U.S. President Barack Obama will address a joint session of Congress for the first time, about the challenges the nation faces. The economy will be the main topic in the nationally-broadcast speech.

The economic crisis has occupied much of President Obama's time and attention in his 36 days in office.  And his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, says it will be the primary focus of this address.  "I think what you will hear tonight is the president talking about the tough times that we are in, and a path that we have to take to put this economy back on track and get people back to work," he said.

Mr. Obama will speak to Congress and the American people about his priorities and economic plans.

As the president addresses the nation, Americans continue to be pelted with bad economic news. U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has told Congress the economy is suffering a "severe contraction" and that it will likely continue to shrink during the first half of this year.

Meanwhile, U.S. consumer confidence continues to plummet. The New York-based Conference Board's index shows consumer confidence dropped from 37 in January to 25 in February, an all-time low since the index was created more than four decades ago.  A year ago, the index stood at 76.

Despite these developments and other bad news - including soaring unemployment, sinking home values and frozen credit - White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says the president will offer Americans some encouragement.

"You will hear him, at the end of this speech, talk very extensively about how our country has always met the many challenges that it has, and this time is no different.  He expects that America will come through stronger than ever before," he said.

Former president Bill Clinton criticized Mr. Obama recently for focusing too much on the negative in his talks on the economy and not offering enough hope.

But two recent public opinion polls say Mr. Obama is getting high marks from most Americans, with approval ratings of more than 60 percent.

The president recently signed a $787-billion economic stimulus package, introduced plans to help homeowners who are in danger of foreclosure refinance their mortgages, and said he wants to cut the federal government's deficit in half within four years.

U.S. news reports say Mr. Obama will likely make his third choice for Commerce Secretary in the coming days.  The official says Democrat Gary Locke, the former governor of the northwestern state of Washington, is expected to be named to lead the Commerce Department.  Locke was the first Chinese-American state governor.  

Mr. Obama's first choice for Commerce Secretary, Democratic New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, withdrew his nomination in January because of investigations of wrongdoing in his state's government.  The president then turned to Republican Senator Judd Gregg, who accepted but then withdrew, saying he disagreed with Mr. Obama's policies.

Although the president will speak to a joint session of Congress, this will not be a State of the Union Address, the nationally broadcast report usually delivered at this time of year.  Mr. Obama will deliver his first formal State of the Union speech in 2010.

Attorney General Eric Holder will watch the president's speech from a secret location for security reasons.  One member of the president's Cabinet and several members of Congress stay away from such speeches in case disaster strikes the House chamber.