Washington, DC | September 28, 2007
It's a privilege to be a part of today's convocation and an honor to receive this degree from Howard. There are few other universities that have played so central a role in breaking down yesterday's barriers and inching this country closer to the ideals we see inscribed on the monuments throughout this city.
It was Howard that sent the first African-American to the United States Senate. It was Howard that graduated the first African-American to become governor and the first to become mayor of the largest city in the country. It was here, within the halls of this campus, where Thurgood Marshall huddled with the brilliant minds of his day to craft the arguments in Brown v. Board that ignited a movement that changed the world. And it is because of these victories that a black man named Barack Obama can stand before you today as a candidate for President of the United States of America.
But I am not just running to make history. I'm running because I believe that together, we can change history's course. It's not enough just to look back in wonder of how far we've come - I want us to look ahead with a fierce urgency at how far we have left to go. I believe it's time for this generation to make its own mark - to write our own chapter in the American story. After all, those who came before us did not strike a blow against injustice only so that we would allow injustice to fester in our time.
Thurgood Marshall did not argue Brown so that we would accept a country where too many African-American men end up in prison because we'd rather spend more to jail a 25-year-old than to educate a five-year-old.
Dr. King did not take us to the mountaintop so that we would allow a terrible storm to ravage those who were stranded in the valley; he would not have expected that it would take a breach in our levees to reveal a breach in our compassion; that it would take a hurricane to reveal the hungry God asks us to feed; the sick He asks us to care for; the least of these He commands us to treat as our own.
The teenagers and college students who left their homes to march in the streets of Birmingham and Montgomery; the mothers who walked instead of taking the bus after a long day of doing somebody else's laundry and cleaning somebody else's kitchen - they didn't brave fire hoses and Billy clubs so that their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren would still wonder at the beginning of the 21st century whether their vote would be counted; whether their civil rights would be protected by their government; whether justice would be equal and opportunity would be theirs.
And I am certain that nine children did not walk through the doors of a school in Little Rock so that our children would have to see nooses hanging at a school in Louisiana. We have more work to do.
It's a fitting reminder that the fiftieth anniversary of Little Rock fell on this week. Because when the doors to that school finally opened, a nation responded. The President sent the United States Army to stand on the side of justice. The Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The Department of Justice created a Civil Rights Division. And millions of Americans took to the streets in the following months and years so that more children could walk through more doors.
These were not easy choices to make at the time. President Eisenhower was warned by some that sending the Army down to Little Rock would be political suicide. The resistance to civil rights reform was fierce. And we know that those who marched for freedom did so at great risk to themselves and their families.
But they did it because they understood that sometimes there are moments when what's truly risky is not to act. What's truly risky is to let the same injustice remain year after year. What's truly risky is to walk away and pretend it never happened. What's truly risky is to accept things as they are instead of working for what could be.
In a media-driven culture that's more obsessed with who's beating who in Washington and how long Paris Hilton is going to jail, these moments are harder to spot today. But every so often, they do appear. Sometimes it takes a hurricane. And sometimes it takes a travesty of justice like the one we've seen in Jena, Louisiana.
There are some who will make Jena about the fight itself. And it's true that we have to do more as parents to instill in our children that violence is always wrong. It's wrong when it happens on the streets of Chicago and it's wrong when it happens at a schoolyard in Louisiana. Violence is not the answer. Non-violence was the soul of the Civil Rights Movement, and we have to do a better job of teaching our children that virtue.
But we also know that to truly understand Jena, you have to look at what happened both before and after that fight. You have to listen to the hateful slurs that flew through the halls of a school. You have to know the full measure of the damage done by that arson. You have to look at those nooses hanging on that schoolyard tree. And you have to understand how badly our system of justice failed those six boys in the days after that fight - the outrageous charges; the unreasonable and excessive sentences; the public defender who did not call a single witness.
Like Katrina did with poverty, Jena exposed glaring inequities in our justice system that were around long before that schoolyard fight broke out. It reminds us of the fact that we have a system that locks away too many young, first-time, non-violent offenders for the better part of their lives - a decision that's made not by a judge in a courtroom, but by politicians in Washington. It reminds us that we have certain sentences that are based less on the kind of crime you commit than on what you look like and where you come from. It reminds us that we have a Justice Department whose idea of prosecuting civil rights violations is trying to rollback affirmative action programs at our college and universities; a Justice Department whose idea of prosecuting voting rights violations is to look for voting fraud in black and Latino communities where it doesn't exist.
We know these inequities are there. We know they're wrong. And yet they go largely unnoticed until people find the courage to stand up and say they're wrong. Until someone finally says, "It's wrong that Scooter Libby gets no jail time for compromising our national security, but a 21-year-old honor student is still sitting in a Georgia prison for something that wasn't even a felony. That's wrong."
It's not always easy to stand up and say this. I commend those of you here at Howard who have spoken out on Jena 6 or traveled to the rally in Louisiana. I commend those of you who've spoken out on the Genarlow Wilson case. I know it can be lonely protesting this kind of injustice. I know there's not a lot of glamour in it.
When I was a state Senator in Illinois, we had a death penalty system that had sent thirteen innocent people to death row. Thirteen innocent men - that we know of. I wanted to reform the system. And I was told by almost everyone that it wasn't possible. That I wouldn't be able to get police officers and civil rights advocates; Democrats and Republicans to all agree that we should videotape confessions to make sure they weren't coerced. Folks told me that there was too much political risk involved.
But I believed that it was too risky not to act. And after awhile people with opposing views came together and started listening. And we ended up reforming that death penalty system. And we did the same thing when I passed a law to expose racial profiling. So don't ever let anyone tell you that change isn't possible. Don't let them tell you that speaking out and standing up against injustice is too risky. What's too risky is keeping quiet. What's too risky is looking the other way.
I don't want to be standing here and talking about another Jena four years from now because we didn't have the courage to act today. I don't want this to be another issue that ends up being ignored once the cameras are turned off and the headlines disappear. It's time to seek a new dawn of justice in America.
From the day I take office as President, America will have a Justice Department that is truly dedicated to the work it began in the days after Little Rock. I will rid the department of ideologues and political cronies, and for the first time in eight years, the Civil Rights Division will actually be staffed with civil rights lawyers who prosecute civil rights violations, and employment discrimination, and hate crimes. And we'll have a Voting Rights Section that actually defends the right of every American to vote without deception or intimidation. When flyers are placed in our neighborhoods telling people to vote on the wrong day, that won't only be an injustice, it will be a crime.
As President, I will also work every day to ensure that this country has a criminal justice system that inspires trust and confidence in every American, regardless of age, or race, or background. There's no reason that every single person accused of a crime shouldn't have a qualified public attorney to defend them. We'll recruit more public defenders to the profession by forgiving college and law school loans - and I will ask some of the brilliant minds here at Howard to take advantage of that offer. There's also no reason we can't pass a racial profiling law like I did in Illinois, or encourage state to reform the death penalty so that innocent people do not end up on death row.
When I'm President, we will no longer accept the false choice between being tough on crime and vigilant in our pursuit of justice. Dr. King said it's not either-or, it's both-and. We can have a crime policy that's both tough and smart. If you're convicted of a crime involving drugs, of course you should be punished. But let's not make the punishment for crack cocaine that much more severe than the punishment for powder cocaine when the real difference between the two is the skin color of the people using them. Judges think that's wrong. Republicans think that's wrong. Democrats think that's wrong, and yet it's been approved by Republican and Democratic Presidents because no one has been willing to brave the politics and make it right. That will end when I am President.
I think it's time we also took a hard look at the wisdom of locking up some first-time, non-violent drug users for decades. Someone once said that "...long minimum sentences for first-time users may not be the best way to occupy jail space and/or heal people from their disease." That someone was George W. Bush - six years ago. I don't say this very often, but I agree with the President. The difference is, he hasn't done anything about it. When I'm President, I will. We will review these sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive warehousing of non-violent offenders. And we will give first-time, non-violent drug offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior. So let's reform this system. Let's do what's smart. Let's do what's just.
Now, there is no doubt that taking these steps will restore a measure of justice and equality to America. They will also restore a sense of confidence to the American people that the system doesn't just work - it works for everyone.
But there is a broader point I want to make today.
If I have the opportunity to lead this nation, I will always be a President who hears your voice and understands your concerns; a President whose story is like so many of your own - whose life's work has been the unfinished work of our long march towards justice. And I will stand up for you, and fight for you, and wake up every day thinking about how to make your lives better.
But the truth is, one man cannot make a movement. No single law can erase the prejudice in the heart of a child who hangs a noose on a tree; or the callousness of a prosecutor who bypasses justice in the pursuit of vengeance. No one leader, no matter how shrewd or experienced, can prevent teenagers from killing other teenagers on the streets of our cities; or free our neighborhoods from the grip of hopelessness; or make real the promise of opportunity and equality for every citizen.
Only a country can do these things. Only this country can do these things. And that is why if you give me the chance to serve this nation, the most important thing I will do as your President is ask you to serve it too. The most important thing I'll do is call on you every day to take a risk and do your part to carry this movement forward. Against great odds and amidst deep cynicism, I will ask you to believe again that we can right the wrongs we see in America.
I would not have driven out to Chicago after college to organize jobless neighborhoods if I didn't believe this was possible. I wouldn't have organized a voter registration drive, or become a civil rights lawyer, or a constitutional law professor, or a state Senator, or a U.S. Senator if I didn't believe this was possible. I would not be standing here today if I didn't believe this was possible.
And I know that you believe it's possible too. One of the most inspiring things about the response to Jena was that it did not begin with the actions of any one leader. The call went out to thousands across the internet and black radio and on college campuses like this one. And like the young Americans of another era, you left your homes, and got on buses, and traveled South. It's what happened two years earlier when students here at Howard and Americans from every walk of life took it upon themselves to try and rescue a city that was drowning. It's how real change and true justice have always come about.
It takes a movement to lift a nation. It will take a movement to go into our cities and say that it's not enough to just fix our criminal justice system; what we really need is to make sure that our kids don't end up there in the first place. We need to set up child care and after school programs and job training and drug counseling to give our children a place to turn to. And we need parents to start acting like parents and spend more time with their children and read to them once in awhile.
It will take a movement to finish what began in Topeka, Kansas and Little Rock, Arkansas. It will take a movement of Americans from every city and town, of every race and background to stand up and say that no matter what you look like or where you come from, every child in America should have the opportunity to receive the best education this country has to offer. Every child. It will take a movement to demand that we rebuild our crumbling schools; that we invest in early childhood education; that we recruit an army of new teachers, and pay them better, and support them more. It will take a movement to ensure that every young person gets the chance that Howard gave all of you; to say that at the beginning of the 21st century, a college education is no longer a luxury for those who can afford it; it is the birthright of every American.
So when you go back to your classrooms and your dorm rooms and you begin another year at Howard University, I ask you to remember how far we've come, but I urge you to think hard about where we need to go. I urge you to think about the risks you will take and the role you will play in building the movement that will get us there. And I ask you remember the story of Moses and Joshua.
Most of you know that Moses was called by God to lead his people to the Promised Land. And in the face of a Pharaoh and his armies, across an unforgiving desert and along the walls of an angry sea, he succeeded in leading his people out of bondage in Egypt. He led them through great dangers, and they got far enough so that Moses could point the way towards freedom on the far banks of the river Jordan.
And yet, it was not in God's plan to have Moses cross the river. Instead He would call on Joshua to finish the work that Moses began. He would ask Joshua to take his people that final distance.
Everyone in this room stands on the shoulders of many Moses. They are the courageous men and women who marched and fought and bled for the rights and freedoms we enjoy today. They have taken us many miles over an impossible journey.
But you are members of the Joshua Generation. And it is now up to you to finish the work that they began. It is up to you to cross the river.
When Joshua discovered the challenge he faced, he had his doubts and his worries. But the Lord told Joshua not to fear. He said, "Be strong and have courage, for I am with you wherever you go."
Those are the words I will leave you with today. Be strong and have courage. Be strong and have courage in the face of injustice. Be strong and have courage in the face of prejudice and hatred. Be strong and have courage in the face of joblessness and helplessness and hopelessness. Be strong and have courage, in the face of our doubts and fears, in the face of skepticism, in the face of cynicism, in the face of a mighty river. Be strong and have courage and let us cross over to that Promised Land together. Congratulations on another year, and thank you so much.
Washington, DC | September 18, 2007
Yesterday I spoke about the future of the American economy at the NASDAQ. And in many ways, NASDAQ is a symbol of the new economy that's taking hold - the wealth created; the booms and bubbles; the technology that's helping to drive growth, and the interconnectedness that now spans the globe.
It's no secret that a fundamental transformation of our economy is taking place. In books and on balance sheets, at policy institutes and around kitchen tables, people are trying to make sense of where the swift and strong currents of globalization are taking us. What we do know is that Americans are living and working in a rapidly changing economic reality.
This isn't the first time this has happened. Time and again, the American economy has undergone upheaval - from slave to free; from agriculture to industry; from peace to war-time, and from war-time to peace. And time and again, the American economy has emerged stronger.
The one constant has been the advancement of individual opportunity. There are few principles more basic to our country, and there is none more basic to our economy. We believe that there is a place in the American economy for every American's dream. And we know that when we extend that dream of opportunity to more Americans, all of us gain.
Americans also know that opportunity doesn't come easy. You have to work for it.
Here I think of my father-in-law, Fraser Robinson. He raised his two children with his wife Marian in 1960s Chicago. They faced what other African-American families faced at the time - both hidden and overt forms of racism that limited their effort to get ahead. And they faced an additional obstacle. At age 30, Fraser was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. And yet, every day of his life, even when he had to leave an hour earlier in the morning and rely on a walker to get him there, he went to work at the local water filtration plant while Marian stayed home with the children. And on that single salary, Fraser Robinson provided for his family, sending my wife Michelle and her brother Craig to Princeton.
This is an American story that plays out in millions of families each and every day. It is a story that is shared by the caregiver who is up before dawn and the teacher who never misses the bell; by the trader who works late and the janitor on the night shift. It is the story of a society that values work, and of people who work to create a better future for their families.
This story could not exist without a basic social compact in this country. That compact says that if you work hard, your work will be rewarded. That everybody has an opportunity to make a decent living, to raise a family, to give their children the best chance at success, and to look forward to a secure retirement. That people like Fraser and Marian Robinson can give their children the chance to dream bigger, and to reach new horizons.
That social compact is starting to crumble.
In our new economy, there is no shortage of new wealth. But wages are not keeping pace. Workers are more vulnerable to job loss and more worried about retirement. Those Americans fortunate enough to have health care are paying more for it - health care premiums have risen nearly 90% in the last six years. Americans are facing deeper personal debt. From filling up the gas tank to paying for a college education, everything seems to cost more.
This is not just happening by chance. It's not something we can just chalk up to temporary shocks. It's happening in part because of the choices we're making, and the way that we're making those choices. It's happening because we've gone too far from being a country where we're all in this together, to a country where everyone's on their own.
Today, I'm going to focus on one aspect of our economic policy where we need to make different choices. Because nowhere is this shift in our priorities more evident than in our tax policies.
Instead of working to find ways to relieve the burden on the middle class, we've developed creative ways to remove the burden from the well-off. Instead of having all of us pay our fair share, we've got over $1 trillion worth of loopholes in the corporate tax code.
This isn't the invisible hand of the market at work. It's the successful work of special interests. For decades, we've seen a successful strategy to ride anti-tax sentiment in this country toward tax cuts that favor wealth, not work. And for decades, we've seen the gaps in wealth in this country grow wider, while the costs to working people are greater.
We've got a shift in our tax values that disproportionately benefits the wealthiest Americans; corporate carve-outs that serve no national purpose; tax breaks that allow companies to stash their profits overseas; a government that's paralyzed when dealing with offshore tax haven countries; an overloaded tax code that's too complicated for ordinary folks to understand, but just complicated enough to work for someone who knows how to work the system.
When big business doesn't like something in the tax code, they can hire a lobbyist to get it changed, but most working people can't afford a high-priced lobbyist. Instead of honoring that core American value - opportunity for all - we've had a system in Washington where our laws and regulations have carved out opportunities for the few.
The numbers don't lie. At a time when income inequality is growing sharper, the Bush tax cuts gave the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans a tax cut that was twice as large as the middle class. At a time when Americans are working harder than ever, we are taxing income from work at nearly twice the level that we're taxing gains for investors.
Talk about this in polite company, and sooner or later you'll get accused of waging class warfare. As if it's distasteful to point out that some CEOs make more in ten minutes than a worker makes in ten months. Or, as my friend Warren Buffet put it to me - "If there's class warfare going on in America, then my class is winning."
What Warren Buffett knows is what all Americans have to remember - to get through these uncertain times, we have to recognize that we all have a stake in one another's success. When folks are hurting out there on Main Street, that's not good for Wall Street. When the changes in our economy are leaving too many people behind, the competitiveness of our country risks falling behind. When that dream of opportunity is denied to too many Americans, then ultimately that pain has a way of trickling up.
We welcome success stories here in America. We admire those who have climbed to the top of the ladder. We just need to be sure that the ladder doesn't get taken away from the rest of us. We want a system based on fairness - not special favors.
To steer a course through the change that's taking hold, we have to hold tight to that core principle: that our economy must advance opportunity for all Americans.
My own experience over two decades tells me that when you give people a chance at that opportunity, they will take it. That's what I found as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, where we set up job training programs and after school programs and counseling programs to bring hope to places that had been hurt by change. That's what I found as a state Senator in Illinois when we created the state Earned Income Tax Credit so we could put $100 million of tax cuts into the pockets of working families. That's what I've been focused on as a United States Senator, as I've worked to expand the child tax credit to include children in minimum wage families, and to close loopholes that shift the tax burden on to working people.
And that's what I'll do as President. Because when it comes to our economy, the American people are not the problem - they are the answer.
I'll restore simplicity to the tax code, and fairness for the American middle class. It's time to stand up to special interest carve outs. I'll end the preferential treatment that's built into our tax code by eliminating corporate loopholes and tax breaks. We shouldn't be distorting our tax code to benefit a few powerful interests - we should be insisting that everyone pays their fair share, and when I'm President, they will.
And it's time to shed some sunlight not only on companies that abuse the tax code, but also on the secretive offshore tax havens that shelter them. We'll create a list of countries where tax evaders hide their income and cost America untold billions of dollars every year. We'll lead the international community to new standards of information sharing. And we'll penalize companies and individuals who use those havens and illegally evade their tax obligations.
If we're going to keep that social compact for a new century, we need a tax code that's fair - a tax code that rewards work and advances opportunity. Every American who is ready to work for their American dream should be able to trust that they have a government that works for them. I'll keep that trust by cutting taxes for working people, homeowners, and seniors, and by simplifying tax filing for middle class Americans.
First, I'll give a tax cut to working people.
The American people work longer and harder than the people of any other wealthy nation in the world. But their hours are getting longer and their wages aren't getting any higher. Their costs are going up, but their economic security is going down.
When a single mom gets her paycheck, that check gets taxed. When she goes to buy groceries, that purchase gets taxed. When she reaches her retirement, her social security benefit gets taxed. Meanwhile, her boss's investments get taxed at a lower rate, and the corporation she works for has all kinds of loopholes built into the tax code because they've got lobbyists in Washington sticking up for their interests.
It's time for that to change. It's time for Americans to have a President in the Oval Office who makes decisions based on their interest, not the special interests.
Let's not forget that even in this era of economic change, our wealth as a nation remains founded on work. I'd reward work by providing an income tax cut of up to $500 per person - or $1,000 for each working family - to offset the payroll tax that they're already paying. At a time when confidence in the American economy is unsteady, this will give middle class Americans a break, and help them deal with the rising costs of energy, education, and saving for retirement. Under my plan, 150 million Americans - and their families - will get a tax cut. And because this credit would be greater than their income tax bill, my proposal would eliminate all income taxes for 10 million working Americans.
In so many working families, two parents are working full time, trying to bring up their children, and trying to keep up with so many costs that keep growing while their paychecks don't. This tax credit will strengthen working families by increasing the money in their pockets, and reducing the worry that hangs over so many Americans. And this tax credit will be a particular boost to single working moms, who put in the hours to provide the best opportunities possible for their kids, but struggle to stretch a paycheck that can't cover their growing needs.
The second thing I'll do to ease the burden on the middle class is provide a universal homeowners' tax credit.
If work is how most Americans seek their dream, a home is how many families realize it. A home is a source of stability, a building block for communities, and the most valuable thing that most middle class folks will own. But - as has been made painfully clear through the sub-prime crisis - that source of stability can quickly become the source of economic insecurity. Too many Americans are struggling under the weight of their mortgages. Homeowners need a break.
Today, we have a mortgage interest deduction, but it only goes to people who itemize on their taxes. Like so much in our tax code, this tilts the scales toward the well-off. Only a third of homeowners take advantage of this credit.
I'll create a mortgage interest credit so that both itemizers and non-itemizers get a break. This will immediately benefit 10 million homeowners in America. The vast majority of these are folks who make under $50,000 per year, who will get a break of 10 percent of their mortgage interest rate. For most middle class families, this will add up to about $500 each year. This credit will also extend a hand to many of the millions of Americans who are stuck in the subprime crisis by giving them some breathing room to refinance or sell their homes.
The third thing I'll do is provide a progressive tax cut for America's seniors.
Since the New Deal, we've had a basic understanding in America. If you work hard and pay into the system, you've earned the right to a secure retirement. But even though they've held up their end of the bargain, many seniors are struggling to keep pace with costs. And as so many Americans know, their worry becomes an entire family's worry.
This strain has been greater since 1993, when taxes on social security benefits were raised. Millions of seniors saw their net benefits go down. They also had to take on the added strain - and sometimes cost - of filing a complicated tax return.
It's time to give America's seniors a break. So I'll give retired folks the same kind of relief I'll offer to working people. When I'm President, we'll work to see that no retiree making less than $50,000 each year has to pay income tax. This will eliminate income taxes for about 7 million Americans, at a savings rate of roughly $1,400 each year. And 22 million seniors won't even have to file a return and hire an expensive tax preparer.
The final part of my plan will be simplifying the process of filing a tax return for all Americans.
The tax code has become far too complex. Deductions and exemptions are built into the system, but ordinary people don't have the time to figure them out without going to an expert preparer - yet another cost at tax time.
In 2004, the IRS estimated that it took 28 hours for an individual to complete her tax filing. According to the IRS National Taxpayer Advocate, "the most serious problem facing taxpayers today is the complexity of the Internal Revenue Code." This past year, USA Today had five different professionals add up the tax bill for one working family - and they all got different answers.
It's time to cut through the complexity. When I'm President, we'll put in place a system where 40 million Americans with a job and a bank account who take the standard deduction can do their taxes in less than five minutes. The government already collects wage and bank account information, so there's no reason the IRS can't send Americans prefilled tax forms to verify. This mean's no more worry. No more wasted time. No more extra expenses for a tax preparer.
Making this change would save Americans more than $2 billion in tax preparer fees, more than 200 million hours of work, and an incalculable amount of headache and heartburn.
All of these proposals are about making America's tax code simpler, and making it work better for working Americans.
As we simplify the tax code so that it works for the middle class, we'll have to address shifting costs. Americans are tired of an attitude toward taxing and spending in Washington that is leaving a legacy of debt to our children and grandchildren.
To ensure that we are fiscally responsible, we'll gain revenue by shutting down corporate loopholes and tax havens. We'll also turn the page on an approach that gives repeated tax cuts to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans even though they don't need them and didn't ask for them. We've lost the balance between work and wealth. I will close the carried interest loophole, and adjust the top dividends and capital gains rate to something closer to - but no greater than - the rates Ronald Reagan set in 1986.
As we make these changes, we'll be sure to encourage growth and innovation. So we'll exempt start-up companies and small businesses from capital gains to give them an added boost. Because when more Americans tap that well of opportunity, all of us are better off.
You know, the truth is, most Americans aren't asking for a lot. They don't need overseas tax shelters or a long list of loopholes. They just want a fair shake. And they could stand a break. Because most Americans have simple dreams. A job. A place to raise their family. A secure retirement. A chance to create opportunities for their kids that might extend a little further than their own.
After all, the wealth of our nation is rooted in the work of our people. In his first State of the Union message to Congress, Abraham Lincoln laid out a core principle: "Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."
It's a simple proposition. That the wealth we earn comes from the work that we do. It's a proposition that is lived, day in and day out, in the homes of millions of working Americans. The steady pursuit of simple dreams.
The American economy is the tally of all of those dreams. Now - at a time of rising costs and rising uncertainty - it's time for polices from Washington that put a little wind at the backs of the American people. Now is the time for us to come together as a nation behind a new compact for the 21st century - one that gives the American people a lift, so they can lift up this country anew.
New York, New York | September 17, 2007
Seventy-five years ago this week, Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt took his campaign for the presidency to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.
It was a time when faith in the American economy was shaken - a time when too many of our leaders clung to the conventional thinking that said all we could do is sit idly by and wish that our problems would go away on their own.
But Franklin Roosevelt challenged that cynicism. Amid a crisis of confidence Roosevelt called for a "re-appraisal of values." He made clear that in this country, our right to live must also include the right to live comfortably; that government must favor no small group at the expense of all its citizens; and that in order for us to prosper as one nation, "...the responsible heads of finance and industry, instead of acting each for himself, must work together to achieve the common end."
This vision of America would require change that went beyond replacing a failed President. It would require a renewed trust in the market and a renewed spirit of obligation and cooperation between business and workers; between a people and their government. As FDR put it, "Faith in America, faith in our tradition of personal responsibility, faith in our institutions, and faith in ourselves demands that we all recognize the new terms of the old social contract."
Seventy-five years later, this faith is calling us to act once more.
We certainly do not face a test of the magnitude that Roosevelt's generation did. But we are tested still. We meet at a time when much of Wall Street is holding its collective breath. Here at the NASDAQ and all across America, the tickers are being watched with heightened anxiety and considerable uncertainty. There is much anticipation about tomorrow's meeting of the Fed, and with each new day, there is hope that the headlines will bring better news than the last.
It is a hope shared by millions of Americans, men and women, who have experienced this kind of anxiety and uncertainty long before it arrived on Wall Street. They are the families I meet every day who are working longer hours for a paycheck that isn't getting any bigger and can't seem to cover the rising cost of health care and tuition and taxes. They are the Maytag workers I've met in Galesburg, Illinois and Newton, Iowa - workers who believed they would retire and never have to work again; workers who now compete with their teenagers for minimum wage jobs at Wal-Mart because their factory moved overseas.
These Americans and many others were already struggling before the problems on Wall Street arose. Now they are looking at their homes and wondering if their greatest source of wealth will still have the same value in another year, or even another month. And we're all wondering whether this will spill over to the wider economy.
So we know there is a need right now to restore confidence in our markets. We know there is a need to renew public trust in our markets. But I also think that this is another moment that requires, in FDR's words, a re-appraisal of our values as a nation.
I believe that America's free market has been the engine of America's great progress. It's created a prosperity that is the envy of the world. It's led to a standard of living unmatched in history. And it has provided great rewards to the innovators and risk-takers who have made America a beacon for science, and technology, and discovery.
But I also know that in this country, our grand experiment has only worked because we have guided the market's invisible hand with a higher principle.
It's the idea that we are all in this together. From CEOs to shareholders, from financiers to factory workers, we all have a stake in each other's success because the more Americans prosper, the more America prospers. That's why we've had titans of industry who've made it their mission to pay well enough that their employees could afford the products they made. That's why employees at companies like Google don't mind the vast success of their CEOs - because they share in that success just the same. And that's why our economy hasn't just been the world's greatest wealth creator - it's been the world's greatest job generator. It's been the tide that has lifted the boats of the largest middle-class in history.
We have not come this far because we practice survival of the fittest. America is America because we believe in creating a framework in which all can succeed. Our free market was never meant to be a free license to take whatever you can get, however you can get it. And so from time to time, we have put in place certain rules of the road to make competition fair, and open, and honest. We have done this not to stifle prosperity or liberty, but to foster those things and ensure that they are shared and spread as widely as possible.
In recent years, we have seen a dangerous erosion of the rules and principles that have allowed our market to work and our economy to thrive. Instead of thinking about what's good for America or what's good for business, a mentality has crept into certain corners of Washington and the business world that says, "what's good for me is good enough."
In our government, we see campaign contributions and lobbyists used to cut corners and win favors that stack the deck against businesses and consumers who play by the rules. Massive tax cuts are shoved outside the budget window and accounting shenanigans are used to hide the full cost of this war.
In the business world, it's a mentality that sees conflicts of interest as opportunities for profit. The quick kill is prized without regard to long-term consequences for the financial system and the economy. And while this may benefit the few who push the envelope as far as it will go, it's doesn't benefit America and it doesn't benefit the market. Just because it makes money doesn't mean it's good for business.
It's bad for business when boards allow their executives to set the price of their stock options to guarantee that they'll get rich regardless of how they perform. It's bad for the bottom line when CEOs receive massive severance packages after letting down shareholders, firing workers and dumping their pensions; or when they throw lavish birthday parties with company funds.
It's bad for competition when you have an Administration that's willing to approve merger after merger with barely any scrutiny. Such an approach stifles innovation, it robs consumers of choice, it means higher prices, and we have to guard against it.
And it's bad for the market when there are over $1 trillion worth of loopholes in the corporate tax code, or when some companies get to set up a mailbox in a foreign country to avoid paying any taxes at all. This means a greater share of taxes for Americans and small businesses that are trying to compete but can't afford to lobby their way to more loopholes.
It also means that investment goes to the companies that are best connected instead of the ones that are most productive. Economics 101 tells us special interest politics distorts the free market. After all, why would an oil company invest in research for alternative fuels that could save our environment when they can get billions of dollars in subsidies to keep drilling for oil and gas?
These anti-market, anti-business practices are wasteful, unproductive, and antithetical to the very spirit of capitalism. They benefit the undeserving few at the expense of hardworking Americans and entrepreneurs who play by the rules.
In fact, the danger with this mentality isn't just that it offends our morals, it's that it endangers our markets. Markets can't thrive without the trust of investors and the public. At a most basic level, capital markets work by steering capital to the place where it is most productive. Without transparency, that cannot happen. If the information is flawed, if there is fraud, or if the risks facing financial institutions are not fully disclosed, people stop investing because they fear they're being had. When the public trust is abused badly enough, it can bring financial markets to their knees. We all suffer when we do not ensure that markets are transparent, open and honest.
We saw this during the dotcom boom of the 90s when conflicts of interest between securities analysts, whose research was supposed to guide investors, and the banks they worked for led investors to doubt the markets in general.
We saw it during the Enron and WorldCom scandals when major public companies artificially pumped up their earnings, disguised their losses and otherwise engaged in accounting fraud to make their profits look better - a practice that ultimately led investors to question the balance sheets of all companies.
And we cannot help but see some reflections of these practices when we look at the subprime mortgage fiasco today.
Subprime lending started off as a good idea - helping Americans buy homes who couldn't previously afford to. Financial institutions created new financial instruments that could securitize these loans, slice them into finer and finer risk categories and spread them out among investors around the country and around the world.
In theory, this should have allowed mortgage lending to be less risky and more diversified. But as certain lenders and brokers began to see how much money could be made, they began to lower their standards. Some appraisers began inflating their estimates to get the deals done. Some borrowers started claiming income they didn't have just to qualify for the loans, and some were engaging in irresponsible speculation. But many borrowers were tricked into glossing over the fine print. And ratings agencies began rating bundles of different kinds of these loans as low-risk even though they were very high-risk.
Most everyone knew that some of these deals were just too good to be true, but all that money flowing in made it tempting to look the other way and ignore the unscrupulous practice of some bad actors
And yet, time and again we were warned this could happen. Ned Gramlich, the former Fed governor who sadly passed away two weeks ago, wrote an entire book predicting this very situation. Repeated calls for better disclosure and stronger oversight were met with millions in mortgage industry lobbying. Far too many continued to put their own short-term gain ahead of what they knew the long-term consequences would be when those rates exploded.
Those consequences are now clear: nearly 2.5 million homeowners could lose their homes. Millions more who had nothing to do with this could see the value of their own home decline - with some estimates projecting a cost of nearly $164 billion, primarily in lost home equity. The projected cost to investors is nearly $150 billion worldwide. And the impact on the housing market and wider economy has been so great that some economists are now predicting a possible recession - a prediction all of us hope does not come to pass.
There are a number of lessons that we must learn from this going forward. We know that much of this could have been avoided if the market operated with more honesty and accountability. We also know we would have been far better off if there were greater transparency and more information had been available to the American people.
To that extent, I believe there are a few steps we should take to prevent future crises of this kind and restore some measure of public trust in the market:
First, we need more disclosure and accountability in the housing market. To ensure that potential homeowners aren't tricked into purchasing loans they can't afford, I've proposed updating the current mortgage rules to establish a federal definition of mortgage fraud and enact tough penalties against lenders who knowingly act in bad faith. I've also proposed a Home Score system that would create a simplified, standardized metric for home mortgages, sort of like the APR. This would empower Americans to make smart decisions by allowing prospective buyers to easily compare various mortgage products so they can find out whether they can afford the payments. And I believe we should finally enact the meaningful mortgage disclosure laws that the mortgage industry has been lobbying against for far too long.
Second, I believe that if we hope to restore trust in the markets, we must be able to trust the judgment of our rating agencies. The failure of government to exercise adequate oversight over the rating agencies will cost investors and public pension funds billions of dollars - losses we have not yet fully recognized. We cannot let the public trust be lost by a conflict of interest between the rating agencies and the people they're rating. As Arthur Levitt recently reminded us, this happened when rating agencies continued to give a rosy outlook for Enron despite its impending bankruptcy. And of course we saw it this year when subprime mortgage loans continued to receive strong ratings despite repeated warnings of the instability of the mortgages and the impending slowdown of the housing market.
Here's the real danger - if the public comes to view this like the accounting analyses of Enron, the markets will be ravished by a crisis in confidence. We must take steps to avoid that at all costs, and that is why I believe there should be an immediate investigation of the relationship and business practices of rating agencies and their clients.
The third thing we need to do is look at other areas in the market where a lack of transparency could lead to similar problems. Many of the people who hold these subprime mortgages are now shifting their debt to credit cards, and if they do not understand the commitments they're taking on, or are subjected to predatory practices, this could fester into a second crisis down the road. That's why I'm proposing a five-star credit card rating system to inform consumers about the level of risk involved in every credit card they sign up for, including how easily the company can change the interest rate. If more Americans were armed with this kind of information before they purchased risky mortgage loans, the current crisis might not have happened. Now that so many are in debt, we shouldn't let the same lax standards create another.
Finally, while it's not my place to comment on the actions of the Fed, I have heard many of you say that you hope for a sizable rate cut tomorrow to soothe the market turmoil.
But I also know that there are nearly 2.5 million Americans who may lose their homes no matter what happens tomorrow. And so for those institutions that are holding these mortgages, I ask them to show some flexibility to folks trying to sell or refinance their houses. They are in the same liquidity pinch as companies are, but they don't have the same resources available to protect themselves.
Now, in addition to these immediate steps, I also believe there is a larger lesson to be learned from the subprime crisis.
In this modern, interconnected economy, there is no dividing line between Main Street and Wall Street. The decisions that are made in New York's high-rises and hedge funds matter and have consequences for millions of Americans across the country. And whether those Americans keep their homes or their jobs; whether they can spend with confidence and avoid falling into debt - that matters and has consequences for the entire market.
We all have a stake in each other's success. We all have a stake in ensuring that the market is efficient and transparent; that it inspires trust and confidence; that it rewards those who are truly successful instead of those who are just successful at gaming the system. Because if the last few months have taught us anything, it's that we can all suffer from the excesses of a few. Turning a blind eye to the cronyism in our midst can put us all in jeopardy. And we cannot accept that in the United States of America.
So I promise you this. I will be a President who believes in your success. I will value your contribution to this country and I will do what I can to encourage it, because I understand that how well you do is inextricably linked to how well America does. And I will always be a strong advocate for a market that is free and open.
But today I am asking you to join me in saying that in this country, we will not tolerate a market that is fixed. We will not tolerate a market that is rigged by lobbyists who don't represent the interests of real Americans or most businesses. And we will not tolerate "what's good for me is good enough" any longer - because the only thing that's good enough is what's best for America.
I am also asking you to join me in doing something else today. I am asking you to remind yourselves that in this country, we rise or fall as one people. And I am asking you to join me in ushering in a new era of mutual responsibility in America.
Right now there are millions of hardworking Americans who have been struggling to get by for quite some time. They have watched their wages stagnate and their health costs rise and their pensions disappear. Some have seen jobs shipped overseas and others have found new ones that pay much less. Some tell their children they won't be able to afford college this year, others send their youngest to a school that is crumbling around them.
I meet these Americans every single day - people who believe they have been left on the sidelines by a global economy that has forever changed the rules of the game. They understand that revolutions in technology and communication have torn borders and opened up new markets and new opportunities. They know we can't go back to yesterday or wall off our economy from everyone else. Their problem is not that our world is flat. It's that our playing field isn't level. It's that opportunity is no longer equal. And that's something we cannot accept anymore.
For too long we have had a President who has clung to the belief that there is nothing America can do about this. He has looked away from these challenges and peddled a philosophy of "what's bad for you is not my problem."
And if we are honest, I think we must admit that those who have benefited from the new global marketplace - and that includes almost everyone in this room - have not always concerned themselves with the losers in this new economy. There has been a tendency, during the boom times, to consider the casualties of a changing economy to be inevitable, and to justify outsized paydays or lower tax rates on Wall Street earnings as part of the natural order of things.
Indeed, rather than addressing this growing sense of uncertainty and constricting opportunity for millions of working-class and middle-class Americans, this Administration has accelerated these trends through its tax policies and spending priorities - to the point where there is greater income inequality now than at any time since the Gilded Age.
It may be true, as some have argued, that larger forces are at work here - that technological advance and globalization have triggered a fundamental change in the economy. It is true as well that we cannot simply look backwards for solutions - to try to fence off the world beyond our borders, or to hope that the New Deal programs born of a different era are, by themselves, somehow adequate to meet the challenges of the future.
No, we are going to have to adapt our institutions to a new world as we always have. And in doing so, we have to remind ourselves that we rise and fall as one nation; that a country in which only a few prosper is antithetical to our ideals and our democracy; that those of us who have benefited greatly from the blessings of this country have a solemn obligation to open the doors of opportunity, not just for our children, but to all of America's children; and that unless we take immediate steps to realign the interests of all Americans in growth and prosperity, we may generate a political climate that is inimical to both.
And so, in the coming weeks, I will be laying out a 21st century economic agenda for America. It's an agenda that will level the playing field for more Americans to ensure that America can compete and thrive in a global economy.
It will focus on three broad areas.
Tomorrow, I'll lay out the first part of my agenda - a plan to modernize and simplify our tax code so that it provides greater opportunity and more relief to more Americans. For far too long, our tax code has been so riddled with special-interest loopholes and giveaways that it's shifted the tax burden to small businesses and middle-class Americans. At a time when most Americans are facing stagnant wages and rising costs, that's not fair and it doesn't benefit our economy. My plan will give a break to middle-class Americans, seniors, and the homeowners who are feeling today's anxiety and uncertainty, because I believe that we all have a stake in restoring their confidence and investing in their prosperity.
The second part of my agenda will be to ensure America's competitive edge in the 21st century. This starts with providing every American with a world-class education from cradle to adulthood. We know that in this economy, countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. And we also know that China is already graduating four times as many engineers as we do and that our share of twenty-four-year-olds with college degrees now falls somewhere between Bulgaria and Costa Rica.
We can't allow ourselves to fall behind. That means investing in early child education. It means recruiting an army of new, qualified teachers who we pay more and support more because we know how important their job is to the future of this country. And it means finally making a college education affordable and available to every American. Tony Blair once said that "Talent is the 21st century wealth," and I believe we all have a stake in nurturing that talent if we hope to prosper in this century.
Ensuring our competitive edge also means investing more in the science and technology that has fueled so much of our nation's economic growth. And one place where that investment would make an enormous difference to the future of this country is in a renewable energy policy that ends our addiction on foreign oil. We know this addiction isn't sustainable for our security. We know it's not sustainable for the planet. And I've talked to countless CEOs and business leaders who know it's not sustainable for our economy to be held hostage to the spot oil market. I believe that we all have a stake in a renewable future that will create thousands of new jobs and entire new industries that can fuel our prosperity well into the next century.
Finally, the third part of my agenda will be to modernize and strengthen America's safety net for working Americans. Like all of you, I believe in free trade. But we have to acknowledge that for millions of Americans, its burdens outweigh its benefits. And so if we want to avoid rising protectionism in this country; if we expect working Americans to accept and even embrace free trade, then I believe we all have a stake in embracing policies that will provide them with a sense of security. That means health insurance and a pension that they can always count on. That means skills and training that can actually help people find a job. And that means wages that actually make work pay.
I ask for your support for this economic agenda, both in this campaign and if I should get the chance to enact these policies as your President. I will not pretend it will come without cost, but I do believe we can do achieve this in a fiscally responsible way - certainly more so than the current Administration that's given us deficits as far as the eye can see.
I know some may say it's anathema to come to Wall Street and call for shared sacrifice so that all Americans can benefit from this new economy of ours. But I believe that all of you are as open and willing to listen as anyone else in America. I believe you care about this country and the future we are leaving to the next generation. I believe your work to be a part of building a stronger, more vibrant, and more just America. I think the problem is that no one has asked you to play a part in the project of American renewal.
I also realize that there are some who will say that achieving all of this is far too difficult. That it is too hard to build consensus. That we are too divided and self-interested to think about the responsibilities we have to each other and to our country. That the times are simply too tough.
But then I am reminded that we have been in tougher times and we have faced far more difficult challenges. And each time we have emerged stronger, more united, and more prosperous than the last. It is faith in the American ideal that carries us through, as well as the belief that was voiced by Franklin Roosevelt all those years ago this week: "Failure is not an American habit; and in the strength of great hope we must all shoulder our common load." That is the strength and the hope we seek both today - and in all the days and months to come.
Clinton, IA | September 12, 2007
A few months ago, I met a woman who told me her nephew was leaving for Iraq. As she started to tell me about how much she'd miss him and how worried she was about him, she began to cry. "I can't breathe,' she said. "I want to know when I am going to be able to breathe again.'
I have her on my mind when I think about what we've gone through as a country and where we need to go. Because we've been holding our breath over Iraq for five years. As we go through yet another debate about yet another phase of this misguided war, we've got a familiar feeling. Again, we're told that progress is upon us. Again, we're asked to hold our breath a little longer. Again, we're reminded of what's gone wrong with our policies and our politics.
It was five years ago today - on September 12, 2002 - that President Bush made his case for war at the United Nations. Standing in front of a world that stood with us after 9/11, he said, "In the attacks on America a year ago, we saw the destructive intentions of our enemies.' Then he talked about Saddam Hussein - a man who had nothing to do with 9/11. But citing the lesson of 9/11, he and others said we had to act. "To suggest otherwise,' the President said, "is to hope against the evidence.'
George Bush was wrong. The people who attacked us on 9/11 were in Afghanistan, not Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq didn't exist before our invasion. The case for war was built on exaggerated fears and empty evidence - so much so that Bob Graham, the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, decided to vote against the war after he read the National Intelligence Estimate.
But conventional thinking in Washington lined up for war. The pundits judged the political winds to be blowing in the direction of the President. Despite - or perhaps because of how much experience they had in Washington, too many politicians feared looking weak and failed to ask hard questions. Too many took the President at his word instead of reading the intelligence for themselves. Congress gave the President the authority to go to war. Our only opportunity to stop the war was lost.
I made a different judgment. I thought our priority had to be finishing the fight in Afghanistan. I spoke out against what I called "a rash war' in Iraq. I worried about, "an occupation of undetermined length, with undetermined costs, and undetermined consequences.' The full accounting of those costs and consequences will only be known to history. But the picture is beginning to come into focus.
Nearly 4,000 Americans have been killed in Iraq. Five times that number have suffered horrible wounds, seen and unseen. Loved ones have been lost, dreams denied. Children will grow up without fathers and mothers. Parents have outlived their children. That is a cost of this war.
When all is said and done, the price-tag will run over a trillion dollars. A trillion dollars. That's money not spent on homeland security and counter-terrorism; on providing health care to all Americans and a world-class education to every child; on investments in energy to save ourselves and our planet from an addiction to oil. That is a cost of this war.
The excellence of our military is unmatched. But as a result of this war, our forces are under pressure as never before. Our National Guard and reserves have half of the equipment they need to respond to emergencies at home and abroad. Retention among West Point graduates is down. Our powers of deterrence and influence around the world are down. That is a cost of this war.
America's standing has suffered. Our diplomacy has been compromised by a refusal to talk to people we don't like. Our alliances have been compromised by bluster. Our credibility has been compromised by a faulty case for war. Our moral leadership has been compromised by Abu Ghraib. That is a cost of this war.
Perhaps the saddest irony of the Administration's cynical use of 9/11 is that the Iraq War has left us less safe than we were before 9/11. Osama bin Ladin and his top lieutenants have rebuilt a new base in Pakistan where they freely train recruits, plot new attacks, and disseminate propaganda. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan. Iran has emerged as the greatest strategic challenge to America in the Middle East in a generation. Violent extremism has increased. Terrorism has increased. All of that is a cost of this war.
After 9/11, instead of the politics of unity, we got a political strategy of division with the war in Iraq as its centerpiece. The only thing we were asked to do for our country was support a misguided war. We lost that sense of common purpose as Americans. And we're not going to be a truly united and resolute America until we can stop holding our breath, until we can come together to reclaim our foreign policy and our politics and end this war that has cost us so much.
So there is something unreal about the debate that's taking place in Washington.
With all that our troops and their families have sacrificed, with all this war has cost us, and with no discernible end in sight, the same people who told us we would be greeted as liberators, about democracy spreading across the Middle East, about striking a decisive blow against terrorism, about an insurgency in its last throes - those same people are now trumpeting the uneven and precarious containment of brutal sectarian violence as if it validates all of their failed decisions.
The bar for success is so low that it is almost buried in the sand.
The American people have had enough of the shifting spin. We've had enough of extended deadlines for benchmarks that go unmet. We've had enough of mounting costs in Iraq and missed opportunities around the world. We've had enough of a war that should never have been authorized and should never have been waged.
I opposed this war from the beginning. I opposed the war in 2002. I opposed it in 2003. I opposed it in 2004. I opposed it in 2005. I opposed it in 2006. I introduced a plan in January to remove all of our combat brigades by next March. And I am here to say that we have to begin to end this war now.
My plan for ending the war would turn the page in Iraq by removing our combat troops from Iraq's civil war; by taking a new approach to press for a new accord on reconciliation within Iraq; by talking to all of Iraq's neighbors to press for a compact in the region; and by confronting the human costs of this war.
First, we need to immediately begin the responsible removal of our troops from Iraq's civil war. Our troops have performed brilliantly. They brought Saddam Hussein to justice. They have fought for over four years to give Iraqis a chance for a better future. But they cannot - and should not - bear the responsibility for resolving the grievances at the heart of Iraq's civil war.
Recent news only confirms this. The Administration points to selective statistics to make the case for staying the course. Killings and mortar attacks and car bombs in certain districts are down from the highest levels we've seen. But they're still at the same horrible levels they were at 18 months ago or two years ago. Experts will tell you that the killings are down in some places because the ethnic cleansing has already taken place. That's hardly a cause for triumphalism.
The stated purpose of the surge was to enable Iraq's leaders to reconcile. But as the recent report from the Government Accountability Office confirms, the Iraqis are not reconciling. Our troops fight and die in the 120 degree heat to give Iraq's leaders space to agree, but they aren't filling it. They are not moving beyond their centuries-old sectarian conflicts, they are falling further back into them.
We hear a lot about how violence is down in parts of Anbar province. But this has little to do with the surge - it's because Sunni tribal leaders made a political decision to turn against al Qaeda in Iraq. This only underscores the point - the solution in Iraq is political, it is not military.
Violence is contained in some parts of Baghdad. That's no surprise. Our troops have cleared these neighborhoods at great costs. But our troops cannot police Baghdad indefinitely - only Iraqis can. Rather than use our presence to make progress, the Iraqi government has put off taking responsibility - that's the finding of a Commission headed by General Jim Jones. And our troop presence cannot be sustained without crippling our military's ability to respond to other contingencies.
Let me be clear: there is no military solution in Iraq, and there never was. The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq's leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops. Not in six months or one year - now.
We should enter into talks with the Iraqi government to discuss the process of our drawdown. We must get out strategically and carefully, removing troops from secure areas first, and keeping troops in more volatile areas until later. But our drawdown should proceed at a steady pace of one or two brigades each month. If we start now, all of our combat brigades should be out of Iraq by the end of next year.
We will need to retain some forces in Iraq and the region. We'll continue to strike at al Qaeda in Iraq. We'll protect our forces as they leave, and we will continue to protect U.S. diplomats and facilities. If - but only if - Iraq makes political progress and their security forces are not sectarian, we should continue to train and equip those forces. But we will set our own direction and our own pace, and our direction must be out of Iraq. The future of our military, our foreign policy, and our national purpose cannot be hostage to the inaction of the Iraqi government.
Removing our troops is part of applying real pressure on Iraq's leaders to end their civil war. Some argue that we should just replace Prime Minister Maliki. But that wouldn't solve the problem. We shouldn't be in the business of supporting coups. And remember - before Maliki, we said that we just needed to replace the last Prime Minister to make everything all right. It didn't work.
The problems in Iraq are bigger than one man. Iraq needs a new Constitutional convention that would include representatives from all levels of Iraqi society - in and out of government. The United Nations should play a central role in convening and participating in this convention, which should not adjourn until a new accord on national reconciliation is reached. To reconcile, the Iraqis must also meet key political benchmarks outside of the Constitutional process, including new local elections and revising debaathification.
Now the Iraqis may come out of this process choosing some kind of soft partition into three regions - one Sunni, one Shia, one Kurd. But it must be their choice. America should not impose the division of Iraq.
While we change the dynamic within Iraq, we must surge our diplomacy in the region.
At every stage of this war, we have suffered because of disdain for diplomacy. We have not brought allies to the table. We have refused to talk to people we don't like. And we have failed to build a consensus in the region. As a result, Iraq is more violent, the region is less stable, and America is less secure.
We need to launch the most aggressive diplomatic effort in recent history to reach a new compact in the region. This effort should include all of Iraq's neighbors, and we should also bring in the United Nations Security Council. All of us have a stake in Iraq's stability. It's time to make this less about what America is trying to do for Iraq, and more about what the world can do with Iraq.
This compact must secure Iraq's borders, keep neighbors from meddling, isolate al Qaeda, and support Iraq's unity. That means helping our Turkish and Kurdish friends reach an understanding. That means pressing Sunni states like Saudi Arabia to stop the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, increase their financial support of reconstruction efforts, and encourage Iraqi Sunnis to reconcile with their fellow Iraqis. And that means turning the page on the Bush-Cheney policy of not talking to Syria and Iran.
Conventional thinking in Washington says Presidents cannot lead this diplomacy. But I think the American people know better. Not talking doesn't make us look tough - it makes us look arrogant. And it doesn't get results. Strong Presidents tell their adversaries where they stand, and that's what I would do. That's how tough and principled diplomacy works. And that's what we need to press Syria and Iran to stop being part of the problem in Iraq.
Iran poses a grave challenge. It builds a nuclear program, supports terrorism, and threatens Israel with destruction. But we hear eerie echoes of the run-up to the war in Iraq in the way that the President and Vice President talk about Iran. They conflate Iran and al Qaeda, ignoring the violent schism that exists between Shiite and Sunni militants. They issue veiled threats. They suggest that the time for diplomacy and pressure is running out when we haven't even tried direct diplomacy. Well George Bush and Dick Cheney must hear - loud and clear - from the American people and the Congress: you don't have our support, and you don't have our authorization for another war.
George Bush suggests that there are two choices with regard to Iran. Stay the course in Iraq or cede the region to the Iran. I reject this choice. Keeping our troops tied down in Iraq is not the way to weaken Iran - it's precisely what has strengthened it. President Ahmadinejad may talk about filling a vacuum in the region after an American drawdown, but he's badly mistaken. It's time for a new and robust American leadership. And that should begin with a new cooperative security framework with all of our friends and allies in the Persian Gulf.
Now is the time for tough and sustained diplomacy backed by real pressure. It's time to rally the region and the world to our side. And it's time to deliver a direct message to Tehran. America is a part of a community of nations. America wants peace in the region. You can give up your nuclear ambitions and support for terror and rejoin the community of nations. Or you will face further isolation, including much tighter sanctions. As we deliver this message, we will be stronger - not weaker - if we are disengaging from Iraq's civil war.
The final part of my plan is a major international initiative to address Iraq's humanitarian crisis.
President Bush likes to warn of the dire consequences of ending the war. He warns of rising Iranian influence, but that has already taken place. He warns of growing terrorism, but that has already taken place. And he warns of huge movements of refugees and mass sectarian killing, but that has already taken place. These are not the consequences of a future withdrawal. They are the reality of Iraq's present. They are a direct consequence of waging this war. Two million Iraqis are displaced in their own country. Another two million Iraqis have fled as refugees to neighboring countries. This mass movement of people is a threat to the security of the Middle East and to our common humanity. We have a strategic interest - and a moral obligation - to act.
The President would have us believe there are two choices: keep all of our troops in Iraq or abandon these Iraqis. I reject that choice. We cannot continue to put this burden on our troops alone. I'm tired of this notion that we either fight foolish wars or retreat from the world. We are better than that as a nation.
There's no military solution that can reunite a family or resettle an orphaned child. It's time to form an international working group with the countries in the region, our European and Asian friends, and the United Nations. The State Department says it has invested $183 million on displaced Iraqis this year -- but that is not nearly enough. We can and must do more. We should up our share to at least $2 billion to support this effort; to expand access to social services for refugees in neighboring countries; and to ensure that Iraqis displaced inside their own country can find safe-haven.
Iraqis must know that those who engage in mass violence will be brought to justice. We should lead in forming a commission at the U.N. to monitor and hold accountable perpetrators of war crimes within Iraq. We must also put strict conditions on U.S. assistance to direct our support to those who want to hold Iraq together - not those who are tearing it apart. The risk of greater atrocities in the short-term cannot deter us from doing what we must to minimize violence in the long-term. Yet as we drawdown, we must declare our readiness to intervene with allies to stop genocidal violence.
We must also keep faith with Iraqis who kept faith with us. One tragic outcome of this war is that the Iraqis who stood with America - the interpreters, embassy workers, and subcontractors - are being targeted for assassination. An Iraqi named Laith who worked for an American organization told a journalist, "Sometimes I feel like we're standing in line for a ticket, waiting to die.' And yet our doors are shut. In April, we admitted exactly one Iraqi refugee - just one!
That is not how we treat our friends. That is not how we take responsibility for our own actions. That is not who we are as Americans. It's time to at least fill the 7,000 slots that we pledged to Iraqi refugees and to be open to accepting even more Iraqis at risk. It's also time to go to our friends and allies - and all the members of our original coalition in Iraq - to find homes for the many Iraqis who are in desperate need of asylum.
Keeping this moral obligation is a key part of how we turn the page in Iraq. Because what's at stake is bigger than this war - it's our global leadership. Now is a time to be bold. We must not stay the course or take the conventional path because the other course is unknown. To quote Dr. Brzezinski - we must not allow ourselves to become "prisoners of uncertainty.'
George Bush is afraid of this future. That is why all he can do is drag up the past. After all the flawed justifications for his failed policy, he now invokes Vietnam as a reason to stay in Iraq. Let's put aside the strange reasoning - that all would have been well if we had just stayed the course in Vietnam. Let's put it aside and leave it where it belongs - in the past.
Now is not the time to reargue the Vietnam War - we did that in the 2004 election, and it wasn't pretty. I come from a new generation of Americans. I don't want to fight the battles of the 1960s. I want to reclaim the future for America, because we have too many threats to face and too many opportunities to seize. Just think about what we can accomplish together when we end this war.
When we end this war in Iraq, we can finally finish the fight in Afghanistan. That is why I propose stepping up our commitment there, with at least two additional combat brigades and a comprehensive program of aid and support to help Afghans help themselves.
When we end this war in Iraq, we can more effectively tackle the twin demons of extremism and hopelessness that threaten the peace of the world and the security of America. That is why I have proposed a program to spread hope - not hate - in the Islamic world, to build schools that teach young people to build and not destroy, to support the rule of law and economic development, and to launch a program of outreach to the Islamic world that I will lead as President.
When we end this war in Iraq, we can once again lead the world against the common challenges of the 21st century. Against the spread of nuclear weapons and climate change. Against genocide in Darfur. Against ignorance and intolerance. Corruption and greed. Poverty and despair. When we end this war, we can reclaim the cause of freedom and democracy. We can be that beacon of hope, that light to all the world.
When we end this war, we can recapture our unity of effort as Americans. The American people have the right instincts on Iraq. It's time to heed their judgment. It's time to move beyond Iraq so that we can move forward together. I will be a President who listens to the American people, not a President who ignores them.
And when we end the war in Iraq, we can come together to give our full attention to advancing the cause of health care for every American, an energy policy that does not bankroll hostile nations while we melt the polar ice caps, and a world class education for our children. Above all, we can turn the page to a new kind of politics of unity, not division; of hope, not fear.
You know, I welcome all of the folks who have changed their position on the war over these last months and years. And we need more of those votes to change if we're going to change the direction of this war. That is why I will keep speaking directly to my colleagues in the Congress, both Republican and Democratic. Historically, we have come together in a bipartisan way to deal with our most monumental challenges. We should do so again. We have the power to do this - not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Americans. We don't have to wait until George Bush is gone from office - we can begin to end this war today, right now.
But if we have learned anything from Iraq, it is that the judgment that matters most is the judgment that is made first.
Martin Luther King once stood up at Riverside Church and said, "In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.' We are too late to stop a war that should never have been fought; too late to undo the pain of battle, the anguish of so many families, or the price of the fight; too late to redo the years of division and distraction at home and abroad.
But I'm here today because it's not too late to come together as Americans. Because we're not going to be able to deal with the challenges that confront us until we end this war. What we can do is say that we will not be prisoners of uncertainty. That we reject the conventional thinking that led us into Iraq and that didn't ask hard questions until it was too late. What we can say is that we are ready for something new and something bold and something principled.
It's time for us to breathe again. That begins with ending this war - but it does not end there. It's time reclaim our foreign policy. It's time to reclaim our politics. And it's time to lead this country - and this world - again, to a new dawn of peace and unity.
Manchester, NH | September 03, 2007
I have been running for President now for a little more than six months. And everywhere we've gone we've seen these huge crowds just like this one. We saw 10,000 in Iowa City. 20,000 in Austin. 20,000 in Atlanta.
It's not just the numbers themselves that are so inspiring. It's the people behind those numbers. They're young and old; black and white, Latino, Asian, and Native American. They're Democrats and Independents and more than a few Republicans. Many are showing up to the very first political event of their lifetime.
The conventional thinking in Washington tells us that we're a country divided into Red States and Blue States; that we're doomed to fight the same tired partisan battles over and over again. They tell us we can't come together to take on big challenges like health care, or energy, or education; that we can't agree on what America should be, so we might as well settle for the way America is right now.
But these crowds tell me something else. They tell me that when it comes to what's wrong with this country, the American people are not the problem. The American people are the answer.
We're here today - you and I - because we believe in what this country can be. In the face of war, we believe there can be peace. In the face of despair, we believe there can be hope. In the face of a politics that's shut us out, that's told us to settle, that's divided us for too long, we believe we can be one people, reaching for what's possible, building that more perfect union.
That's why we're here.
We know we need a new direction. And that change begins with an end to the Bush-Cheney Administration. Their years haven't just been bad years for Democrats. They've been bad years for America.
We've seen the triumph of ideology over reason; of cronyism over competence. We've seen the Constitution of the United States treated as a nuisance instead of the founding document of our democracy. We've seen policies that have widened the divide between Wall Street and Main Street and marginalized organized labor at a time when American workers need a voice most. We've seen fellow citizens abandoned on rooftops after a storm. And we've seen a disastrous war in Iraq that should never have been authorized and never been waged.
But we also know that, as bad as George Bush has been, it's going to take more than a change of parties in the White House to truly turn this country around. George Bush and Dick Cheney may have turned divisive, special-interest politics into an art form, but they didn't invent it. It was there before they got to Washington, and if you and I don't stand up and challenge it, it will be there long after they leave.
And so we face a choice in this election.
Do we continue the cynical math that says it's a winning strategy to divide our country in two, and simply ignore the half that doesn't agree? Or do we find our stake in each other as Americans, united again by a sense of common purpose and a common destiny?
Do we continue the conventional Washington thinking on foreign policy that led us to this tragic war in Iraq? Or do we recognize the challenges of a new world, and engage with friends and foes in a way that restores America's moral leadership and security?
Do we continue to allow lobbyists to veto our progress? Or do we finally put our national interests ahead of the special interests, and address the concerns people feel over their jobs, their health care and their children's future?
That's why I'm running for President of the United States.
Because to meet America's challenges, changing parties isn't change enough. We need something new. We need to turn the page. There are those who tout their experience working the system in Washington - but the problem is that the system in Washington isn't working for us and hasn't for a long time.
Think about it. We've been talking about the health care crisis in this country for decades. Yet through Democratic and Republican Administrations we've failed to act. And you know why - because the drug and insurance industry has spent over a billion dollars on lobbying in the past ten years alone to block reform. We've heard promises of energy independence for decades, yet every year, the oil and gas lobbyists use their clout and their money to keep us addicted to fossil fuels.
Too many in Washington see politics as a game. And that is why I believe this election cannot be about who can play this game better. It has to be about who can put an end to the game-playing. The times are too serious; the stakes are too high. And the change that's required, this new spirit of responsibility and honesty; of seriousness and sacrifice, starts with you. It starts with millions of people across this country, coming together to demand something better.
I have never seen politics as a game. From the day I decided to become a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago over two decades ago, I have always seen politics as a mission - as the way we hold this country up to our highest ideals. And when we've fallen short of those ideals, it's this sense of mission that has compelled Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs to put aside their differences and push their shoulder against the wheel of history in search of a better day.
It's this sense of mission that led my grandfather to enlist after Pearl Harbor and sent my grandmother to a bomber assembly line. It's what led thousands of young people I'll never know to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses so that we all might be free. It's what led my father to keep writing letters until someone answered his prayer and gave him his ticket to America. And it's what led me to those poor neighborhoods in Chicago, so that I could do my part to help folks who had lost jobs and lost hope when the local steel plant closed.
It's politics as a mission. And if you don't spend your whole life in Washington, it becomes easier to remember what this means. The other day I got head to out to California because the Service Employees' Union had organized an event where I would walk in the shoes of one of their members for a day. And so I woke up at five a.m. and met up with this sixty-one-year-old woman named Pauline Beck who was a home care worker. Every day of her life she wakes up and she takes care of two foster children who do not have a family of their own. Then she goes to work and she takes care of an eighty-seven-year-old amputee. And so I went with her to work, and we scrubbed the floors and we did the laundry and cleaned the rooms.
It was one of the best days I've had on the campaign so far. Because it reminded me of what we're doing here. Listening to this humble woman talk about the hardships of her life without a trace of self-pity, glad she could be of some service to somebody, just wanting a little bit more pay to take care of those kids, a little more security for her retirement, maybe a day off once in awhile to rest her tired back, I was reminded that for all the noise and the pettiness coming out of Washington, what holds this country together is this fundamental belief that we all have a stake in each other - that I am my brother's keeper; that I am my sister's keeper. And that must express itself not only in our churches and synagogues or in our personal lives, but in our government too.
Now, when the folks in Washington hear me speak, this is usually when they start rolling their eyes. "Oh, there he goes talking about hope again. He's so naive. He's a hope peddler. He's a hope-monger."
Well I stand guilty as charged. I am hopeful about America. Apparently the pundits consider this a chronic condition, a symptom of a lack of experience.
I used to wonder what they meant, this whole experience argument, because I've been fighting for people as a public servant for over two decades - as a community organizer, a civil rights lawyer, a constitutional law professor, a state Senator, and a U.S. Senator.
But then I came to realize that to this bunch, only the years you spend in Washington count. Only time in Washington translates into wisdom.
I think they are wrong about that. Recent history suggests otherwise. There were a couple of guys named Cheney and Rumsfeld who had two of the longest resumes in Washington and they led us into the worst foreign policy fiasco in our history. Time served doesn't guarantee judgment. A resume does nothing about character.
So let me tell you about a different kind of experience - the experience I bring to this race.
My experience tells me that real change and progress comes not by dividing, but by bringing people together to get things done - like when I worked with police officers and civil rights advocates to reform a death penalty system that had sent thirteen innocent people in Illinois to death row. Or when I worked with Republicans and Democrats to expand health care for 150,000 Illinoisans, or put $100 million worth of tax cuts in the pockets of working families. Or when I worked with my Republican colleague, Dick Lugar, to pass a law securing dangerous weapons in the old Soviet Union.
My experience tells me that real change and reform come when we're willing to put the people's interests before the special interests and partisan interests. That's what I did in Illinois when I took on money in politics and passed the first ethics reform in twenty-five years, and that's what I did in Washington when I passed a law that earned me the cold shoulder from leaders of both parties - for the first time in history, Washington lobbyists will have to disclose who they're raising money from and who in Congress they're funneling it to.
My experience tells me that real change and security come when we're willing to make foreign policy decisions based not on what's popular in Washington, but what's right for America - based on a real understanding of the world. That's why I resisted the tide in my campaign for the US Senate and opposed the war in Iraq from the start. As we saw then, longevity in Washington is no guarantee of good judgment.
So let's be clear - there are a lot of people who have been in Washington longer than me; who have better connections and go to the right dinner parties and know how to talk the Washington talk. Well I might not have the experience Washington likes, but I believe I have the experience America needs right now. Hope and change are not just the rhetoric of a campaign for me. Hope and change have been the causes of my life. Hope and change are the story of our country. And we're here today to continue that story.
We're here to infuse the old Washington politics with a new sense of mission - to unite people around a common purpose. To rally Americans around a common destiny. We aren't just here to win an election. We are here to transform a nation.
I do not accept that in the richest nation on Earth we have to stand by while 47 million Americans have no health care and millions more are on the verge of bankruptcy because of their medical bills. My mother died of ovarian cancer in the prime of her life and do you know what she was most worried about in those final months? She was between jobs when she was diagnosed and she wasn't sure whether insurance would cover her treatment. So I know what it's like to see a loved one suffer because of a broken health care system. I know that it's wrong. And I know that's not who we are.
When I am President, we will have universal health care in this country by the end of my first term in office. It's a plan that will cover every American and cut the cost of a typical family's premiums by $2500 a year. And I will not let the drug and insurance companies spend another billion dollars to block reform - because people like my mother shouldn't have to worry about bankruptcy every time they get sick. We're better than that.
I do not accept that we have to keep sending $800 million a day to hostile nations because of our addiction to foreign oil - a dependency that fuels both sides of the war on terror and is melting the polar ice caps in the bargain. We can meet our moral obligation to future generations and halt the march of global warming.
I have a plan to raise our fuel standards that's won the support of some lawmakers who had never supported raising fuel standards before. And I didn't just give a speech about it in front of some environmental audience in California - I went right to Detroit and said it in front of a group of automakers. Now I have to admit - the room was pretty quiet. But I did it because I don't think we're going to get anywhere in this country by just telling everyone what they want to hear. We have to tell people what they need to hear. We have to tell people the truth. And you shouldn't expect anything less from your President.
I don't accept that we can't give every single child in America a world-class education. We know countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow. But it's bigger than that. The America we believe in isn't a country where millions of children are robbed of their opportunity by failing schools. And the answer isn't just a snappy slogan.
To truly leave no child behind, we have to make a genuine commitment to educational opportunity for all, from cradle to adulthood. This country should be focusing on the most important part of any child's achievement - the person standing at the front of the classroom. As President, I will launch a campaign to recruit an army of new teachers, and we'll pay them better, and give them more support, and help them reach high standards by working with them, not working against them. I will invest in early childhood education so that every child has the best possible start in life. And while we're at it, let's finally make a college degree affordable and available to every American, and bolster our community colleges to help educate and train America's workers. We can do that.
I do not accept that the American Dream is a thing of the past. On this Labor Day, let's give American workers more than a parade. Let's give them policies that actually value their work. Let's provide them with a living wage. Let's allow our unions do what they do best again - organize our workers and lift up our middle-class. And let's stop giving tax breaks to the companies who send them overseas and start giving them to companies who create jobs right here in America. We can do this.
Finally, I do not accept an America that has lost its moral standing in the community of nations. Today there is no greater mission than keeping America safe and restoring America's image in the world.
That starts with ending this war. I opposed the war in Iraq from the start. I said then that Iraq was the wrong battlefield; that we would find ourselves mired in a lengthy civil war, diverting our attention from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. And I introduced a plan back in January that would have gradually and responsibly removed all combat troops from Iraq by March 30th, 2008. The President vetoed a plan just like this last spring, but we will be debating the war again next week. Now is the time to keep the pressure on all those Republican Senators and Congressmen who continue to support the President's failed course. We can end this war without George Bush. And if we don't, then it will be the first thing I do as President of the United States.
But the change that is needed extends beyond ending the war. To repair the damage, to meet the dangers and seize the opportunities of this new century, the old formulas will not do. We need to turn the page on the Bush-Cheney policy of not talking to leaders we don't like. That doesn't make us look tough. It makes us look arrogant. I'm not afraid that I'll lose a propaganda battle with a bunch of dictators. Strong countries and strong Presidents shouldn't be afraid to talk to our adversaries to tell them where America stands. That's why I will - because that's how tough, principled and smart diplomacy works.
I want to go before the United Nations as President and say, "America's back." It's time for America to lead again. It's time to fight on the right battlefield in rooting out al Qaeda. It's time to lead by building schools in the Middle East that teach math and science instead of hatred. It's time for us to close Guantanamo and restore the right of habeas corpus. It's time to show the world that we are not a country that ships prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far off countries. That we are not a country that looks away while innocents are slaughtered in Darfur. That we are not a country that runs prisons which lock people away without ever telling them why they are there or what they are charged with.
That is not who we are.
We are the last, best hope of Earth. We are the nation that liberated a continent from a madman, that lifted ourselves from the depths of Depression, that won Civil Rights, and Women's Rights, and Voting Rights for all our people. We are the beacon that has led generations of weary travelers to find opportunity, and liberty, and hope on our doorstep. That's who we are. And that's who we can be again.
I am reminded every single day that I am not a perfect man. I will not be a perfect President. But I can promise you this - I will always tell you what I think and where I stand. I will be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you when we disagree. And most importantly, I will open the doors of government and ask you to be involved in your own democracy again.
I know what I'm asking is hard. I know that politics and politicians have disappointed you so many times before, to the point where sometimes it seems easier to just tune out and walk away. But what you have to remember is that when you walk away, the same old politics wins every time. That's what all the people who benefit from politics as a game are counting on.
That's why we need you. That's why I can't do this alone. I am not just asking you to trust in my ability to change this country - I'm asking you to trust in yourself. In your own instincts. In your own sense of possibility. In your own sense of what's right. I'm asking you to bet on us, on our capacity to do what previous generations have done - to lift our sights, to join together and forge a better future for our children and grandchildren. Make this campaign the vehicle for your hopes and your dreams; for your sense of what America is and what America can be. And if you're willing to work for it and fight for it and bring others to this cause, if after this rally you decide to go sign up twenty more people or volunteer to knock on doors or serve as a precinct captain, then I believe that this time will finally be different from all the rest.
And so I'm asking you - if you believe it's time to challenge the Washington politics that have let us down and shut us out and made us settle; if you believe it's time to restore a sense of mission to our politics and a sense of possibility to America; if you want a country that no longer sees itself as a collection of Red States and Blue States; if you want a President who can lead a United States of America, then I ask you to believe in this campaign; I ask you to believe in yourself, I ask you to believe again in the dream that we call America.