My fellow citizens:
I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you’ve bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.
Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often, the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents. So it has been; so it must be with this generation of Americans.
Are you still listening? For, as some of you may have realized, you’ve heard it all before, in fact, four years ago, at my first inaugural.
How many of you knew that these were my words then?
I went on in that first inaugural address to say much else, too much of course, as is true of most inaugural addresses, things such as, —
Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights. Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.
The “nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable,” how many times have I heard that during my four years in Washington? Also isn’t it clear that the challenges we face today are no less real, and probably not much different from those we faced four years ago. Perhaps I should just repeat my address of then, but this time say that I mean it. I didn’t then, or at least didn’t understand the meaning of what I was saying.
And what about my assertion four years ago then that the challenges we faced would be met? Did I, did we meet them as I said we would at the time? One challenge I mentioned was that we shed the worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. And you know as well as I that we haven’t met that one, and that the worn-out dogmas are still too much with us.
And what about my challenge of no longer just standing pat, protecting narrow interests, putting off unpleasant decisions, kicking the can down the road for those who follow us, has that one been met? Alas it hasn’t. This challenge may be even more with us today than it was then. And this is so, probably, because of all I haven’t done, all you haven’t done, most of all of all we haven’t done together.
As I read over my earlier address, in particular the following paragraph of which I was so proud at the time,
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift. And we will act, not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We’ll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.
my words ring now all too loud in my ears because they could be said today with no less relevance to our lives now as then. What was I thinking when I said, “All this we can do. All this we will do.”
Could I have believed that we would do even the smallest part of all that? We haven’t of course. Was I that naive when I began my presidency? That’s scary isn’t it, that the almost child I must have been then could be elected to the office of President of the United States.
In any case whether or not I was that naive and actually believed what I said about all we could do I am now totally aware, and with a good amount of accompanying alarm and shame, that we haven’t done even that smallest part of all those things mentioned in that well written prose paragraph.
But in my defense I will say that this needn’t surprise us for no democratically elected president ever had, or probably will ever have, that kind of power, the kind of power that may come with the rule of kings and tyrants and party secretaries.
My address four years ago was 2428 words long, and I wish now I had all of them back. Maybe the reason that inaugural addresses are always quickly forgotten is because they should be. That was certainly true of mine, as well as probably most if not all of those of my predecessors. At best they’re only beautiful words as those of the second inaugural address of my immediate predecessor George W. Bush, who spoke so eloquently of freedom and of our responsibility to both promote and defend freedom throughout the world.
The shortest address on record was that of George Washington’s second inaugural given in the Senate chamber of Congress in Philadelphia, on March 4, 1793, just 135 words. Would that our founding fathers had written an eleventh amendment to the Constitution requiring that inaugural addresses be no longer than that of our first President. But of course it didn’t happen and newly sworn-in presidents went on talking too much, much as I at this moment.
William Henry Harrison delivered the longest Inaugural address, 8,445 words, on March 4, 1841. Did he sense that his presidency would be the shortest on record, lasting just one month, and that he had better go on talking? It was a bitterly cold and wet day when he gave his address, and he died just one month later of pneumonia, believed to have been brought on by prolonged exposure to the elements while speaking. How long did it take him to read those 8,445 words? I’m going to be careful not ever to do that.
My inaugural address today is number 17. How many of you remember anything from any one of the preceding 16? Probably a few words from the second inaugural of Lincoln, spoken a bit more than a month before being assassinated on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, his words, — “With malice toward none, with charity for all, … let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Also some of you may remember these words from FDR’s second inaugural address, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” But I’d be surprised if you remembered anything at all from my truly forgettable first inaugural address.
So far I’ve written 1107 words, still a ways to go to beat Harrison’s 8,445.
But now instead of continuing in the same vein I would take a different track, start over as it were, and speak about what seems to me to be the single most important challenge that we face, that of getting the country moving again after having moved hardly at all during the four years of my first term. I constantly ask myself will things be any different this time around?
What is it that’s holding our country back, keeping it from meeting its challenges? The complete answer to that one is much more than I can provide, even in 10,000 words. But I can speak of what’s holding me back, of what prevents me from getting things done that I know need to be done. This is no mystery. What’s holding me back are the federal budget numbers, and these are well known. They’re not kept secret.
But we do need to make them much better known to the people, blow them up, not as in explode, but as in enlarge, for everyone to see. And along with that we need to begin a discussion in which we question the validity of these numbers. And if you’re up on a bully pulpit, as I am right now, you should have with you the budget numbers blown up and easily visible to your listeners as you talk.
I now realize after four frustrating years in office that we/I can do absolutely nothing about anything unless first changes and/or additions and subtractions are made to the budget, unless other ways of distributing and spending the country’s wealth, are permitted.
The situation is much the same in states and localities, even families, all of whom depend first of all, not on what they might like to do, but on what their respective budgets allow them to do, indicating what is and is not possible. In the case of families it might be finding and changing jobs, buying and selling houses, paying for college, traveling to foreign lands, securing health care, providing for other necessities and such. The possibility or impossibility of doing any of that will be right there in the family budget.
Much like the budget of the United States that you have, or will have momentarily before you. No bridge, in spite of the talk, actually my own talk during the campaign, about our decaying infrastructure and how much we might want to see it repaired and once again made safe and whole, no bridge will ever get fixed unless it’s there, provided for in the local, state, or federal budget.
So here let me share with you a view of the single and most important fixture of my second four year presidency, just as it was of the first, the federal budget numbers, this one for 2013, courtesy of the Office of Management and Budget, also headquartered, by the way, at the White House. The ultimate irony is that the budget, during my first four years the bane of my existence, originates in the same structure where I live and I have little or no power over it. In fact, I’m probably no less subservient to the numbers that it displays than those who attend to my every need while I’m in the White House.
Th federal budget ultimately allows or prohibits, in my experience most often prohibits, my initiatives. The budget has made of my beloved White House a black box in which I am locked, held prisoner if you like. It really does seem like that.
I often ask Michelle if there a way out. But I guess up until now I haven’t really been looking for one and perhaps the real message of this address is that I, and all of us, should start looking for a way out, that is, looking to see if we couldn’t make real changes to how we govern and are governed by at least loosening the budget straps in which we’re held fast. And to do this we really can’t afford to wait any longer.
For the remainder of my address I’m going to leave the budget numbers right up there where all of you in the hall and all you millions of tv watchers can see them while I go on talking a bit longer from my bully pulpit, being sure, of course, not to beat President Harrison’s record of 8445 words.
What’s the very first thing you probably notice as you look at it? Isn’t it that the so-called entitlement programs are 62% of the total, with the result that of the 3.8 trillion dollar 2013 budget right away 2.4 trillion dollars are off the table, pre-assigned, not to be touched.
Isn’t it clear, especially given the growth of the entitlements over the past 100 years or so, and the fact that they continue to grow, that this is no longer tenable. We have to do something. We have to at least talk about the present budget priorities but so far our elected representatives, of which I’m one, have refused to do so, treating the subject as a third rail on which they could lose their jobs if not their lives if they did talk.
Now this portion of the budget, being by far the largest portion, nearly two thirds of the whole, shows the extent of our safety net, all those generous programs, set up in the beginning at least, to help those who were clearly in need of help. And as much as it did this, helped the needy, and still does, it’s a good thing, something both progressives and conservatives can fully support. But it is no longer the case that everyone who is being helped needs that help, and so far, alas, we haven’t had the courage to face up to what’s happened in this regard.
The programs that make up the safety net, programs such as Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (all from 1935), the GI Bill (1944) and the School Lunch Program (1946), and then Food Stamps, Medicare and Medicaid (from the 1960s) were almost non-existent, at least on a Federal level, during the first 100 years of this country’s history. You might question how we got along for so long without these programs. But that’s another question that would need many more than the 10,000 words I spoke of to answer.
And in fact nearly all the “entitlements” making up that 62% of our budget stem entirely from the past century, and in particular from the presidencies of FDR and Lyndon Johnson, both Democrats, with the result that this portion of our budget has become the pet of the Democratic rather than the Republican party and efforts to make changes will invariably encounter ingrained opposition from the Democrats in office with the result that few changes or reforms, even reasonable ones called for from representatives from both parties, have rarely if ever been made.
If we would change something in this portion of the budget, and given the exponential growth of the costs of health care it would seem that we have to, that we have to put entitlements back on the table. Will it happen? A recent report by Third Way, a Washington-based think tank lobbying for entitlement reform, calculates that by 2029, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the debt combined will amount to 18 percent of GDP. It just so happens that 18 percent of GDP is precisely what the government has averaged in tax collections over the last 40 years.
Now all that’s just the entitlement portion of the budget. But because of its size any challenges that we, that I would like to meet in my second term in office, will not be met unless we can agree to make changes to our entitlement spending. Now let me say, and be sure to hear this, that most of the changes that I will propose to this part of the budget in the weeks and months ahead will take nothing from those most in need —their security will not be threatened by anything I propose.
But there are many, many more Americans who are now benefiting from entitlements, and in this I am including rents, subsidies of all sorts, tax loopholes and all such, recipients many of whom whose government payments we should no longer protect. Given the real needs of our peoples and the challenges we face we can no longer afford to do so.
That’s just one of the two elephants in the budget. The other is defense spending, that no less resistant to our questions and reform initiatives than entitlements. And the Republicans defend this budget item, as if it were somehow theirs, theirs to defend, as much as the Democrats defend entitlements. Neither party seems to ever step back and really look at what it is they are defending. The Republicans act as if our very survival depended on the huge size of the defense budget and refuse to allow sensible reductions.
Whereas in regard to our survival it may be just the opposite, it may very well be that our lives would improve immeasurably if we spent less , on guns, boats and planes and more, for example, on schools and infrastructure.
As president I’d love to find out if this were true but I’m in that box I spoke of, and so far there seems no way out. The Republicans never question our need for 13 aircraft carriers, or the fact that our spending on defense accounts for some 43 percent of all the military spending on Earth — six times as much as China, which has the world’s second largest military budget and accounts for 7.3 percent of world military spending. Our former cold war enemy Russia accounts for just 3.6 percent of that spending.
So there you have it, what we’re up against, the two elephants pushing us all to the sidelines, sending four fifths of our country’s wealth to arms and charity. While I don’t question the need for both, the importance of both, haven’t we by giving so much of the country’s wealth to the two of them thereby stacked the deck against all the rest of us, those of us who would like to redirect some of the country’s wealth, probably most of us, those who don’t belong to either the arms or entitlements industries?
You’ve elected me president, and I thank you for that, but what have you given me to work with? Somewhere in the 8% of the budget remaining of “all other spending,” somewhere in that I’m supposed to find the where-with-all to meet the real challenges of today? Furthermore most of that 8% probably represents well established programs that you’re not ready to give up in favor of my initiatives.
What do I conclude? Isn’t it that whatever may be my initiatives doesn’t the nearly total lack of available funding for them make them of no significance? If so far my healthcare initiative did seem to be an exception, allowing me to actually take an action to change something for the better, to respond to a real need, wasn’t it really because my effort was itself mostly an appendage to the entitlement portion of the budget, and the entitlement people got behind it.
Similarly if I were to go to the Congress with a proposal for an addition to our fleet of 13 aircraft carriers I perhaps would succeed there also, this time the Republican defenders of the defense and arms industry embracing my initiative.
But try to get something done that doesn’t gain the support of either the arms or entitlement industries. Well it won’t happen.
Finally, presidential inaugural addresses are only part of the show that the new President’s swearing in with all the accompanying festivities has become. In some ways the greatest show on earth. But don’t look to the star of the show, the new president, to his or her words, to determine the course of the four years to come.
My own years in office were and will be during my second term entirely determined by the budget numbers, and whether the budget keepers, that is all those who like things the way they are, that is, most people, will allow any changes. I know already that for the most part they won’t.
In my own case words have been up until now a huge part of my presidency. And now I know why. Words are what I’m allowed. Words don’t make changes. And I know now, better than four years ago, that we don’t really want to change our budget priorities.
We could you know, determine, say, that arms and charity would together get only one half or our wealth. That would allow us to begin to meet our challenges, all the ones I spoke about four years ago and others, all those that are still just as much out there awaiting our action. And if we don’t, if we don’t make real and substantive changes to our budget I, and the others who follow me, will go on meeting each new challenge with words alone.
Thank you very much for allowing me that. (Words, 3425)
July 20, 2013