Remarks of U.S. Senator Barack Obama at the Knox College Commencement
Good morning President Taylor, the Board of Trustees, faculty, parents, family, friends, and the Class of 2005. Congratulations on your graduation, and thank you for allowing me the honor to be a part of it.
Well, it's been about six months now since you sent me to Washington as your U.S. Senator. And for those of you muttering under your breath "I didn't send you anywhere," that's ok too - maybe we'll hold a little Pumphandle after the ceremony and I can change your mind for next time.
So far it's been a fascinating journey. Each time I walk onto the Senate floor, I'm reminded of the history, for good and for ill, that has been made there. But there have also been a few surreal moments. For example, I remember the day before I was sworn in, when we decided to hold a press conference in our office. Now, here I am, 99th in seniority - which, I was proud wasn't dead last until I found out that the only reason we aren't 100th is because Illinois is bigger than Colorado. So I'm 99th in seniority, and the reporters are all cramped into our tiny transition office that was somewhere near the Janitor's closet in the basement of the Dirksen Building. It's my first day in the building, I hadn't taken one vote, I hadn't introduced one bill, I hadn't even sat down at my desk, and this very earnest reporter asks:
"Senator Obama, what's your place in history?"
I laughed out loud. Place in history? I thought he was kidding! At that point, I wasn't even sure the other Senators would save me a place at the cool lunch table.
But as I was thinking about what words I could share with this class, about what's next, what's possible, and what opportunities lay ahead, I think it's not a bad question to ask yourselves:
"What will be my place in history?"
In other eras, across distant lands, this is a question that could be answered with relative ease and certainty. As a servant of Rome, you knew you would spend your life forced to build somebody else's Empire. As a peasant in 11th Century China, you knew that no matter how hard you worked, the local warlord might take everything you had - and that famine might come knocking on your door any day. As a subject of King George, you knew that your freedom to worship and speak and build your own life would be ultimately limited by the throne.
And then, America happened.
A place where destiny was not a destination, but a journey to be shared and shaped and remade by people who had the gall, the temerity to believe that, against all odds, they could form "a more perfect union" on this new frontier.
And as people around the world began to hear the tale of the lowly colonists who overthrew an Empire for the sake of an idea, they came. Across the oceans and the ages, they settled in Boston and Charleston, Chicago and St. Louis, Kalamazoo and Galesburg, to try and build their own American Dream. This collective dream moved forward imperfectly - it was scarred by our treatment of native peoples, betrayed by slavery, clouded by the subjugation of women, shaken by war and depression. And yet, brick by brick, rail by rail, calloused hand by calloused hand, people kept dreaming, and building, and working, and marching, and petitioning their government, until they made America a land where the question of our place in history is not answered for us, but by us.
Have we failed at times? Absolutely. Will you occasionally fail when you embark on your own American journey? Surely. But the test is not perfection.
The true test of the American ideal is whether we are able to recognize our failings and then rise together to meet the challenges of our time. Whether we allow ourselves to be shaped by events and history, or whether we act to shape them. Whether chance of birth or circumstance decides life's big winners and losers, or whether we build a community where, at the very least, everyone has a chance to work hard, get ahead, and reach their dreams.
We have faced this choice before.
At the end of the Civil War, when farmers and their families began moving into the cities to work in the big factories that were sprouting up all across America, we had to decide: Do we do nothing and allow the captains of industry and robber barons to run roughshod over the economy and workers by competing to see who can pay the lowest wage at the worst working conditions?
Or do we try to make the system work by setting up basic rules for the market, and instituting the first public schools, and busting up monopolies, and letting workers organize into unions?
We chose to act, and we rose together.
When the irrational exuberance of the Roaring Twenties came crashing down with the stock market, we had to decide: do we follow the call of leaders who would do nothing, or the call of a leader who, perhaps because of his physical paralysis, refused to accept political paralysis?
We chose to act - regulating the market, putting people back to work, expanding bargaining rights to include health care and a secure retirement - and together we rose.
When World War II required the most massive homefront mobilization in history and we needed every single American to lend a hand, we had to decide: Do we listen to the skeptics who told us it wasn't possible to produce that many tanks and planes?
Or, did we build Roosevelt's Arsenal of Democracy and grow our economy even further by providing our returning heroes with a chance to go to college and own their own home?
Again, we chose to act, and again, we rose together.
Today, at the beginning of this young century, we have to decide again. But this time, it's your turn to choose.
Here in Galesburg, you know what this new challenge is. You've seen it.
You see it when you drive by the old Maytag plant around lunchtime and no one walks out anymore. I saw it during the campaign when I met the union guys who use to work at the plant and now wonder what they're gonna do at 55-years-old without a pension or health care; when I met the man who's son needs a new liver but doesn't know if he can afford when the kid gets to the top of the transplant list.
It's as if someone changed the rules in the middle of the game and no one bothered to tell these people. And, in reality, the rules have changed.
It started with technology and automation that rendered entire occupations obsolete -when was the last time anybody here stood in line for the bank teller instead of going to the ATM, or talked to a switchboard operator? Then companies like Maytag being able to pick up and move their factories to some Third World country where workers are a lot cheaper than they are in the U.S.
As Tom Friedman points out in his new book, The World Is Flat, over the last decade or so, these forces - technology and globalization - have combined like never before. So that while most of us have been paying attention to how much easier technology has made our lives - sending emails on blackberries, surfing the web on our cell phones, instant messaging with friends across the world - a quiet revolution has been breaking down barriers and connecting the world's economies. Now, businesses not only have the ability to move jobs wherever there's a factory, but wherever there's an internet connection.
Countries like India and China realized this. They understood that now they need not just be a source of cheap labor or cheap exports. They can compete with us on a global scale. The one resource they still needed was a skilled, educated labor force. So they started schooling their kids earlier, longer, and with a greater emphasis on math, science, and technology, until their most talented students realized they don't have to immigrate to America to have a decent life - they can stay right where they are.
The result? China is graduating four times the number of engineers that the United States is graduating. Not only are those Maytag employees competing with Chinese and Indonesian and Mexican workers, now you are too. Today, accounting firms are emailing your tax returns to workers in India who will figure them out and send them back as fast as any worker in Indiana could.
When you lose your luggage in a Boston airport, tracking it down may involve a call to an agent in Bangalore, who will find it by making a phone call to Baltimore. Even the Associated Press has outsourced some of their jobs to writers all over the world who can send in a story with the click of a mouse.
As British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said, in this new economy, "talent is 21st century wealth." If you've got the skills, you've got the education, and you have the opportunity to upgrade and improve both, you'll be able to compete and win anywhere. If not, the fall will be further and harder than ever before.
So what do we do about this? How does America find our way in this new, global economy? What will our place in history be?
Like so much of the American story, once again, we face a choice. Once again, there are those who believe that there isn't much we can do about this as a nation. That the best idea is to give everyone one big refund on their government - divvy it up into individual portions, hand it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their own health care, their own retirement plan, their own child care, education, and so forth.
In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for it - Social Darwinism, every man and woman for him or herself. It's a tempting idea, because it doesn't require much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say to those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford - tough luck. It allows us to say to the Maytag workers who have lost their job - life isn't fair. It let's us say to the child born into poverty - pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And it is especially tempting because each of us believes that we will always be the winner in life's lottery, that we will be Donald Trump, or at least that we won't be the chump that he tells: "Your fired!"
But there a problem. It won't work. It ignores our history. It ignores the fact that it has been government research and investment that made the railways and the internet possible. It has been the creation of a massive middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public schools - that has allowed all of us to prosper. Our economic dominance has depended on individual initiative and belief in the free market; but it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we're all in it together and everybody's got a shot at opportunity - that has produced our unrivaled political stability.
And so if we do nothing in the face of globalization, more people will continue to lose their health care. Fewer kids will be able to afford this diploma you're about to receive.
More companies like United won't be able to provide pensions for their employees. And those Maytag workers will be joined in the unemployment line by any worker whose skill can be bought and sold on the global market.
Today, I'm here to tell you what most of you already know. This isn't us. This isn't how our story ends - not in this country. America is a land of big dreamers and big hopes.
It is this hope that has sustained us through revolution and civil war, depression and world war, a struggle for civil and social rights and the brink of nuclear crisis. And it is because of our dreamers that we have emerged from each challenge more united, more prosperous, and more admired than ever before.
So let's dream. Instead of doing nothing or simply defending 20th century solutions, let's imagine what we can do to give every American a fighting chance in the 21st century.
What if we prepared every child in America with the education and skills they need to compete in this new economy? If we made sure college was affordable for everyone who wanted to go? If we walked up to those Maytag workers and told them that there old job wasn't coming back, but that the new jobs will be there because of the serious job re-training and lifelong education that is waiting for them - the sorts of opportunities Knox has created with the strong future scholarship program?
What if no matter where you worked or how many times you switched jobs, you had health care and a pension that stayed with you always, so that each of us had the flexibility to move to a better job or start a new business?
And what if instead of cutting budgets for research and development and science, we fueled the genius and the innovation that will lead to the new jobs and new industries of the future?
Right now, all across America, there are amazing discoveries being made. If we supported these discoveries on a national level, if we committed ourselves to investing in these possibilities, just imagine what it could do for a town like Galesburg. Ten or twenty years down the road, that old Maytag plant could re-open its doors as an Ethanol refinery that turns corn into fuel.
Down the street, a biotechnology research lab could open that's on the cusp of discovering a cure for cancer. And across the way, a new auto company could be busy churning out electric cars. The new jobs created would be filled by American workers trained with new skills and a world-class education.
None of this will come easy. Every one of us will have to work more, read more, train more, think more. We will have to slough off bad habits - like driving gas guzzlers that weaken our ecomony and feed our enemies abroad. Our kids will have to turn off the TV sets and put away the video games and start hitting the books. We will have to reform institutions, like our public schools, that were designed for an earlier time. Republicans will have to recognize our collective responsibilities, even as Democrats recognize that we have to do more than just defend the old programs.
It won't be easy, but it can be done. It can be our future. We have the talent and the resources and the brainpower. But now we need the political will. We need a national commitment.
And we need you.
Now, no one can force you to meet these challenges. If you want, it will be pretty easy for you to leave here today and not give another thought to towns like Galesburg and the challenges they face. There is no community service requirement in the real world; no one's forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and go chasing after the big house, and the nice suits, and all the other things that our money culture says you can buy.
But I hope you don't. Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a poverty of ambition. It asks to little of yourself. You need to take up the challenges that we face as a nation and make them your own, not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all of those who helped you get to where you are, although you do have that debt. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although you do have that obligation. You need to take on the challenge because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential. And if we're willing to share the risks and the rewards this new century offers, it will be a victory for each of you, and for every American.
You're wondering how you'll do this. The challenges are so big. And it's seems so difficult for one person to make a difference.
But we know it can be done. Because where you're sitting, in this very place, in this town, it's happened before.
Nearly two centuries ago, before civil rights and voting rights, before Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, before all of that, America was stained with the sin of slavery. In the sweltering heat of southern plantations, men and women who looked like me would dream of the day they could escape the life of pain and servitude into which they were sold like cattle. And yet, year after year, as this moral cancer ate away at the American ideals of liberty and equality, the nation was silent.
But its people would not stay silent for long.
One by one, abolitionists emerged to tell their fellow Americans that this would not be our place in history. That this was not the America that had captured the imagination of so many around the world.
The resistance they met was fierce, and some paid with their lives. But they would not be deterred, and they soon spread out across the country to fight for their cause. One man from New York went west, all the way to the prairies of Illinois to start a colony.
And here in Galesburg, freedom found a home.
Here in Galesburg, the main depot for the Underground Railroad in Illinois, escaped slaves could freely roam the streets and take shelter in people's homes. And when their masters or the police would come for them, the people of this town would help the escape north, some literally carrying them in their arms.
Think about the risks that involved - if they were caught abetting these fugitives, they could have been jailed or lynched. It would have been so easy for these simple towns people to just turn the other way; to go on living their lives in a private peace.
And yet, they carried them. Why?
Perhaps it is because they knew that they were all Americans; that they were all brothers and sisters; and in the end, their own salvation would be forever linked to the salvation of this land they called home.
The same reason that a century later, young men and women your age would take a Freedom Ride down south, to work for the Civil Rights movement. The same reason that black women across the south chose to walk instead of ride the bus after a long days work doing other people's laundry, cleaning other people's kitchens.
Today, on this day of possibility, we stand in the shadow of a lanky, raw-boned man with little formal education who once took the stage at Old Main and told the nation that if anyone did not believe the American principles of freedom and equality were timeless and all-inclusive, they should go rip that page out of the Declaration of Independence.
My hope for all of you is that you leave here today with the will to keep these principles alive in your own life and the life of this country. They will be tested by the challenges of this new century, and at times we may fail to live up to them. But know that you have it within your power to try. That generations who have come before you faced these same fears and uncertainties in their own time. And that though our labor, and God's providence, and our willingness to shoulder each other's burdens, America will continue on its precious journey towards that distant horizon, and a better day.
Thank you, and congratulations on your graduation.