring them better health. He pointed to the $10 billion in additional funding for health research, championed by Republican Senator Arlen Specter. And he called for a unified effort to reform the healthcare system so that it serves all Americans.
Beyond the focus on energy and the life-saving benefits it could bring to address the global warming crisis, he also addressed the world of conflict that he inherited from the previous administration. "In words and deeds," he said, "we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun, for we know that America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America. We cannot shun the negotiating table nor ignore the foes or forces that could do us harm. We are instead called to move forward with the sense of confidence and candor that serious times demand."
In short, President Obama set out an ambitious agenda to reverse the wrong turns of the previous decade. Catholics and other people of faith will be energized by the growing sense that an era of fatalistic resignation to living with all these problems seems to have passed. Though the magnitude of the challenge appears to be immense and not party to simple solutions, there is a tangible optimism that the corner has finally been turned.