WASHINGTON, Feb 25 (IPS) – In his first speech before a joint session of Congress, U.S. President Barack Obama gave a hopeful assessment of the country’s future and defended his economic recovery plan to get there.

‘[T]hough we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before,’ he told lawmakers in his hour long speech

Obama called his attempt to turn around the economy a ‘day of reckoning’ for deregulation and valuing on ‘short-term gains’ rather than ‘critical debates and difficult decisions,’ saying that part of his plan would be sweeping reforms.

Using plain-spoken language, reportedly after having studied President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous ‘fireside chat’ radio speeches as the U.S. pulled out of the Great Depression, Obama explained the root causes of the slowing economy – unemployment is currently at 7.6 percent, the highest in nearly two decades, and expected to worsen – and how specific parts of his plan would address those problems.

Obama entered his speech, a state of the union address in everything but name, riding a wave of high polling numbers and having, just over a month into his term, achieved several legislative goals, most notably his 787-billion-dollar stimulus package.

An ABC television and Washington Post poll said that Obama had a 68 percent overall approval rating – typically high for an incoming president – with 61 percent of respondents trusting that he will handle the economy. A New York Times and CBS television poll found more than three-quarters of respondents optimistic about the next four years and Obama’s ability to deal with the economic crisis.

In his address, Obama laid out his recovery agenda piece-by-piece, detailing his plans to shore up financial institutions to bolster lending, bring relief to homeowners, and giving the focus of a budget he is expected to deliver in the next few days.

He promised his budget would invest heavily in energy, health care and education, saying those were crucial areas to his economic plan because they would spur job creation, which he said ‘begins’ his agenda.

As he had stated during his ‘fiscal summit’ this week with lawmakers and over 100 economists, Obama said that his plan was based on ideology – ‘Not because I believe in bigger government – I don’t,’ he said – but rather based on necessity.

‘I called for action because the failure to do so would have cost more jobs and caused more hardships,’ he said. ‘[W]hile the cost of action will be great, I can assure you that the cost of inaction will be far greater, for it could result in an economy that sputters along for not months or years, but perhaps a decade… And I refuse to let that happen.’

The reference to ‘inaction’ may be a veiled jab a Republicans, who voted nearly unanimously against the stimulus bill while proposing little in the way of solutions beyond the same Republican rhetoric delivered during the last eight years as the economic crisis slowly brewed.

Indeed, in the opposition’s response to the president’s address, Republican Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal dismissed the notion that the federal government had a significant role to play in economic recovery.

‘The strength of America is not found in our government,’ he said. ‘It is found in the compassionate hearts and enterprising spirit of our citizens.’

He went on to blame Republican woes on the party’s departure from its core values of ‘limited government, fiscal discipline, and personal responsibility.’

Jindal’s remarks were widely panned in news coverage of the two speeches.

Even conservative New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks took exception to Jindal’s speech, saying that while he sees promise in Jindal, the rumored 2012 Republican presidential hopeful’s remarks went over ‘not so well.’

‘In a moment when only the federal government is actually big enough to do stuff,’ he said on PBS television’s coverage, ‘to just ignore all that and just say ‘government is the problem, corruption, earmarks, wasteful spending,’ it’s just a form of nihilism.’

‘I think it’s insane, and I just think it’s a disaster for the [Republican] party,’ he said. ‘I just think it’s unfortunate right now.’

In the ABC/Washington Post poll, where six of 10 respondents said they trust Obama to help the economy recover, only 26 percent said that they felt the same about Congressional Republicans – the largest such spread since 1991.

Despite Republican opposition to his massive stimulus spending, Obama spoke directly to the notion of federal spending, emphasising that he intended to spend even more.

‘[T]his plan will require significant resources from the federal government – and yes, probably more than we’ve already set aside,’ he said.

That notion echoes many economists, such as liberal New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who have called for the president to spend significantly more than the package he has already laid out.

In his speech, Obama placed the financial crisis in global terms, stressing both things such as education as a way to make labour competitive in a global economy and the requirement that all nations work together to bring recovery.

‘[T]o respond to an economic crisis that is global in scope, we are working with the nations of the G-20 [the 20 most industrialised nations] to restore confidence in our financial system…’ he said. ‘For the world depends on us to have a strong economy, just as our economy depends on the strength of the world’s.’

Obama shifted only briefly to foreign policy at the end of his speech, restating his opposition to torture and support for diplomacy in foreign affairs, and noting his ongoing reviews of U.S. policy in two foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

‘We are now carefully reviewing our policies in both wars, and I will soon announce a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war,’ he said.

Just hours before his speech, unnamed administration officials told several major news outlets that Obama intended to announce that his withdrawal plan from Iraq would be extended to a 19-month period rather than the 16-month one he had promised while campaigning.

Those sources also said that the ‘residual force’ Obama planned to leave behind in Iraq was likely to be tens of thousands of troops.

Ending the nearly six-year old war in Iraq will likely free up room in the budget for Obama to focus more cash on economic concerns.