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Remarks by Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), Democratic Presidential Candidate, to the AFSCME 2007 National Leadership Conference

Location: Washington, DC


MR. MATTHEWS: And now it's my privilege to introduce our next candidate for president -- your next candidate for president, Senator Barack Obama.

SEN. OBAMA: (Cheers, applause.) Thank you. Thank you.

MR. MATTHEWS: Your opening statement, sir.

SEN. OBAMA: (Cheers and applause continuing.) Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Well, it's -- thank you. It's good to be back with AFSCME. (Cheers.) It is good to be back.

We have -- AFSCME, we have been fighting together for a very long time. We fought together when I first moved to Chicago as a community organizer to register 150,000 new voters to help Democrats get elected in 1992. We were together when I was in the state legislature to make sure that we raised the minimum wage and provide health insurance to folks who didn't have it, and made sure that workers had a right to organize. And since I've gotten in the United States Senate, we've been together on difficult fights, like the Resurrection organizing project in Chicago -- (cheers) -- and making sure we're doing something about executive pay.

So you and I, we've been working together for a very long time, but all of us know that we've got more work to do. We've got more work to do to make sure that every single American has decent, affordable, quality health care in this country. We can do it by the end of the next president's first term. By the end of my first term as president of the United States of America, we can make that happen.

We can make sure that instead of just slogans, no child left behind to leave the money behind, that we actually make certain that we've got the resources we need so that every child has the resources they need to succeed in this new global economy. We know that we've got to create an economy that is sharing the burdens and benefits of globalization to each and every person.

And part of that means that we make certain that every single individual who wants to join a union has a right to joint a union, can organize, can collectively bargain. We've got to get card check passed. (Cheers, applause.)

We've got to have an energy plan that stops sending $800 million dollars a day to some of the most hostile nations on Earth and melts the polar ice caps in the process. And it's going to be difficult for us to do that as long as we're spending $275 million a day on a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged, a war that you and I were opposed to from the start. It is time to bring our troops home. (Cheers, applause.)

So we've got a lot of work to do. But I am absolutely confident that we can make the changes that are needed, that we can turn the page and write a new chapter in American history, as long as each and every one of us are standing up together. This campaign can't just be about me. It can't just be about the presidential candidates. We've got to organize and travel around the country and build a movement for progressive change in this country. That's what I want to be a partner with you, to make that happen. Thank you very much. (Cheers, applause.)

MR. MATTHEWS: Senator Obama, you've said that this war in Iraq, about which everybody is concerned, is -- was wrong in its conception, not just badly carried out. That separates you from some of the other candidates. Explain why it was a bad idea to go into Iraq with the American army.

SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, we know that the case for weapons of mass destruction was overstated. And that became apparent once we got there, but many of us looking at the evidence ahead of time understood that there was not an imminent threat. More importantly there was a lack of judgment in recognizing that once we were in, it would be very difficult to get out.

The question was not whether we could overcome Saddam Hussein's army. The question was, what would happen once we were there? Could we win the peace? Would this enflame anti-American sentiment throughout the Middle East. And most importantly would it distract us from the necessary fight that we still have not finished in Afghanistan?

So we should not have gone in. Once we went in, we continued to make mistakes and blunders, and we have for the last four years. But look, what's done is done. We have no good options in Iraq left. We've got bad options and worse options.

The best option, I believe, is to make certain that we being a phase redeployment, that we're as careful getting out as we were careless getting in, but that we start bringing our troops home and send a signal to the Iraqi people, and most importantly to the factions that are still warring in Iraq. There is not going to be a military solution to the problems there. There are only political accommodations to be had.

And while we're at it, we should be talking to countries like Iran and Syria that are acting irresponsibly, in part because they think we can keep a lid on things. And as we let them know, they're going to have to take some responsibility; then I think we have the possibility of creating the kind of regional framework that allows us to scale back our commitments there and most importantly allows us to start bringing our troops home.

I am tired of meeting young women whose husbands are over there. I'm tired of meeting mothers who are crying on my shoulder at town hall meetings because their sons or daughters are not coming back. It is time for us to bring our troops home. (Cheers, applause.)

MR. MATTHEWS: Compare your world view about war and life and death, the big stuff, with the president's.

SEN. OBAMA: Well, the biggest problem with this president is that he seems to be driven by ideology as opposed to by facts. He doesn't seem to be concerned with what's happening on the ground; he has certain ideas, and he hopes that the world will conform to his ideas. And unfortunately over the last five years, they have not conformed to his ideas.

You know, we heard that we would be greeted as liberators; that did not happen in Iraq. We heard that this would only take a few months and it would only cost us a few billion dollars, and it didn't happen, and yet he stubbornly continues on the same course.

That is not just true with respect to foreign policy; the same is true on domestic policy. When you are cutting taxes for folks who don't need it --


SEN. OBAMA: -- and weren't even asking for it at a time when we know that families all across the country are struggling trying to figure out, how do they fill up their gas tank, how do they save for their children's college education -- (applause) -- how do they pay for their health care, how do they save for retirement, there's a sense of unreality to the president that is disturbing.

And the fact is -- look, the problems we face are not easy. Let's take the situation on health care. I put forward a plan that says that we can provide high-quality coverage to all Americans by obtaining savings; making sure the children get regular checkups instead of having to go to the emergency room for treatable illnesses like asthma; making certain that we're applying technology to the health care system, so that we know that you -- when you go to the hospital, you don't have to fill out forms in triplicate and there are all sorts of errors that arise..

We can save $100 (billion) to $125 billion dollars a year and apply that to make sure that every single American has health care. But we're still going to need some additional resources to make that investment, which is why I've said let's roll back the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans. Let's make certain that those resources go to the people who need it. (Light applause.) If we do that, then I'm absolutely confident that we can solve that problem, the energy problem, our education problems.

But we're not going to solve it by pretending that issues of poverty and struggle among working families are just going to go away magically because the stock market is going up.

MR. MATTHEWS: So much of what you say just grabs people like me, because it sounds like Bobby Kennedy. It sounds like the '60s at its absolute best. (Whoops, applause.)

And at the same time, you say we shouldn't fight those old fight(s) -- what was -- just one personal question here: what was wrong with those old fights? What was wrong with fighting about civil rights and war and peace? Aren't those good fights to fight?

SEN. OBAMA: Oh, listen, the -- everybody at AFSCME and Henry Bayer and Roberta Lynch and the folks at -- in Illinois AFSCME, they know I like a good fight. (Cheers.) I don't mind a good fight.

The question is, how can we create a majority consensus in this country to actually win some of these fights? And what I've argued is that we're going to have to win some independents. We've got a lot of disaffected Republicans. After six years, they -- George Bush has actually been a good advertisement for the Democratic Party. (Laughter, applause.) And we've got a whole bunch of folks who are starting to ask some questions and say to themselves: How do we move this country in a new direction, and how do we unify, instead of divide? How do we create a politics that's based on hope instead of based on fear?

And that means that we've got to reach out to some folks who may not seem like natural allies to us but actually are hungry for something new. And what I've seen as I've traveled around the country -- you meet independents, you meet Republicans. When you talk to them, it turns out that they want a return to common sense in our politics, and they don't want to see just arguing and squabbling over little things. They don't want a "gotcha!" kind of politics. What they're looking -- are some big ideas, but also the capacity to pull people together around a larger purpose.

You know, I mentioned the issue of energy. The fact of the matter is that we can solve our energy problems both at the pump, in terms of our foreign policy, and our environment, but we're going to have to come together to take some difficult steps.

We've got an energy bill right now in the Senate and we can't even get an increase in fuel efficiency standards. If we increase fuel efficiency standards to 40, 45 miles a gallon, we would have to import zero oil from the Middle East. And if we import zero oil from the Middle East, that means that gas prices are going to go down at the pump and it means our environment is going to improve. That is not a Republican or a Democratic issue, that's an American issue that we should be able to solve right here and right now. (Cheers, applause.)

But let me just say one last thing about what we can't compromise on. We can't compromise on a progressive vision that says if you are able and willing to work, you should be able to find a job that pays a living wage. We should not compromise on retirement security for our senior citizens. We should not compromise on issues of racial equality and gender equality. We should not compromise on the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain to improve their standing in life. We shouldn't compromise on the idea that every child should get a decent education; it shouldn't just be a slogan.

So there are some things that are worth fighting for, and if people disagree and we can't persuade them, then we've just got to beat them, and that's what we're going to do in this next election. (Cheers, applause.)

MR. MATTHEWS: The Democratic Party -- and you're running for the nomination of the Democratic Party -- have had sort of a split history. There's traditional liberalism, with the major role of government and to some extent protectionism in the last 50 years or so; and then there's this -- the Bill Clinton approach, the Third Way, I think he called it, that people around him called it, where they had -- they were for NAFTA, for helping to balance the budget, welfare reform -- he signed that very controversial bill in '96, as you know. Are you going to be like that if you get in office or are you going to be more like a traditional Hubert Humphrey, if you will, Democrat?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, listen, I love Hubert Humphrey, but he didn't win the presidency, so I'm not going to be like that. (Laughter, cheers.) But look. We -- as I just indicated, there are some core values that we have as Democrats that we can't compromise and I will not compromise. But I am open to all kinds of good ideas as long as they're making the lives of ordinary people better.

So let's talk about trade, for example. I believe in trade. I think trade can grow our economy and improve the lives of ordinary people. It can create lower costs for consumers and for businesses. Those are things we should want to pursue. We should want to make the lives of other people in other countries better because that's good for our security.

But when I see trade agreements that are consistently structured on behalf of corporations, that don't have labor agreements, that don't have environmental standards, that are not enforced, so that countries like China are manipulating currency to make goods that are shipped into the United States cheaper but our goods that are made by American workers more expensive, then we don't have a level playing field.

And it's particularly frustrating when many of those folks who are manufacturing in China are actually U.S. companies that made a decision: We don't want U.S. unions; we want to strip health care and retirement security benefits, and so we're going to move over there and ship back to here.

So what I say when it comes to trade, and this is true on many other issues, is, my criteria is, does it help ordinary people gain a living wage, have the kind of health care that they need, have the kind of retirement benefits that they need? And I think we can create those kind of trade agreements. I think we can create a trade agreement that has strong environmental standards, strong labor standards, that is enforced. I think we can have a Department of Labor that actually understands, it's the Department of Labor and not the Department of Management. (Cheers, applause.) I think we can have a president who is willing, from the Oval Office, to talk about unions and say, unions are a good thing, and will sign the Employee Free -- the free card -- there is no reason that we can't sign the Employee Free Choice Act, and the next president has the opportunity to do that. That's going to be me, and I look forward to signing that and making sure that AFSCME can organize people all across the country. (Cheers, applause.)

MR. MATTHEWS: Your closing remarks, Senator.


SEN. OBAMA: Well -- (laughs) -- no, I'm not going to talk about Halliburton.

I'm going to talk about the American promise. You know, I have been traveling all across the country now for the last four or five months, and it's been amazing to see the enthusiasm and the energy all across the country.

I mean, we've had enormous rallies -- 20,000 people in Atlanta, 20,000 people in Austin, 12,000 people in Oakland, California. (Applause.) And I would like to say that it was all about our campaign, but it's not. When you look at the faces of people who are coming out from every walk of life -- black folks and white folks and Asian folks and Latinos and gay and straight and old and young -- what they are looking for is a new kind of politics that's not timid, that's not small, it's not divisive.


SEN. OBAMA: It's not simply based on trying to get power, but is also based on how do we create the kind of America that all of us dream of, an America that is true to our deepest ideals and our deepest values. And I am confident in my capacity to lead this country in that direction. I've done it in the state legislature, I'm doing it in the United States Senate. I know where we need to go. I know we can create a health care system that works for all people and saves us money. I know we can create an energy policy that is good for our security and our environment and our economy. I know we can create an education system investing in early childhood education, and paying teachers more and giving them the tools they need so our children can succeed. (Applause.) I know we can bring an end to this war in Iraq and restore America's prestige around the world. But I can't do it by myself. I can only do it with you.


SEN. OBAMA: If all of you see this campaign as a vehicle for your hope and your dreams, if you are willing to organize a movement with me around the country, I'm absolutely convinced we will not just win an election, but we will transform this country! (Cheers.) Thank you very much, AFSCME. I love you guys. Thank you! (Continued cheers, applause.)


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