President Obama on the Economy, Health Care, and Optimism

President Obama at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council, November 19th, 2013. 

"I always look forward to an opportunity to speak to some of our top businesses across the country who are hiring people, investing in America, making the economy run," President Barack Obama said in opening his talk on Tuesday for the Wall Street Journal CEO Council at the Four Seasons hotel in Washington, D.C.

Here's my partial transcription from his talk, lightly edited for clarity. 

On I think we probably underestimated the complexities of building out a website that needed to work the way it should.

There is a larger problem that I probably could have identified earlier, and that's the way the federal government does procurement and does IT is just generally not very efficient. There's probably no bigger gap between the private sector and the public sector than in IT.

We've see that, for example, the [Department of Veterans Affairs] trying to deal with electronic medical records for our servicemen as they move into civilian life. Most of that stuff is still done on paper. We have spent billions of dollars -- I'm not saying "we" as in my administration, I mean we've now had about a decade of experimentation, spent billions of dollars -- and it's still not working the way it should.

So what we probably needed to do on the front end was to blow up how we procure IT, especially on a system this complicated. We did not do that successfully. We are getting it fixed, but it would have been better to do it on the front end, rather than the back end.

On health care: Even though the rollout of the new health-care marketplace has been rough, to say the least, about 500,000 Americans are now poised to gain health care coverage beginning Jan. 1. That's after only a month of sign-up. We also have seen health care costs growing at the slowest rate in 50 years. Employer health costs are growing at about one-third of the rate of a decade ago, and that has an impact on your bottom line. ...

This has been a big problem for a very long time, and so it was always going to be challenging not just to pass a law, but also to implement it. There's a reason why, despite a century of talking about it, nobody had been able to successfully try to deal with some of the underlying problems in the health care system.

The good news is that many of the elements of the Affordable Care Act are already in place and working exactly the way they're supposed to. Making sure consumers who have employer-based health insurance are getting a better deal and better protected from the fine print that left them in the lurch when they actually got sick. That's in place. Making sure young people under age 26 can stay on their parents' plan. That's helped 3 million children already. That's making a difference. Helping seniors to get better prescription drug prices. Rebates for people who see insurance companies who are not spending enough on actual care, more on administrative costs or profits -- they're getting rebates. They may not know it's the Affordable Care Act that's giving them rebates, but it's happening. There were a number of things that were already in place over the last three years that got implemented effectively.

The other thing that hasn't been talked about a lot is cost. There was a lot of skepticism when we passed the Affordable Care Act that we were going to be giving a lot of people care but we weren't doing anything about the costs. And, in fact, over the last three years we have seen health-care costs grow at the slowest pace in 50 years. That affects the bottom lines of everybody here.

On optimism: I'm actually a congenital optimist. I have to be -- my name is Barack Obama, and I ran for president. And won, twice. 

On politics: When you go to other countries, the political divisions are so much more starker and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans -- we're fighting inside the 40-yard line.

People call me a socialist sometimes, but, you've got to meet real socialists. [Go to other countries and] you'll get a sense of what a socialist is. You know, I'm talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health-care reform is based on the private marketplace. The stock market is looking pretty good last time I checked. It is true that I'm concerned about growing inequality in our system, but nobody questions the efficacy of market economies in terms of producing wealth and innovation and keeping us competitive.

Even the tea party, you know, one of my favorite signs during the campaign was folks holding a sign, it said, "Keep government hands off my Medicare." Think about that. I mean, ideologically, they did not like the idea of a federal government. Yet they felt very protective about the basic social safety net that had been structured ...

A lot of [Republicans] believe in basic research, just like I do. A lot of them want to reform entitlements to make sure that they're affordable for the next generation. So do I. A lot of them say they want to reform our tax system. So do I. There are going to be differences on the details. Those details matter, and I'll fight very hard for them, but we shouldn't think that somehow the reason we've got these problems is because our policy differences are so great.

On the economy: In a lot of ways, America is poised for a breakout. We are in a good position to compete around the world in the 21st century. The question is, are we going to realize that potential? And that means that we've still got some more work to do.

Our stock markets and corporate profits are soaring, but we've got to make sure that this remains a country where everyone who works hard can get ahead. That means we've still got to address long-term unemployment. We still have to address stagnant wages and stagnant incomes. And frankly, we have to stop governing by crisis here in this town, because if it weren't for Washington's dysfunction, I think all of us agree we'd be a lot further along.

The shutdown and the threat of default hurt our jobs market. It cost our economy about $5 billion, and economists predict it will slow our GDP growth this quarter. It didn't need to happen. It was self-inflicted. We should not be injuring ourselves every few months. We should be investing in ourselves. And in a sensible world, that starts with a budget that cuts what we don't need, closes wasteful loopholes, and helps us afford to invest in the things that we know will help businesses like yours and the economy as a whole: education, infrastructure, basic research, and development.

We would have a grand bargain for middle-class jobs that combines tax reform with a financing mechanism that lets us create jobs, rebuilding infrastructure that your businesses depend on, but we haven't gotten as much take-up from the other side as we'd like to see so far.

In part two, I'll have the president's comments on taxes, spending, and keeping America competitive.

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