April 28, 2007
It has now been a little over two months since we began this campaign. In that time we have traveled all across this country. And before every event we do, I usually have a minute to sit quietly and collect my thoughts. And recently, I’ve found myself reflecting on what it was that led me to public service in the first place.
I live in Chicago now, but I am not a native of that great city. I moved there when I was just a year out of college, and a group of churches offered me a job as a community organizer so I could help rebuild neighborhoods that had been devastated by the closing of steel plants.
The salary was $12,000 a year plus enough money to buy an old, beat-up car, and so I took the job and drove out to Chicago, where I didn’t know a soul. And during the time I was there, we worked to set up job training programs for the unemployed and after school programs for kids.
And it was the best education I ever had, because I learned in those neighborhoods that when ordinary people come together, they can achieve extraordinary things.
After three years, I went back to law school. I left there with a degree and a lifetime of debt, but I turned down the corporate job offers so I could come back to Chicago and organize a voter registration drive. I also started a civil rights practice, and began to teach constitutional law.
And after a few years, people started coming up to me and telling me I should run for state Senate. So I did what every man does when he’s faced with a big decision – I prayed, and I asked my wife. And after consulting those two higher powers, I decided to get in the race.
And everywhere I’d go, I’d get two questions. First, they’d ask, “Where’d you get that funny name, Barack Obama?” Because people just couldn’t pronounce it. They’d call me “Alabama,” or they’d call me “Yo Mama.” And I’d tell them that my father was from Kenya, and that’s where I got my name. And my mother was from Kansas, and that’s where I got my accent from.
And the second thing people would ask me was, “You seem like a nice young man. You’ve done all this great work. You’ve been a community organizer, and you teach law school, you’re a civil rights attorney, you’re a family man – why would you wanna go into something dirty and nasty like politics?”
And I understand the question, and the cynicism. We all understand it.
We understand it because we get the sense today that politics has become a business and not a mission. In the last several years, we have seen Washington become a place where keeping score of who’s up and who’s down is more important than who’s working on behalf of the American people.
We have been told that our mounting debts don’t matter, that the economy is doing great, and so Americans should be left to face their anxiety about rising health care costs and disappearing pensions on their own.
We’ve been told that climate change is a hoax, that our broken schools cannot be fixed, that we are destined to send millions of dollars a day to Mideast dictators for their oil. And we’ve seen how a foreign policy based on bluster and bombast can lead us into a war that should’ve never been authorized and never been waged.
And when we try to have an honest debate about the crises we face, whether it’s on the Senate floor or a Sunday talk show, the conversation isn’t about finding common ground, it’s about finding someone to blame. We’re divided into Red States and Blue States, and told to always point the finger at somebody else – the other party, or gay people, or immigrants.
For good reason, the rest of us have become cynical about what politics can achieve in this country, and as we’ve turned away in frustration, we know what’s filled the void. The lobbyists and influence-peddlers with the cash and the connections – the ones who’ve turned government into a game only they can afford to play.
They write the checks and you get stuck with the bills, they get the access while you get to write a letter, they think they own this government, but we’re here to tell them it’s not for sale. People tell me I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I promise you this – I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change. I’m running for President because the time for the can’t-do, won’t-do, won’t-even-try style of politics is over. It’s time to turn the page. There is an awakening taking place in America today. From New Hampshire to California, from Texas to Iowa, we are seeing crowds we’ve never seen before; we’re seeing people showing up to the very first political event of their lives.
They’re coming because they know we are at a crossroads right now. Because we are facing a set of challenges we haven’t seen in a generation – and if we don’t meet those challenges, we could end up leaving our children a world that’s a little poorer and a little meaner than we found it.
And so the American people are hungry for a different kind of politics – the kind of politics based on the ideals this country was founded upon. The idea that we are all connected as one people. That we all have a stake in one another.
It’s what I learned as a state Senator in Illinois. That you can turn the page on old debates; that it’s possible to compromise so long as you as you never compromise your principles; and that so long as we’re willing to listen to each other, we can assume the best in people instead of the worst.
That’s how we were able to reform a death penalty system that sent 13 innocent people to death row. That’s how we were able to give health insurance to 20,000 more children who needed it. That’s how we gave $100 million worth of tax cuts to working families in Illinois. And that’s how we passed the first ethics reform in twenty-five years.
We have seen too many campaigns where our problems are talked to death. Where ten-point plans are crushed under the weight of the same old politics once the election’s over. Where experience in Washington doesn’t always translate to results for the American people.
And so if we do not change our politics – if we do not fundamentally change the way Washington works – then the problems we’ve been talking about for the last generation will be the same ones that haunt us for generations to come.
We must find a way to come together in this country – to realize that the responsibility we have to one another as Americans is greater than the pursuit of any ideological agenda or corporate bottom line. Democrats of California, it’s time to turn the page.
It’s time to turn the page on health care – to bring together unions and businesses, Democrats and Republicans, and to let the insurance and drug companies know that while they get a seat at the table, they don’t get to buy every chair.
When I am president, I will sign a universal health care law by the end of my first term. My plan will cover the uninsured by letting people buy into the same kind of health care plan that members of Congress give themselves. It will bring down costs by investing in information technology, and preventative care, and by stopping the drug companies from price-gouging when patients need their medicine.
It will help business and families shoulder the burden of catastrophic care so that an illness doesn’t lead to a bankruptcy. And it will save the average family a thousand dollars a year on their premiums. We can do this.
It’s time to turn the page on education – to move past the slow decay of indifference that says some schools can’t be fixed and some kids just can’t learn.
As President, I will launch a campaign to recruit and support hundreds of thousands of new teachers across the country, because the most important part of any education is the person standing in the front of the classroom. It’s time to treat teaching like the profession it is – paying teachers what they deserve and working with them – not against them – to develop the high standards we need. We can do this.
It’s time to turn the page on energy – to break the political stalemate that’s kept our fuel efficiency standards in the same place for twenty years; to tell the oil and auto industries that they must act, not only because their future’s at stake, but because the future of our country and our planet is at stake as well.
As President, I will institute a cap-and-trade system that would dramatically reduce carbon emissions and auction off emissions credits that would generate millions of dollars to invest in renewable sources of energy. I’ll put in place a low-carbon fuel standard like you have here in California that will take 32 million cars’ worth of pollution off the road. And I’d raise the fuel efficiency standards for our cars and trucks because we know we have the technology to do it and it’s time we did. We can do this.
We can do all of this. But most of all, we have to turn the page on this disaster in Iraq and restore our standing in the world. I am proud that I stood up in 2002 and urged our leaders not to take us down this dangerous path. And so many of you did the same, even when it wasn’t popular to do so.
We knew back then this war was a mistake. We knew back then that it was dangerous diversion from the struggle against the terrorists who attacked us on September 11th. We knew back then that we could find ourselves in an occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.
But the war went forward. And now, we’ve seen those consequences and we mourn for the dead and wounded.
I was in New Hampshire the other week when a woman told me that her nephew was leaving for Iraq. And as she started telling me how much she’d miss him and how worried she was about him, she began to cry.
And she said to me, “I can’t breathe. I want to know, when am I going to be able to breathe again?”
It is time to let this woman know she can breathe again. It is time to put an end this war.
The majority of both houses of the American Congress – Republicans and Democrats – just passed a bill that would do exactly that. It’s a bill similar to the plan I introduced in January that says there is no military solution to this civil war – that the last, best hope to pressure the warring factions to reach a political settlement is to let the Iraqi government know that America will not be there forever – to begin a phased withdrawal with the goal of bringing all combat brigades home by March 31st, 2008.
We are one signature away from ending this war. If the President refuses to sign it, we will go back and find the sixteen votes we need to end this war without him. We will turn up the pressure on all those Republican Congressmen and Senators who refuse to acknowledge the reality that the American people know so well, and we will get this done. We will bring our troops home. It’s time to turn the page.
It’s time to show the world that America is still the last, best hope of Earth. This President may occupy the White House, but for the last six years the position of leader of the free world has remained open. It’s time to fill that role once more. Whether it’s terrorism or climate change, global AIDS or the spread of weapons of mass destruction, America cannot meet the threats of this new century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America. It’s time for us to lead.
It’s time for us 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 runs prisons which lock people away without ever telling them why they are there or what they are charged with. We are not a country which preaches compassion to others while we allow bodies to float down the streets of a major American city.
That is not who we are.
We are America. 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.
I was down in Selma, Alabama awhile back, and we were celebrating the 42nd anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was a march of ordinary Americans – maids and cooks, preachers and Pullman porters who faced down fire hoses and dogs, tear gas and billy clubs when they tried to get to the other side. But every time they were stopped, every time they were knocked down, they got back up, they came back, and they kept on marching. And finally they crossed over. It was called Bloody Sunday, and it was the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement.
When I came back from that celebration, people would say, oh, what a wonderful celebration of African-American history that must have been. And I would say, no, that wasn’t African-American history. That was a celebration of American history – it’s our story.
And it reminds us of a simple truth – a truth I learned all those years ago as an organizer in Chicago – a truth you carry by being here today – that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.
I am confident about my ability to lead this country. But I also know that I can’t do it without you. There will be times when I get tired, there will be times when I make a mistake – it’s true, talk to my wife, she’ll tell you. But this campaign that we’re running has to be about your hopes, and your dreams, and what you will do. Because there are few obstacles that can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.
That’s how change has always happened – not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up.
And that’s exactly how you and I will change this country. California, if you want a new kind of politics, it’s time to turn the page.
If you want an end to the old divisions, and the stale debates, and the score-keeping and the name-calling, it’s time to turn the page.
If you want health care for every American and a world-class education for all our children; if you want energy independence and an end to this war in Iraq; if you believe America is still that last, best hope of Earth, then it’s time to turn the page.
It’s time to turn the page for hope. It’s time to turn the page for justice. It is time to turn the page and write the next chapter in the great American story. Let’s begin the work. Let’s do this together. Let’s turn that page. Thank you.