What Obama is thinking, but won't say
The Financial Times, September 6, 2012
My fellow Americans:
Can I share a secret? The presidency I walked into wasn't anything like the presidency I'd imagined. Remember, Lehman collapsed just six weeks before the 2008 election. Suddenly we were shedding 750,000 jobs a month. Here, Barack, they said—take the keys.
But presidents play the hand they're dealt. So I threw a lot of spaghetti against the wall—as did Ben Bernanke, with my support—and enough of it stuck to prevent a second Great Depression. "Obama: It Could Have Been Worse" isn't a winning slogan. But it really could have been. Between our stimulus, the GM and Chrysler restructurings, the bank stress tests and creative Fed steps, we avoided the abyss.
Larry Summers and Tim Geithner told me this would be my legacy. When I told them that wasn't enough, it wasn't out of arrogance, but because of my view of what ails the American economy: a kind of economic cancer—a slow erosion of our competitiveness as our pre-eminence fades, and other nations rise. My 2008 campaign was about curing that cancer—by renewing US institutions to assure opportunity and security in a global age.
But then—bam!—we had the economic equivalent of a heart attack and we had to deal with that first. We've still got a way to go to get jobs and growth back to healthy levels. But even as the heart attack heals, we've still got the cancer. The big question in this year's election is: who's the best doctor for the cancer?
Mitt Romney says he has a "plan" to create 12m jobs. That's a coincidence, because so do I. Economists expect this many jobs to open up as our debt hangover recedes and the recovery picks up steam in the next few years.
But 50m uninsured Americans could go broke today if they fall seriously ill. They don't receive care that prevents costly illnesses down the road. That was the point of my health reform—to have America join the community of wealthy nations that assure their citizens' basic health, while aggressively testing ways to slow spiralling costs.
This agenda wasn't a distraction from our economic challenges—it's essential to meeting them. So is creating ways for people to access group health coverage outside the workplace. We're the only rich nation where this isn't possible, which hits entrepreneurship and sticks business with costs it shouldn't bear. My only mistake was phasing in the law so slowly that more folks couldn't see its benefits by now. I can't wait to debate the idea that Mr Romney wants to scrap my adoption of his bipartisan approach from Massachusetts.
Curing our cancer also means big investments in infrastructure, research and talented teachers. We can't afford to fund these, and retire the baby boomers, while cutting taxes again for the rich. Republicans say that's "class warfare". I say it's a matter of first things first. So let's lift taxes on the top earners back to Clinton-era levels. (At least the middle class will know I tried it all before coming to them for more).
Now, a word for my business friends. Can you cut the "socialist" nonsense, please? The Dow closed at 7,949 the day I took office; today it's 13,000. Corporate profits are at record highs. Not one banker has gone to jail. Rules on capital and derivatives are still too lax. My health plan was pilfered from Republicans. What more do you people want?
I know, you're obsessed with debt. But if we hadn't run huge deficits, the economy would have imploded. Yes, we need to fix this once unemployment falls. But chief executives love to lecture about "hard choices" in the abstract. I'd like to see 10 of you publicly state the truth—that taxes as a share of GDP have to rise as the boomers age, and that as part of an inevitable adjustment affecting all Americans, the most fortunate—like CEOs—should bear a greater burden.
The real question is how anyone will get anything done after November. That's why the centrepiece of the second-term agenda I'm unveiling tonight is a call to restore majority rule in America. It's simply not possible to govern this country when you need 60 votes in the Senate to do anything. Mindless GOP opposition has already killed my sensible ideas on jobs and healthcare. If we don't kill the filibuster, it will be four years of drift no matter who wins.