‘This house regrets the Obama years.’ Draft speech from my university years

A draft speech for a Cambridge Union debate a while back.

Thank you Mr./Mme. Speaker. 

Perhaps the favourite book of my teenage years was Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father, given to me as it happens by my own father. 

I, and I think I speak for many in this room, think hope is an admirable thing. And if there’s any word that summarises Obama’s campaign for President of the United States, at the height of the 2008 financial crisis, it is ‘hope’. But what is hope good for?

dreams — my favourite autobiography

Hope, perhaps, is good for getting ourselves from somewhere bad to somewhere better. After years of tax cuts, rising inequality, financial deregulation, and two devastating and expensive foreign wars under George W. Bush, the American people wanted something better. And rightly so. Change was in the air in 2008, and in 2009 when Obama hopefully accepted the office of President. So, when Obama resigned his presidency at the beginning of 2017, was hope still in the air?

Some might say everything that has happened since Obama left office is a break from a lost golden age. But golden ages rarely go away so fast. Rome took centuries to decay, and decades to fall apart. It’s usually the institutions that aren’t so great that collapse of their own contradictions. Take Oliver Cromwell’s despotic regime in 17th century England — it came, it saw, it collapsed. Simple as that. 

Obama wasn’t nearly so bad. He was a democratically elected leader, full of empty promises and highly hot air. But that is still bad, and still regrettable. To promise healthcare reform to desperate voters, and to botch the reforms all the same; to promise an end to wars in the Middle East, and to bomb Libya all the same; and to promise an end to billionaire-bought politics, and to spend his spare time golfing and attending conferences with billionaires, whose money still strangles US politics to the detriment of the working people who voted for Mr. Hope and Change — these are not the promises of a hopeful president. These are the promises, and it saddens me to the core to say this, of a regrettable president. 

My argument centres on three issues from this debate — Obama’s dismal, broken promises, and lack of imagination. Not only did Obama break his promises to voters to deliver on the hope and change he called for — but he left behind an America that felt compelled to vote first for Trump, who similarly promised ordinary voters everything and delivered little domestically but insults and tax cuts for his chums, and Biden, who once said in a speech to his billionaire donor chums, ‘Nothing will fundamentally change.’ Because under Obama, who Biden served as vice president, nothing did fundamentally change. Obama’s broken promises broke his legacy, and left large swathes of America — punished by outsourcing of jobs and cuts to social spending — broken and bedevilled by frustrated hope and damming despair. The opposition says Obama couldn’t deliver — but did he really try? Apart from the US financial crash — which Obama’s team had ample time to prepare for — Obama mismanaged almost every single crisis thrown at him during his presidency. He angered Russia enough to bomb Syria, he caused a civil war in Libya, and he responded to China’s rise with what we now know to be Obama trademarks — empty slogans and even emptier decisions. Today’s world was made in part by Obama’s misjudgment, misuse of the office of presidency, and failure to deliver on core election commitments.

The opposition argues Obama couldn’t do much because of Congress. But the Democrats had a majority in both houses when Obama won in 2008. Squandering that opportunity with a spending package that just about did the job but many economists considered lacklustre, and with a unyielding healthcare compromise — Obamacare — that turned out to be little more than advertising for Obama’s dismal legacy, Obama succeeded in one thing: forfeiting congressional, and presidential, power to a party that denies climate change is real, or at least of any importance to voters’ lives, and seeks to embark on crippling spending cuts and deepening healthcare and infrastructure privatisation, failing voters just as Obama failed them — except promising to do bad things rather than promising the good and delivering the opposite. Which is worse? I think we’d all agree both are regrettable positions for well-intentioned politicians to take. 

This house does not regret the fact Obama tried; it’s always worth a try to reform a broken system. But to try and fail, and to break the system more in the process — that is a regret I think all freedom-loving people would share. 

Obama, in short, rather than realising the American dream for the good of all, refused to realise the dreams he once dreamt, yet alone the hopes and aspirations of his fellow Americans, who experience crumbling infrastructure, precarious healthcare, and the fear of climate change which Obama’s fracking frenzie has grossly exacerbated. And as for chaos in Libya and the untempered rise of authoritarian China — Obama must have become the first president in history to un-earn a Nobel Peace Prize.  

Maybe it’s time we left behind the nightmare of the Obama years, and dreamt something new — together. To those who say we can’t do much better than Obama, I say: well, we can — or, at least, it’s worth a try. 

On that note, I earnestly invite you to vote for this motion tonight. 

Thank you for listening

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