Remarks by the President at Organizing for Action Event

By:  Barack Obama II
Date: March 13, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, everybody. (Applause.) Hello, hello. Thank you. Everybody have a seat.

Well, it's good to see all of you. I missed you. (Laughter.) Let me first of all thank Jim and Jon for organizing this. I want to thank all of you. I've got a bunch of friends in this room, people who have supported me even before I ran for President -- new friends, old friends, everybody here in it for the right reasons, folks who care deeply about this country and want to see us continue to move forward.

I said in 2008 -- and I'm pretty sure I repeated in 2012 -- that you run elections not simply to get elected. You run elections to have an opportunity to deliver on behalf of the American people. And the central premise of our campaign was always that this great country of ours is built on some foundational ideas, the most important of which is that anybody, anywhere, if they're willing to work hard and take responsibility, can succeed, and that if we've got a growing, thriving middle class and ladders of opportunity into the middle class, then nobody can beat us. That's the reason why we attracted immigrants from every corner of the world. That's the reason why our culture has always been viewed as dynamic and forward-looking -- not looking backwards, but consistently looking at that next horizon.

And the good news is that America in 2013 is poised, as it always has been, to succeed in ways that will make us the envy of the world if we make good policy decisions.

Since the election, since I saw many of you, we've made some progress on some fronts. We have seen that there's actually a bipartisan commitment -- at least in the Senate -- to potentially overhaul our immigration system so that we can continue to attract the best and brightest from around the world.

We are having terrific conversations around issues like cybersecurity and how we make sure that people's privacy and civil liberties are protected, but how we also protect our critical infrastructure and we make sure that the power of the Internet isn't used for ill as well as good.

We've seen some progress after the heartbreaking tragedy of Newtown, where people finally say we can do something about gun violence in a way that's respectful of the Second Amendment, but insists that no society should tolerate our children being gunned down, whether it's on the streets or in their classrooms.

And when it comes to issues of the budget, we've made progress in making sure that those at the very top are paying a greater share of what is required to run a government and fund basic research, move education forward.

And so we've seen some progress. And I laid out in both the inauguration and in the State of the Union a vision that doesn't require massive expansion of government, but does require us to do certain things that we can't do as well by ourselves -- whether it's providing early childhood education; whether it's investing in infrastructure so that our businesses can move goods and services more rapidly around the world; whether it's continuing to expand our manufacturing base and encouraging insourcing and not just outsourcing; whether it's making sure that we continue to be at the cutting edge of science and technology and research; or whether we are going to choose an energy future that doesn't just look at the energy sources of the past, but also looks at the energy sources of tomorrow and addresses climate change in a serious way.

And some people remarked that I looked -- I had a little more pep in my step in the inauguration and in the State of the Union. And I have to tell you it wasn't because I was off the campaign trail, because actually nothing energizes me like interacting with the American people day in and day out. The reason was I felt like this is a vision that, if we can get it implemented, really would allow America to take off.

Our economy is recovering. It is resilient. But it is not yet where it needs to be. We've got millions of people who are still out of work or underemployed. We've still got businesses that could be thriving if we were able to make sure that Washington doesn't engage in self-induced crises.

And so, we're going to have a lot of work to do. And let's face it -- there are still a lot of divisions and arguments here in Washington. And although we are doing our very best to reach out to the other side, and I think there's a genuine desire on the part of Republicans and Democrats to try to get something done, I think there is a weariness among membership in the Senate and in the House about this constant grind, day in, day out of argument and crises instead of productivity and movement forward.

The politics of a lot of these issues are tough, and members sometimes are scared about making the right decisions. And they're particularly scared because they're subject to pressure from special interest groups and well-financed organizations that may be pushing in a different direction.

And so, I think the idea here, the concept is, we've got 20 million people who got involved in the campaign or close to it. We have 4 million people who actively contributed to the campaign in five-dollar and ten-dollar and 25-dollar increments. Now, a sizable portion of those just wanted dinner with George Clooney -- (laughter) -- but I think there was a large number of them that believed in our vision for the future as well.

And part of what Jim and Jon and I have spoken about is just how do we make sure that people stay involved? How do we make sure all those neighborhood groups are engaged, feel a sense of connection? We did not do as good of a job in 2008 as I would have hoped in making sure they still felt a part of the process.

And it's not just a matter of lobbying Congress. It's a matter of them taking ownership so that if we're setting up health care exchanges in their states, maybe they want to contact some friends in their -- or neighbors who don't have health care and say, here's something that might help you. If we've got a disaster like we had during Sandy, is that community built in that allows us to go out and immediately help relief efforts. Can we sustain and maintain the sense of citizenship that arose during the course of the campaign outside of a campaign structure, outside of the immediate, okay, we're trying to win this many votes in this many states, but can, instead, we activate people around an agenda.

I think here in Washington, this idea has been viewed with puzzle -- some both suspicion and people have been puzzled about what it is that we're trying to do. Because the usual idea is, well, this must just be a mechanism to try to win the next election in 2014. And what we've tried to explain to people is, is that, no, I actually just want to govern -- at least for a couple of years -- (laughter) -- but I also want to make sure that the voices of ordinary people are heard in the debates that are going to be taking place.

If you have a senator or a congressman in a swing district who is prepared to take a tough vote -- or what they consider to be a tough vote -- on immigration reform, or legislation around background checks for guns, I want to make sure that they feel supported and that they know that there are constituencies of theirs who agree with them, even if they may be getting a lot of pushback in that district. If we move aggressively on an issue like climate change -- that's not an easy issue for a lot of folks, because the benefits may be out in the future. And I want to make sure that a congressman, senator feels as if they've got the information and the grassroots network that's going to support them in that effort.

And so, that more than anything is what inspired this idea. What we want is to make sure that the voices of the people who put me here continue to be heard -- that they're not just heard during election time, that they're not just heard in terms of dollar solicitations, that we are helping to build or sustain a network of citizens who have a voice in the most critical debates that are going to be taking place over the next year, year and a half, and if it works, potentially beyond.

So that's part of the reason why I'm excited about this and why I'm so grateful that all of you are participating. One of the things I'm proudest of during the course of two campaigns where we raised an awful lot of money is that the people who got involved didn't ask me for stuff except to be true to my vision and true to our agenda.

And all of you represent, like it or not, a bunch of true believers who got involved and are still here after all the ups and downs of the campaign. Well, there are going to be ups and downs in terms of governing, as well. But if we do it well, then I'm confident that we can move strong immigration legislation through Congress. I'm confident that we can get common-sense gun safety legislation through Congress. I am confident that we can craft a budget that is responsible and reduces our deficit but also makes sure that we're investing in those things that we need to grow and that our basic social safety net is preserved. But I can't do that by myself.

So I'll just close with this comment. You remember during the campaign, at one point I was asked about gridlock in Washington, and I said one of the lessons I've learned in my first four years is that you can't change Washington from the inside. And some people took that as saying, oh, Obama's giving up -- no. That's what I've always claimed.

I've always said that I am representing people, and that change comes about because people are activated, people are involved. People shape the agenda. People determine the framework for debate. People let their members of Congress know what is that they believe. And when those voices are heard, you can't stop it. That's when change happens.

Well, what was true back in 2008 is just as true today. And what we don't want to do is repeat the mistake I think that I believe in 2008 we made where some of that energy just kind of dissipated and we were only playing an inside game, and I'm sitting in a room with a bunch of folks negotiating all the time, but those voices are no longer heard.

Over the last several weeks, the press here in Washington has been reporting about Obama's charm offensive. Well, the truth of the matter is all I've been doing is just calling up folks and trying to see if we can break through some of the gobbledygook of our politics here. And I do believe that -- at this juncture, one of the things I believe is that we've got to get members of Congress involved in these discussions, not just leadership. Because I think a lot of them feel as if they don't have the opportunity to break out of some of this partisan gridlock. And ironically, I actually think some of the leadership want their membership to create a permission structure. They don't like getting too far ahead of their leadership, so we're reaching out to these individual members so that they create a space where things can get done.

But the same principle applies doubly when it comes to the American people. And the only idea here that we're promoting is the notion that if the American people are speaking out, organized, activated, that may give space here in Washington to do the kind of work -- hopefully bipartisan work -- that's required. But in order to do that I'm going to need all your help.

I used to say that being friends with a politician is like perpetually having a kid in college, because you're writing checks all the time and it doesn't seem like the kid ever graduates. Well, I've graduated. (Laughter.) I've run my last campaign. But we're not done with the work that led me to run in the first place. And I'm hopeful that with your continued ideas and support, your voices, that we can continue to make progress over the next several years.

Thank you very much, everybody. (Applause.)