Almost time for the president’s State of the Union address—oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy!
Not really. I’m feeling that I should watch/listen to the speech just because I like to think that I’m a good citizen, but I don’t expect that what we’ll hear from the House chamber in a few hours will be very uplifting or much of a surprise.
But what if…what if Mr. Obama dropped all political pretense and told us what was really on his mind? Ezra Klein imagines he might remind us that we’re in a slow but steady economic recovery, although wages need to catch up with inflation and we need to invest in infrastructure; and that although there’s a lot to do, he would predict “The really bad news is we’re not going to do any of it.”
And that’s because even if the state of the union is strong, the state of the political system that governs the country is weak. We have made it weak. You have made it weak. And whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative, you need to know there’s a problem here.
The hard thing I have to say to you tonight is that I was wrong. When I ran for president, I believed that the political system could be repaired by people of goodwill, who genuinely wanted to agree, to reach out, to compromise. I ran for president telling you that the problems in American politics could be fixed through elections. But the problems run deeper than the people serving in Washington at any given moment, and the way all of us in this room are elected is making them worse.
The refrain I hear all around the country is, “why can’t you guys just agree?” It’s the right question. Families balancing their books need to agree on how to spend their money. Businesses trying to make payroll need to agree on which investments to make, which workers to give raises, which costs to cut.
In a family, everyone cares for each other, everyone is working towards the same goal, everyone would throw themselves in front of a truck to make sure the others are safe and healthy and happy. A family is built to find agreement.
The government isn’t a business either. It doesn’t work towards a single goal. It can’t judge itself based off stock price or profit margin. And it isn’t built to make decisions or to be held accountable for them. When a company has a disagreement about its direction, there’s someone with the power — an owner, a CEO, a board — to make a decision. A business isn’t built to find agreement the way a family is, but it’s built to force a resolution to disagreements when necessary.
You want to know the truth? Government, or at least the political system, is like a football game.
The honest truth is that that’s how politics works, too. We’ve got two teams. And only one of them can win the election. So they line up and they hit each other as hard as they can. They don’t cooperate because the rules don’t let them cooperate. They don’t agree because agreeing means losing — and losing is political death. Losing means you can’t help the people you came here to help.
If this was just about policy, we could come to agreement. I promise you we could. When you’re just talking about policy there are lots of ways to make both sides happy. But this isn’t just about policy. It’s about power. It’s about who will win the next election and govern the country. And while policy questions have answers that can make both sides happy, elections only return answers that make one side happy.
This is a room of honorable men and women who entered public service for the right reasons. Most of us are still in it for the right reasons. But even if our motivations are noble, the game we’re playing is ugly, and more than it’s ugly, it’s getting dangerous. And that’s because, even though we can’t agree, even though the rules of the game make it career suicide for us to agree, the political system is built to require our agreement. It needs us to do the thing it makes impossible. If we can’t agree, the country often can’t move forward, and sometimes, it will get pushed backward.
Over time, the failures of our political system will eat at the very foundations of our country’s strength: they will weaken our economy, divide our people, and squander our opportunities. They may well lead to an unnecessary and devastating crisis, like a debt-ceiling fight that is not resolved in time and triggers a global financial crisis that leaves the American economy forever diminished.
And here’s the thing. We can’t change the game. Politics has no place for conscientious objectors, either. Only you can change the game. Only you can change the rules. But right now, you’re just punishing the players. In 2008, you elected me and my party. But Washington still didn’t work. So in 2010, you elected the Republicans. And then Washington worked even worse. So in 2012, you gave us Democrats another try. We disappointed you again. In the most recent election, you turned back towards the Republicans. And they’re going to disappoint you again. Because you can’t change the game by changing the players. You can only change the game by changing the rules.
The good news is we’ve changed the rules before. When this country was founded, people who looked like me didn’t even count as a full person. People who looked like Minority Leader Pelosi couldn’t vote. All those senators out in the audience, they were elected by state legislatures rather than ordinary voters. Speaking of those senators, most of the states they’re representing today didn’t exist. Nor did the filibuster, for what it’s worth.
The genius of this country is that it has continuously reinvented itself to handle new challenges, new problems, and new opportunities. The most honest thing I can tell you tonight is that we need to do it again, that you need to do it again. We need a political system as strong as this union, and right now, we don’t have it.
God bless you, and God bless America.