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What Obama would say at the State of the Union if he were being brutally honest

Pete Souza/White House

President Obama will give the State of the Union address on Tuesday, January 20th. This is what he might say if he had a few drinks first.

My fellow Americans. I come before you tonight able to say, honestly, and for the first time in my presidency, the state of the union is strong.

The crisis that overwhelmed the economy in 2008 has largely passed. Unemployment is down to 5.6 percent. This has been the longest period of sustained private-sector job growth on record. The economy is growing at a rate we haven't seen since 2003. In much of the country, you can buy gas for less than $2 per gallon, which is, honestly, ridiculous.

The American economy is working again. Our engine of growth is growling. We are, at this moment, far and away the strongest major economy in the world.

Problems persist, of course. Inequality is rising, but wages aren't. Want to know what keeps me up at night? It's household income. Average American families are making less today than in 2000, if you account for inflation. That's really scary, and given how much our economy has grown since then, even with the recession, it's really unnecessary. At the same time, too many folks have dropped out of the workforce, or are in deep poverty, or have been unemployed for months or even years.

But with the economy growing, we in this room could actually do something about these problems. We could use tax cuts to give the middle class a wage boost. We could invest in infrastructure to help make the country strong and get some of the unemployed back to work. We could give businesses a bonus for hiring people who have been out of work more than a few months.

There's a lot we can do. 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. All across this country, Americans do the hard work of coming to agreement. So why can't we in Washington do the same?

No one likes the answer I'm about to give, but it's the right one. The political system isn't built like a family. It's not designed like a business. It's much more like a football game.

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. You ever think about why football games are they way they are? You have all these guys hitting each other so hard they cause each other permanent brain damage. So why do they do it? Why do kids who aren't getting paid a cent do it?

It's not because they hate each other. They're hitting their friends. In practice, they're hitting their teammates. They're hurting people they love.

They do it because that's how the game works. They do it because the rules are you line up in front of the other team and then you hit them as hard as you can. They do it because, for one side to win, the other has to lose. And they do it because, if they don't do it, they're off the team. Football has no place for conscientious objectors.

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.

Let me be clear, Speaker Boehner is a good guy. And John, you should really see your face right now. But if he came out tomorrow and said that my plans make sense for the country and Republicans should endorse everything I want to do he'd be out of a job. Literally. He would be voted out as speaker and he would be defeated in the next primary election. His political career would be destroyed.

And I'll go a bit further than that. If the Republicans endorsed everything I wanted to do, you all would reward me. You would think I was a great president. Hell, I would be a great president. If I was running for reelection, I would win in a landslide. And my party would win in a landslide. And that would cost a lot of Republicans their jobs.

Imagine if your business worked like that. Imagine that the guy in the office next to you needed your help to finish his big project. You know if you help him finish it that he'd get promoted and you'd get fired. Would you still help him? Would you think that's a good way for a business to be run?

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 might sound like we're all soulless, power-hungry careerists just trying to grab power, but we're not. Everyone in this room believes their ideas will make this country a better place. Everyone here believes the best thing that can happen is that their side gets the power to put those ideas in play and make people's lives better. That's what John believes, even if he looks like he's about to have a stroke back there. That's what Joe believes. Joe believes it so much he basically can't stop smiling. Ever. That grin is how much he wants to help America.

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.

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