BY JOSH WEINHOLD
ELKHART -- President Barack Obama was standing at the same podium, in the same gym, in the same school that he did six months ago.
But despite the similarities, so much was different today. Unemployment rates here have jumped nearly 6 percent. Banks have failed, businesses closed.
No longer a candidate, he was pushing major policy in the face of major challenges.
"I don't want to lie to people. The situation could not be more serious," Obama said. "We have inherited an economic crisis as deep and as dire as any since the Great Depression."
Now is not the time to wallow in pity, he said. Now is the time to act. He strongly urged Congress to pass his American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, warning that delaying action or failing to act at all could send the country into deeper economic despair.
"Our nation may sink into a crisis that we at some point may not be able to reverse," he said. "We can't posture and bicker and resort to the same old ideas that got us into this mess in the first place.
It was the first African-American president's first trip outside Washington since the inauguration. His trip here, he said, did not come by mere coincidence.
When he campaigned here in August, Obama said, he heard stories of the unemployed, the uninsured -- stories he took to the White House.
"I have not forgotten them," he said. "That's what I promised to do if you elected me. And that's why I'm here today."
Obama spent 15 minutes speaking from prepared remarks, then took about 30 minutes of questions from the audience. Though he admitted his stimulus bill is not perfect, he said it is the right size and scope.
Every single item in the plan may not work as intended, he said, but it will create jobs, encourage spending and rebuild the country's infrastructure.
The president outlined how the plan would put people to work by building bridges and roads, improving schools, digitizing medical records and improving energy efficiency.
These projects have a two-fold effect, he said. They put money in workers' pockets and address some of America's longest-standing needs.
"If we don't use this crisis as an opportunity to start retooling," Obama said. "Then we will never catch up and be able to compete effectively."
Obama seemed eager to channel the electric atmosphere that marked his campaign. He brought the crowd to its feet several times, though the chants of "Yes we can" were gone, replaced by a simple "O-BA-MA."
The president, once, even sounded more like a candidate than commander-in-chief. He explained how he plans to encourage banks to resume lending and avoid collapse, ending with the phrase, "That's something I intend to do as president of the United States."
This visit, he said, was meant to put a face on the economic crisis -- to see the people who are out of work, unable to pay bills and concerned about their futures.
"We're talking about people who have lost their livelihood and don't know what will take its place," he said. "That's what those numbers and statistics mean."
Though the stimulus plan will begin to fix the problem, Obama said, it is only one part of it. Credit markets are still frozen, and America's health care and education systems are still flawed.
A new era of prosperity won't happen instantly, he said, but it will happen.
"The recovery will likely be measured in years, not months," Obama said. "We must commit ourselves today to the work that needs to be done."
And being back here, where he was just six short months ago, reassured him that the country is ready to move forward.
"Here in Elkhart," Obama said, "I am more confident than ever that we will get to where we need to be."