REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT AND THE VICE PRESIDENT IN ANNOUNCEMENT OF LABOR EXECUTIVE ORDERS AND MIDDLE CLASS WORKING FAMILIES TASK FORCE
The White House, East Room
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you for joining us today. It is a privilege to be among this diverse group representing labor unions and not for profit organizations, advocates for our business community. And I am pleased to be here with our outstanding Vice President, Joe Biden. (Applause.) I see some of my colleagues -- got some senators here, we got a governor, at least one of them I see over here, members of Congress and a lot of good friends and Cabinet members. So this is an outstanding gathering.
Today we learned that our economy shrank in the last three months of 2008 by 3.8 percent. That's the worst contraction in close to three decades. This isn't just an economic concept, this is a continuing disaster for America's working families. As worrying as these numbers are, it's what they mean for the American people that really matters and that's so alarming: families making fewer purchases, businesses making fewer investments, employers sustaining fewer jobs.
The recession is deepening and the urgency of our economic crisis is growing. Yesterday we reached a new threshold: the highest number of Americans receiving unemployment benefits on record. Every day it seems there's another round of layoffs, another round of jobs lost and families' lives turned upside down. And we lost 2.6 million jobs last year, and another 2.8 million people who need and want full-time work had to settle for part-time employment. So this is a difficult moment.
But I believe if we act boldly and swiftly it can be an American moment, when we work through our differences together and overcome our divisions to face this crisis. While our GDP may have grown smaller, it's undiminished when it comes to our innovative spirit, our work ethic, our values and our resolve and resilience as Americans.
For two years I traveled across this country. I met thousands of people -- hard-working middle-class Americans who shared with me their hopes and their hardships. These are the men and the women who form the backbone of our economy. The most productive workers in the world. They do their jobs. They build the products and provide the services that drive America's prosperity.
And these are the folks who approached me on the campaign trail, in union halls, in church basements and coffee shops and VFW halls and shop floors, and they told me about jobs lost and homes foreclosed, hours cut, and benefits slashed -- the costs of life slowly slipping away and chipping away at the hopes of affording college or a new home or retirement. It's like the American Dream in reverse. These are the families who have by no fault of their own been hit hardest as the economy has worsened.
They need action -- now. They need us to pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan -- a plan that will save or create more than 3 million jobs over the next few years and make investments that will serve our economy for years to come. We intend to double our capacity to generate renewable energy while redoubling our efforts to use energy more efficiently. We will rebuild crumbling roads and retrofit aging transit systems and renovate 10,000 schools for our children, and we'll bring health care into the 21st century by computerizing medical records, counting -- saving countless lives and billions of dollars.
I'm pleased that the House has acted with the urgency necessary in passing this plan. I hope we can strengthen it further in the Senate. What we can't do is drag our feet or delay much longer. The American people expect us to act, and that's exactly what I intend to do as President of the United States.
But passing my plan is not the end, it's just the beginning of what we have to do. We know we need to create jobs, but not just any jobs. We need to create jobs that sustain families and sustain dreams; jobs in new and growing industries; jobs that don't feel like a dead end, but a way forward and a way up; jobs that will foster a vibrant and growing middle class, because the strength of our economy can be measured directly by the strength of our middle class. And that's why I've created the Task Force on Middle Class Working Families, and why I've asked my Vice President, Joe Biden, to lead it.
There's no one who brings to bear the same combination of personal experience and substantive expertise. Joe has come a long way and has achieved a great deal, but he has never forgotten his roots as a working-class kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania. He has lived the American Dream, and lived and worked to make that dream a reality for others.
This task force will bring together my economic advisors and members of my Cabinet to focus on policies that will really benefit the middle class, policies to create jobs that pay well and provide a chance to save, to create jobs in growing fields and train workers to fill them, to ensure that workplaces are safe and fair as well as flexible for employees juggling the demands of work and family.
And I think I should note that when I talk about the middle class, I'm talking about folks who are currently on the middle class, but also people who aspire to be in the middle class. We're not forgetting the poor. They are going to be front and center, because they, too, share our American Dream. And we're going to make sure that they can get a piece of that American Dream if they're willing to work for it.
I also believe that we have to reverse many of the policies towards organized labor that we've seen these last eight years, policies with which I've sharply disagreed. I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem, to me it's part of the solution. (Applause.) We need to level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests, because we know that you cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement. We know that strong, vibrant, growing unions can exist side by side with strong, vibrant and growing businesses. This isn't a either/or proposition between the interests of workers and the interests of shareholders. That's the old argument. The new argument is that the American economy is not and has never been a zero-sum game. When workers are prospering, they buy products that make businesses prosper. We can be competitive and lean and mean and still create a situation where workers are thriving in this country.
So I'm going to be signing three executive orders designed to ensure that federal contracts serve taxpayers efficiently and effectively. One of these orders is going to prevent taxpayer dollars from going to reimburse federal contractors who spend money trying to influence the formation of unions. We will also require that federal contractors inform their employees of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Federal labor laws encourage collective bargaining, and employees should know their rights to avoid disruption of federal contracts.
And I'm issuing an order so that qualified employees will be able to keep their jobs even when a contract changes hands. We shouldn't deprive the government of these workers who have so much experience in making government work.
We need to keep our energy focused and our eyes fixed on the real measure of our prosperity -- the success of folks that Joe and I have met across this country who are working hard each and every day. I'm eager to see this task force in action. I'm eager to discuss its findings with Joe Biden. And working with the people in this room, I intend to get this economy on track, to create the jobs of the future, and to make sure that the American people can achieve their dreams not just for themselves but for their children.
So with that, let me introduce our chair of our Middle Class Task Force, my Vice President and the pride of Delaware -- (laughter) -- Joe Biden. (Applause.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, Mr. President, for that generous introduction. It's a pleasure to see all of you here today, as we announce this task force on our -- on the middle class.
Folks, I want to thank the outstanding individuals, many of whom are in this room: members of Congress, members of labor, members of business, interest groups that are here representing non-profits. I want to thank you all for being here today. It's good to see so many of my friends from -- our friends from organized labor, as well. Welcome back to the White House. (Laughter and applause.)
You know, one of the things that all of us in this room know is those very leaders, Mr. President, of organized labor have dedicated their lives to the thing that this task force is about -- making the lives of working people better. I would argue there would be no middle class were there not a organized labor movement that started 150 years ago.
And I'm proud that this administration, with your leadership, Mr. President, will be allied in that effort. And I want to thank you for convening and empowering this task force, Mr. President. In doing so, I think you send a very, very clear signal to everyone in this country who goes to work every day without expecting acclaim or big bonuses -- the people that President Teddy Roosevelt referred to as the "doers of deeds," the men and women who teach our children, who protect our neighborhoods, who build our homes, who staff our hospitals, work on the line -- all those people.
To this, the great American middle class, you have simply said, we're on your side again. And it's just -- it's that basic, from my perspective.
And so for too many years we've had a White House that has failed to put the American middle class at the front and center of our economic policies. And even when our economy -- even when our economy was growing, there was a -- and it was very solid ground on which to build -- the middle class found itself slipping. Productivity went up almost 20 percent between 2000 and 2007, yet income for working families fell by $2,000 a year. And now with our economy struggling, the pain is significantly worse. Trillions of dollars in home equity, retirement savings, college savings, gone. And every day, more and more Americans are losing their jobs. And for many people, the work of a lifetime has literally disappeared. It's cruel, but it's also -- it's threatening to sap the spirit of the country.
Mr. President, you said it best in your inaugural address, in my view. You said -- and I quote -- "A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous." Quite simply, a strong middle class, in our view, equals a strong America.
Clearly, our most urgent task is to stabilize the economy, which the President is well on his way to putting in place the building blocks to do that and to put us on the path to recovery. But on top of this urgent task, though, we have an important long-term task, as well. We need to make sure that the benefits of a strengthening economy, which we're looking forward to, reach the people responsible for generating that strength. That's why President Obama has asked me to lead this task force, to bring together those Cabinet members who have the greatest impact on the well-being of the middle class in our country, as well as seek the opinion and ideas of others in society as to how we can best accomplish these notions.
We'll be looking at everything from access to college at the Department of Education, to business development at the Department of Commerce, to child care and elder care with Health and Human -- excuse me, Health and Human Services, to restoring the balance in the workplace with the Department of Labor, and restoring labor's place with the Department of Labor.
And so this task force I think reflects a critical insight by President Obama that we have to bring together the knowledge, the talent and the skill from the people across the whole range of government to best tackle these problems, and as I said, and invite the private sector to offer the best ideas available to help us do that.
With this task force, we have a single, highly visible group with one single goal: to raise the living standards of the people who are the backbone of this country -- the middle class. Because when they, in fact -- their standard is raised, the poor do better. Every -- and by the way, the wealthy do better, as well. Everyone does better.
So today, with the signing of the President's executive orders, which he's about to sign, we begin the work of the task force. And I want to announce that our executive director will be Dr. Jared Bernstein, a man who has dedicated a substantial portion of his professional career and his writing and studying to the economic issues that most impact on the lives of middle class families.
We're also launching a website today. The website will be astrongmiddleclass.gov. Now, this website won't just be a source of information. Hopefully it will be a place for conversation, as well. We invite Americans to interact with us in the ideas
that they have. It will be a place where people can find out not only what we're doing, but also share their ideas and experiences with us. We'll also be listening to people's stories, as we hold meetings all across the country and during the life of this task force as we prepare a final report.
And our first task force meeting will be held in -- on February 27th in Philadelphia. The focus of that meeting will be green jobs -- those jobs that pay well, can't be outsourced, and will help us move toward a cleaner, more self-sufficient energy future. Each month to follow, we will focus on a different concern in a different part of the country: how to make retirement more secure; child and elder care, how to make it affordable; improving workplace safety; getting the cost of college within reach of the vast majority of the American people; help weary parents juggle family and work; and create the jobs for the future.
At the end of the day, it will be our responsibility to offer to the President and to the nation clear and specific steps that we need to take to meet these and other concerns. This task force, I might add, which coming out of the Vice President's Office will be a bit unique, will be fully transparent -- totally transparent. (Laughter.) We are going to consult. We are going to consult -- (applause.) We are going to consult openly -- openly and publically with outside groups, who can help us develop the most far-reaching, imaginative solutions to help us solve these problems and create the outcome we're looking for.
And we'll put all the material from our meetings and any report we produce up on the website. None of this will happen behind closed doors. We want the American people engaged. We want them engaged in the outset.
There are some people who say -- that are somewhat down on the future economic prosperities -- prospects of the country, who say that we've entered an age when only a few people can prosper and everyone else has to fall behind. We do not accept that proposition. There has never been, and that has never ever been a part of America's story, at any part in our history. And the President and I are determined that it will not be any part of America's story today.
The American story is one of expanding opportunity and shared prosperity. It's a story about the future; it's never about the past. It's a story in which we put the middle class families that are the heart of the nation at the heart of our efforts, because it drives everything else. Where I grew up, as the President referenced, not only in Scranton but in Wilmington, Delaware, like many, many of you, there are an awful lot of proud women and men who still reside in those neighborhoods. They don't want the government to solve their problem. But at a minimum, they wanted the government to understand their problem -- to understand their problem, be cognizant of the problem. They just wanted leaders who not only understood their problem, but leaders who would offer them policies that gave them nothing more than a chance, nothing more than a chance to make it.
And I'm not exaggerating when I say that. I'm not -- you all know that, that's all they want, is a chance. They wanted leaders like you, Mr. President. They wanted leaders like those who are gathered here in this room. And they have wanted and want today a White House who's ready to say that the measure of our success will be whether the middle class once again shares in the economic success and prosperity of the nation.
And so, Mr. President, I thank you for giving me this responsibility. I look forward to working with the folks in this room and many others. And I also look forward, Mr. President, to you signing these executive orders as the first order of business. (Applause.)
(The executive orders were signed.)
THE PRESIDENT: I'm getting good at this. (Laughter and applause.)