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NJ Daily / COMMENTARY

Imagining the Speech Obama Could Have Given

President Barack Obama waves to supporters as he arrives at the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012.(AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

photo of Matthew Cooper
September 5, 2012

On Friday morning, on the floor of the Time Warner Cable Arena, the lost notes from President Obama’s acceptance speech, “The Not-So-Hopeful Files,” were discovered amid the confetti. Here they are:

I warned many a time that the road ahead would not be easy. On election-night 2008, I stood in Chicago’s Grant Park and said, “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term.”

But the truth is, it’s been even harder than I imagined. When we passed the stimulus bill in 2009 we projected that it would launch a “recovery summer.” And we did put a lot of people back to work with a bill dismissed by the media and derided by Republicans but which was a smart investment in everything from education reform to broadband expansion to green energy. Yet while the stimulus may have stopped the bleeding, it didn’t cure the patient. The economy is not recovering at the pace we anticipated—some of my aides calculated in 2009 that the stimulus could keep unemployment under 8 percent. They qualified their projection, but the important thing is that it didn’t. I should have talked less about hope and more about hardship.

 

Let’s talk about the national debt. It’s gone up $5 trillion since I got elected. Some of that’s because of increased spending, and most of it’s because the economy had been so bad. Still, it’s on me. I think I’ve got a good plan to get it under control: curtailing the growth of Medicare, letting taxes go up on wealthier earners, keeping discretionary spending on a tight leash. It would have been better if I’d talked more about the debt since the Republicans made it sound like the deficit began to be a problem only when I took office. In fact, debt had been a problem for some time and was exacerbated by the two wars during the Bush years and the economic collapse before I was sworn in. You have every reason to ask if the $5 trillion was debt that could have been stopped if the country pursued Mitt Romney’s policies of cutting the budget in a recession. I think that would have been a disaster, but it’s a fair question.

I also thought we could do more to change the culture of Washington. I knew that the capital was rife with lobbyists and the two parties were on a constant war footing. But I really did believe that I could make things better. I underestimated the opposition of Republicans and their growing use of a legislative roadblock called the filibuster.

As a legislator, I’d had good relations across the aisle in both Springfield and Washington, but it’s been harder to bring comity than I thought. In 2004, I told the convention that there’s “one America,” neither red nor blue, and while I believe that, I also think I underestimated the extent of our division.

And maybe I could have done some things better. Having Paul Ryan at my big speech on fiscal policy in April 2011 and then saying there was “nothing serious” about his plan while he was sitting in the audience was probably not in keeping with my being a unifier. I still think it’s a budget-buster that revamps Medicare in a way that’s bad for seniors and contains crazy big tax cuts that aren’t paid for. Still, that wasn’t my best move. Chiding the Supreme Court justices to their faces during my State of the Union? Maybe a little tacky.

So, as we go forward, I think this economy will continue to recover, but a lot of it is out of any president’s control. The economic crisis in Europe is real. Chinese growth shows signs of slowing. Yes, GM is alive and bin Laden is dead, as we keep saying, but the economy is still very sick.

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