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Remarks by Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), Democratic Presidential Candidate, at the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department 2007 Conference

Location: Washington, DC


SEN. OBAMA: Hello, everybody!

Well, we are at that point where everything that needs to be said has been said, but not everybody's said it. (Laughter, applause.) I have to apologize in advance. We have a vote -- I think some of you know -- at noon. We were hoping to be able to get on a little bit earlier and so at this point I'm going to have to cut it a little short. But now that I think about it, I know that merits some applause from everybody. (Laughter, applause.)

I want to thank Ed and Sean (sp) and all the leadership who are up here. I want to thank my Chicago guys, Billy Height (sp) and Tom Villanova (sp). (Applause.) I appreciate you guys. You've been there with me every step of the way.

You know, it's been a little over a month since I announced that I was running for the presidency of the United States of America. And I stood in front of the old state capital in Springfield, Illinois. And I've got to admit I was a little nervous. I wasn't nervous because of the historical nature of the site where I was standing, where Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous speech saying, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." I wasn't nervous because I was taking this momentous step to run for the presidency -- although, obviously, it makes you humble and sober to think about it. But really, what I was nervous about that it was seven degrees that morning -- (laughter) -- and I was sure nobody was going to show up.

And I thought -- to my staff I said, "What happens when only my family and a couple of staff people are there? It's all going to be on C-SPAN and everybody's going to think I've got no support." And we had 17,000 people show up that morning on a Saturday morning. (Applause.) And they came from every which way. They flew in. They -- some of them lived close by in Springfield and walked to the site. And we took that crowd and we took that energy and we went to Iowa immediately after the announcement. And we went to Ames and Waterloo and Cedar Rapids. And everywhere we went we were seeing great crowds.

And I was especially happy, because the toughest thing about being in politics is being away from your family. And this time, though, it was a family affair. I had my wife with me, Michelle. My older daughter, Sasha -- older daughter, Malia, who's 8; younger daughter Sasha, who's 5; mother-in-law, godparents. We shipped some cousins in to play with the kids. So we're barreling down the highway and I go to check with my girls to see how they're doing. I said, "You guys doing okay?" They said, "Yeah, yeah, Daddy. We're doing great. This is fun. You can bring us along sometime." And they go back to doing what they were doing. Then they turned back to me and they said, "Daddy, what are we doing here again?" (Laughter.) Something about kids brings you down to earth.

But if I had had time to give them a full answer, what I would have said is that we're here because the country calls us. We're here because history beckons us. We're here because we face in this country some challenges that are as great as any generation has faced. And you know what those challenges are. Whenever I think about the reason that we are here -- not just the reason I'm running for president, but the reason that all of us gather together -- I think about a visit that I made to Galesburg, Illinois, a little bit east of the Mississippi near Quad Cities in Illinois.

I went to Galesburg a lot during my U.S. Senate campaign. And the first time I went it was because the Maytag plant that was there had decided to move down to Mexico; 1,600 jobs were being lost. And I remember sitting with seven or eight folks from the local union leadership. Most of them 40, 50 -- people who had devoted their entire lives to creating a quality product. And the leader of the union told me about the fact that they had been in negotiations with Maytag for years. They had given them wage and benefit concessions; that the state had given Maytag $10 million worth of tax breaks; that this was the most productive plant in the entire fleet of Maytag plants and that Maytag itself had made a profit; and that none of it had made a difference because they felt that they could make even more profits if they went down to Mexico.

And towards the end of the conversation, I had noticed a guy sitting in the corning who wasn't one of the guys who had worked at the Maytag plant. He was actually from a steel plant that had already closed. And he was sitting with his wife. And I asked him his name -- his name was Tim Wheeler -- and he said, "The thing I really worry about is I've got a son who needs a liver transplant. And I just got my pink slip and I've lost my health insurance, I can't afford COBRA and I don't know if Medicaid's going to cover it. And I will do anything to make sure my son's all right. I'll sell my house. I'll sell my car. I'll sell all my assets, but I'm still not sure if we're going to have enough." And as he spoke, his wife started to cry.

And wherever I go now, I always think about Tim Wheeler and his wife and his son. His son ultimately was able to get a transplant, thanks to some efforts of folks who were concerned about the family. But I tried to imagine what that must be like -- having your children vulnerable like that and not being able to take care of them. And it reminded me that we are at a point in this country where we are fighting two very different philosophies; two very different visions of what America is like.

On the one hand, you've got the vision that George Bush and this administration have represented for the last six years. And it's a very simple philosophy. It basically says, you're on your own. It says that in the midst of a changing economy, at a time when competition has never been greater, that if you happen to be a guy who worked all your life 20, 30 years and the plant moves down to Mexico and you have the rug pulled out from under you and suddenly you don't have health care benefits and you don't have pension benefits and your child gets sick, tough luck. You're on your own. If you're a child who didn't have the wisdom to be born to the right parents so you're in a poor neighborhood and the schools don't have enough resources, it's not our problem. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. If you happen to be a single mom who's trying to make ends meet, trying to figure out how to pay the rising energy bill, trying to fill up a gas tank that's costing 20, 30 bucks that you don't have and your child comes and says, I need some new school books and you don't have enough money, well, you know what? Life isn't fair.

It's an easy idea what's been peddled in America over the last six, seven years. It's the easiest idea in the world because it doesn't require much thought on the part of any of us. Basically, we just say, we're going to look after ourselves and we're not going to worry about anybody else. But there's always been a problem with that idea. It doesn't work. The history of America is premised on the fact that we as a country have always been stronger when another philosophy's in place. One that says we're all in this together. That no matter how difficult times get, if we are willing to see each other as brothers and sisters, that we're keepers of each other, that we're not strangers to each other, that in fact, we are able to create the kind of country that all of us believe in and all of us want.

In fact, it ignores the fact it's been government research and investment that's made the railways and the Internet work. It's been the creation of a massive middle class through decent wages and benefits and public schools that have allowed all of us to prosper. It's been the ability of working men and women to join together in unions that's allowed a rising tide to lift every boat.

Americans know this. We know the government can't solve all our problems -- and we don't want it to -- but we also know that there are some things that we can't do on our own. We know that there are some things that we do better together. We know that those words we hear in our churches and our synagogues and our mosques and our Sunday Schools to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be our brother's keeper and our sister's keeper -- that those words mean something and that we have to put them into action; that we have individual responsibilities, but we also have collective responsibilities to each other.

So those are the choices that are before us today. And I think many of the speakers have talked about these choices.

The question is, are we able to muster the political will, the sense of urgency to meet these challenges as a generation. I think we are, and I think that's what the building trades is all about. Everybody here believes that people who are working full-time should be able to get paid a living wage, should have decent benefits. That there's no reason why we should be able to create a situation in which senior citizens are having to think about whether they are choosing prescription drugs or a meal. It is time for all of us to recognize that without the kind of energy and motivation and mobilization of this country, that we're not going to see the kind of America that our children and grandchildren deserve.

You know, I have been told that I haven't been in Washington that long. And as a consequence, although I can make a good speech and I can inspire folks, that I need a little more seasoning before I run for president. People talk about needing more experience. Well, let me tell you something, the one thing that I know is that I've been in Washington long enough to know that Washington needs to change. Washington has to change. (Applause.) There's got to be a different way of doing business here in Washington. We've got to end the politics that's small, a politic that's timid, a politics that says that you're on your own. Instead, we've got to have a politics that brings us together, and that's what the building trades are all about.

Everybody here believes that it's time to end the games that non-union employers are playing by mislabeling their employees as independent contractors. And that's something that we are working right here in Washington in partnership with you. (Applause.) We've got to say to those who believe as I do that we need to prosecute those employers for cheating taxpayers and breaking the law. It's time we bring a change here in Washington. (Applause.) To those who believe as I do in Davis-Bacon and that prevailing wages should be enforced, we've got to tell them it's time for a change here in Washington. To those who reject the notion that we need a guest worker program that drives down wages, to those who believe in card checks and the right to organize, to those who believe in more than the minimum wage but a living wage, to those who work from sundown to sunrise, we say right here and right now the 21st century needs to be our century.

The fact is that most of the problems we face are not technical in nature. They have to do with the fact that our politics have failed us. In every issue that's been talked about today, whether it's health care or energy or foreign policy, we know the answers that would make a difference. We know that in health care, if we put more money into prevention so that children don't have to go to the emergency room for basic treatments like asthma, that we can save money and we can put that money to make sure that every single American has decent health care. It is time for us to have universal health care in this country. And one of the things that I pledge is that by the end of my presidency, we will have universal health care for every single American in this country. It's long overdue! (Applause.) We know that we can do it! (Applause.)

We know that our education system is ill-equipped to prepare our children for the challenge of the 21st century -- (audio difficulty) -- under fund our schools. We haven't put enough money in. We have a program called No Child Left Behind that leaves the money behind. (Applause.) It is time for us to say that every child in America deserves a decent education and every child deserves to go to college if they have the qualifications to do so. That is something that we know how to do. We've got programs that work. The reason we don't do it is because we don't feel a sense of urgency for those children.

We know that on energy, Brazil right now -- 80 percent of its cars that are sold in Brazil run on flexible fuel vehicles -- run on ethanol. And yet, here in America, we continue to send $800 million to some of the most hostile nations on earth because of our addiction to foreign oil. There's no reason why we can't transform the way that we do business in the auto industry and create the kinds of energy strategies that are going to create jobs and business opportunities throughout America.

But let me say this. We're not going to be able to do any of this until we end this misguided war in Iraq. I am proud of the fact that in 2002 -- (applause) -- I stood up and said this is a bad idea, that this is a war that should not have been authorized and should not have been waged. We are sending $100 billion -- over $100 billion -- this year to this effort, money that could have been invested in jobs right here at home, could have been invested in energy programs right here at home, could have been invested in schools and hospitals. More sadly, we know that we've got 3,200 young men and women who are not going to be coming home as a consequence of that war. It is time for us to bring this war to a close.

We had a vote yesterday. For the first time, a majority of the Senate said we have a deadline, and it's time to bring them home. I'm proud of the fact that I've got a bill in that says let's begin a phased redeployment out of Iraq starting on May 1st, getting our folks out by March 31st of next year. I have to say that unless we bring our troops home and get them out of Iraq, we are not going to be able to perform the kinds of changes here in America that are required. (Applause.)

So, the question, I guess, is this. Are we going to be able to muster the energy and the effort to make these changes? I am confident of my capacity to lead this country. But one thing that I'm absolutely certain of is that change does not happen simply because one leader stands up. Change happens in America because millions of voices come together to make a determination that change needs to come.

You know, I was in Selma, Alabama a while back celebrating the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And some of you know that John Lewis and others had marched across that bridge to say that we needed to bring an end to Jim Crow. And when I came back, many people said, you know, that's a wonderful celebration of African-American history. And what I told them was that wasn't a celebration of African-American history, that was a celebration of American history -- (applause) -- because at each and every juncture in American history, it has always been ordinary people, like the folks who marched across that bridge -- janitors and maids, trade unions -- who made the kinds of changes that actually made a difference. If you look at the history of this country, it was the first patriots who decided to throw tea into the Boston Harbor because they said we're not going to have taxation without representation. It wasn't aristocrats who made those changes, it was ordinary people. It was ordinary people who decided that slavery needed to end. It was ordinary people who built the union movement, folks who decided that it doesn't make sense for us to be working without getting a fair share for our labors. At each and every juncture, it's been millions of voices who came together and made a difference, and that is what each of your unions has been about.

So I want to just remind us of that history. I want to make sure that, as we move forward, that this campaign and all the campaigns are seen not as simply my campaign or the other candidate's campaigns but as vehicles for your hopes, vehicles for your dreams. I am absolutely convinced that if each of you make that determination, that we can have a country that provides health care to every single American. That we can provide the kind of education that every child needs. That we can make certain that we finally bring an end to this war in Iraq.

You know, I've been told that when we look out at the horizon that America's past is going to be better than its future. But one of the things that I'm convinced about is that if we make a determination that changes have to come not tomorrow but today, then we are going to see the brightest future that we can imagine.

Thank you so much, everybody.



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