What Obama Should Say, But Won't
Madam Speaker, Vice President Biden, members of Congress, and the American people:
I stand before you after one year as your president, proud of what we have accomplished but humbled by how much further we have to go.
And I am here to tell you what I intend to do about it.
The one-year mark is a good time to take stock, and in doing so I've reached two conclusions. One is that there is nothing wrong with my overall goals -- the goals that I believe in with every bone in my body, the goals I set out in my campaign, and the goals you elected me to achieve. But my other conclusion is that there has been something wrong with my strategy. I can, and must do better.
When I took office, I truly believed that the best way to accomplish those goals -- that the best thing for America -- was for me to try to find areas of compromise, both within my own party and between Democrats and Republicans.
And I thought the best way forward was to surround myself with experienced pragmatists, so we could get things done.
I thought I could accomplish more that way, but I was wrong.
I underestimated many things, among them the nearly absolute resistance of an ever more radicalized Republican leadership; and my ability to persuade powerful and self-satisfied people at the highest levels of government and business to change with words alone.
Now it's time for me not to pull back, but to push forward -- more aggressively.
I vowed to fight for you. I have been fighting for you. But now I'm going to recalibrate. I will use my power as president directly. I will not just ask Congress and bankers and health industry leaders and industrial polluters to take the actions necessary to make this country a fairer, healthier, cleaner and more prosperous place. I will take unilateral action where I can, and where I can't, there will be lines drawn in the sand, and there will be consequences for those who do not heed them.
For instance, let's talk about health care, a topic that has taken up entirely too much of the legislative bandwidth this past year. Improving our health insurance system is a moral imperative -- it's a tremendous tragedy that so many Americans are uninsured, or underinsured, or suddenly without insurance exactly when they need it, or get denied insurance because of pre-existing conditions, and find themselves having to make choices involving their health that no human being should have to make. It's also a fiscal imperative, as rising health costs are the single greatest threat to our federal budget, our economy, and the long-term financial wellbeing of American families. You want deficit reduction? Help me bring these outrageous health care costs down.
Well, my advisers and I thought the best way to pass a bill was to avoid a pitched public battle with the health industry. So we struck some secret deals with the big pharmaceutical companies and insurance executives. Then we let Congress do its thing. But that was a mistake. Yes, without industry opposition and after quite a slog, we managed to almost pass something. But it wasn't worth all the compromises. You can't take pride in winning a battle if you cede so much before you fight it, and on top of that you win ugly. So what to do now? Well, I'm going to ask the House to pass the Senate version of health care reform legislation right away, and then have the Senate revise the numbers through a process that only requires 50 votes. I will not be held hostage by obstructionist members of the opposition party or gutless members of my own. And then we move on.
Another mistake I made this past year was allowing myself to see the financial crisis too much through bankers' eyes. My chief economic advisers are almost without exception men who hail from the financial world, and it's not that their advice was all bad, it was just unbalanced. I continue to maintain that the actions we took prevented a terrible economic calamity. But from this point forward, I'm bringing in people with backgrounds in domestic and social policy to join my economic team, so that we keep the right balance going forward. And going forward, I'm setting these goals: The taxpayers must be made whole for the billions of dollars they've spent on bailouts and subsidies, implicit and explicit, to people who are now showering themselves with staggeringly inappropriate bonus payments (and this may include paying those bonuses back); the people who caused this mess should be held accountable, which means a complete public reckoning of how it happened and who was responsible, followed by political, civil and criminal action as necessary; we must break up banks that are too big to fail so that no Wall Street fat cats can ever again take inordinate risks with impunity, knowing the upsides will be all theirs, and the taxpayers will come to their rescue if they bet wrong; and the most crucial economic goal, bar none, involves putting people back to work and growing the economy again.
Some of the anger growing in this country is legitimate. Middle class, Main Street America is hurting, and needs help. My message to you: Help is on the way.
But some of the anger is misdirected at the government. I will not apologize for believing the government has an enormous role to play in righting the economy and improving the lives of ordinary Americans. I believe in government that is a great power for good. To those of you who are screaming about government takeovers, I say, you're wrong -- and show me a better idea. Letting everyone to their own devices is what got us into this crisis in the first place; it's not a solution.
I will be frank. The stimulus was just a first step. We need a massive, concerted burst of government spending on public works, infrastructure and green jobs. This is not the time to decrease entitlements -- you don't cut Social Security just when people's life savings have taken a massive hit, you increase it. Intelligent, well-planned pro-growth pro-family policies will help get this country back on its feet and improve everyone's quality of life.
Once we're on a clearer glide path, then we can cut back on spending -- and raise taxes. That's how you reduce the deficit. But you don't do that in a period of recession. And you certainly don't raise spending while cutting taxes, which is what my predecessor did, greatly contributing to the hole we're now in.
Indeed, let's not kid ourselves, moving forward is vastly more difficult because we have a lot of fixing to do first. I wish that weren't the case. Blame Anthony Scalia.
But the good news is that there is a bright future if we do things right. First comes short-term government involvement to jumpstart the private sector. In the coming days, I'll be proposing a national infrastructure bank and a national green bank, to get American businesses and families rebuilding America even while addressing our long-term energy and climate problems. We'll put people first. We'll return to an economy that rewards work, where growth leads to rising wages, not an increased concentration of wealth among the super-rich. Go read my books. I'm going to go re-read my books myself.
Just in the last few weeks, I succumbed to the lure of cheap political gimmicks. Tonight, I renounce them. My chief of staff is a great believer in things that poll well, like spending freezes and deficit commissions. But I'm not going to treat you like children. I'm going to level with you. We need to cut the long-term deficit, which means we have to make some tough cuts and raise taxes -- but now is not the time.
I have never lied to you; and I never will. I thought for a year that the better part of valor lay in trying to find common ground and consensus among what I hoped were reasonable people. That's how I've lived most of my life. But what the country needs, what I campaigned on, and what I will be henceforth, is a fighter.
And I need you to fight with me. There is a reason things are the way they are; those who are doing well -- the corporations and the wealthy who have reaped the benefits of increased productivity that belong to the workers; the health industry that has grown fat on costs that are way above any reasonable standard; the rich who no longer pay their fair share of taxes; the banking titans who get multi-million payoffs for mergers and exotic trades and speculation that add not one penny of value to anyone but themselves -- they don't want change. As I start to fight harder, their resistance will grow. I plan to flush them out into the open. And I need your help to offset their newly-granted ability to influence elections even more than ever before. On every level, it's you, the American people, who must reward politicians not for pandering but for fighting on your behalf. The only way they'll stop doing what their financial backers want is if they feel more pain than gain from doing the wrong thing. The movement that elected me in a victory for hope and change in November 2008 must rise again.
You asked for change then -- and let there be no doubt that you got change. This country is no longer a rogue nation, torturing its enemies, embarking on wars on false pretenses. We have rejected the politicization of justice, and national security. When I talk to you, I tell it like it is; there are no scare tactics or fairy tales to confuse you. We have put an end to an era of profound irresponsibility, where problems weren't solved, they were constantly being created, and long existing problems were kicked down the road.
But there is so much more to do, so much more to change. The state of the union is troubled. But I see a way out. Let's go there together.
Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.