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Remarks by Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) to the Communications Workers of America Legislative Political Conference

Location: Washington, DC


SEN. OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you, CWA. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you, guys. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I'm impressed you guys have that much energy this early in the morning --


SEN. OBAMA: -- ah, because I know some of you were out last night. (Laughter.)


SEN. OBAMA: That's what I heard. (Laughter.)

First of all, let me give extraordinary thanks to Larry Cohen, to Jeff and to Barbara for their outstanding leadership on behalf of this union. You guys are very fortunate to have some terrific, terrific leadership. (Applause.)

I want to thank all of you for the great work that you do each and every day, often underpaid and often underappreciated. But I appreciate you, because I am reminded that it is all of you who are helping to create the communications network that all of us rely on so heavily. It's all of you that are helping to spur innovation and job growth throughout the economy. And so I thank all of you and salute all of you, especially my Illinois contingent. I've got to say to them thank you for all their years of friendship and hard work. (Applause.)

You know, I -- my campaign for the presidency is a little over a month now. I announced on February 10th of this year, in front of the old state capitol in Springfield, Illinois.


SEN. OBAMA: (Chuckles.) Somebody from Springfield here. (Laughter.)

And I -- and the old state capitol is historic for a number of reasons. It's where Abraham Lincoln served for eight years in the state legislature. He stood on the steps of the old state capitol and announced that a house divided against itself could not stand.

But I have to confess to you that the day that I announced, Barbara, I was a little bit nervous, not because I had to make a speech -- I'm accustomed to making speeches these days -- not because of the historic nature of the site where I was making my announcement, but because it was cold. (Laughter.) It was 7 degrees that day, and I was sure that nobody was going to show up. And I thought it was -- it's going to be covered on C-SPAN, it's going to be my staff and my family, and that's it. And everybody's going to say, "The guy's got no support."

We went out there that day, and there were 17,000 people in the cold. (Applause.) And we took that energy that we got from those 17,000 people, and we went to Iowa. We went to Des Moines and Waterloo and Ames, Iowa, and Iowa Falls. And everywhere we went, we were getting great crowds.

And I was especially heartened because one of the toughest things about being in politics is being away from your family all the time; but this time, it was a family affair. I had my wife with me, I had my 8-year-old daughter, Malia, 5-year-old daughter, Sasha, I had my mother-in-law, some godparents. We shipped in some cousins to play with the kids. (Laughter.) We're all on this big bus. We're going down on the highways of Iowa, and I went over to check with my daughters to find out how they were doing. I said, "You guys doing okay?" They said, "Oh, yeah, Daddy, this is fun. You know, you should bring us more often." (Laughter.) They went back to doing what they were doing, and then my 8-year-old turns to me and she says, "Daddy, what are we doing here again?" (Laughter, laughs.) And my 5- year-old, who's kind of a know-it-all, she clicked her tongue. She said, "This has to do with Daddy's president thing." (Laughter.) Which -- (laughs) -- which was accurate as far as it went.

But it didn't tell the whole story. You know, if I had had more time, I would have told my daughters that we're here because the country called us. We're here because history beckons us. We're here because of an experience I had when I was running for the United States Senate, one of many experiences when you're on the campaign trail. I was in Galesburg, Illinois, which is a few miles from the Mississippi River, near Quad Cities, and I was there because a group of workers from the Maytag Plant that had been there had asked me to come and visit, because Maytag had decided that they were going to move 1,600 jobs down to Mexico. And I met with some of the workers during the visit inside the Machinists Union Hall. There were about seven or eight men sitting in folding chairs, people in their late 40s, 50s in jeans and T-shirts and khakis and plaid shirts, and for many of them, this was the only job that they had ever had. This was their life's work. And their union leader talked about how they had gone to Maytag when the announcement was made that they were going to offshore the plant. He told them that this was one of the most productive plants that Maytag had, that Maytag was turning a good profit, that they had taken already cuts in pay and in benefits, that the state had given $10 million in tax breaks to the plant to stay, but Maytag had still decided to go for cheap labor and lower environmental standards.

And the town of Galesburg had already seen a bunch of plant closings. Unemployment was already at 8 percent, and it was certain, as a consequence of this plant heading south, that it was going to go even higher. And government wasn't really there to help. They had the usual transition assistance, except there were no jobs in Galesburg for the people to access. And at least one young man told me about how he had gotten a voucher to go to the community college to learn computers until Maytag had called him back temporarily. And the way the program was structured was such that if he accepted to go back to Maytag temporarily, then he would lose his voucher to study; but if he studied -- if he rejected the Maytag job, then he was no longer eligible for the voucher. And then I met a guy named Tim Wheeler, who had worked at a steel plant close-by. He had been the head of a union that had already closed.

And he was sitting quietly listening to the conversation. He finally broke down and he said his biggest concern was health care. And he said, "My son needs a liver transplant. We're waiting for a donor. But with my health care benefits used up, we're trying to figure out if Medicaid will cover the cost. Nobody can give me a clear answer. And, you know, I'll sell everything I've got for my son, I'll go into debt, but I still" -- and then his voice cracked, and his wife was sitting next to him and she started crying.

And if I was to answer my daughters as to why we're here today, I'd talk about Tim Wheeler and those folks at the plant, and the recognition that we are at a crossroads in this country. We are facing some challenges as great as any generation has faced, and we've got some fundamental decisions to make about the kind of America that we're going to build for not just us but for our children and for our grandchildren.

Down one path is divestment and offshoring and the loss of health care and benefits, and downward pressure on wages and people without union protection trying to do the best they can. It's a strategy that we've seen this administration pursue over the last six years, that basically says government has no role to play in making sure that America is prosperous for all people and not just some.

It's an argument --(applause) -- it's an argument that says that we're going to divvy up the government into individual tax breaks and everybody's going to be responsible for their own health care, for their own retirement security, for your own child care, for your own schools, for your own private security forces, for your own votes, for your own levees in New Orleans. The notion that we have no responsibilities towards each other.

They call it the "ownership society" in Washington. But in our past, there's been another name for it. It's been called social Darwinism -- every man and woman for him(self) or herself. And it allows us to say that, you know what? If your health care or your tuition rises faster than your wages, "Life isn't fair." It allows us to say to a child who didn't have the foresight to choose the right parents, and end up in an underfunded school, "Pick yourself up by your own bootstraps." It's a vision that says to the guy who's worked for 20, 30 years and suddenly finds the rug pulled out from under him and he's lost his health care and he's lost his pension and he's having to compete with a teenage kid for a job at the local fast food chain, "Tough luck. You're on your own."

It's a bracing idea. It's a tempting idea. It's the easiest idea in the world to say that we're all on our own. But here's the problem: It doesn't work. It defies our history.

It ignores the fact that it has always been government research and investment that's made advances possible in this country, from the railway to the Internet. It's been the creation of a massive middle class through decent wages and benefits and good public schools that's 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 single boat.

Yes, our greatness as a nation has depended on individual initiative, on a belief in free markets. But it's also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, our sense of mutual responsibility, the idea that everybody has got a stake in the country, that we're all in it together, that everybody has got a shot at opportunity.

And Americans know this. We know that government can't solve all our problems. We don't want it to.

But we also know that there are some things that we can't do on our own; there are some things that we do better together. We know that we've been called in our churches, in our mosques, in our synagogues, in Sunday school, to love one another as ourselves, to be our brother's keeper, to be our sister's keeper. We have individual responsibilities, but we also have collective responsibilities to each other. And that's three answers to my daughters when they ask why we're here -- because we've got responsibilities to each other, and we're stronger together than we are when we're apart.

And that's the vision that CWA has always stood for. You have a different idea about what America means. Because at each and every juncture, what you've said is, is that if we make investments in the future, if we build together, if we focus on what brings us together instead of what divides us, then there's no reason why we can't build a more prosperous, more united America for every single person. And that's the vision that I have, and that's why I want to be a partner with CWA. (Applause.)

Think about it. That's the agenda that you have for change, because you work -- you are at the center of America's future. You've been involved in industries that are involved in massive change.

Throughout the telecommunications industry, what we've seen is constant turmoil, constant changes, constant shifts. And what you have said is, we accept the future; we accept competition. We want new technology to make lives of Americans better. But what we don't want is competition on the backs of workers, based on driving down wages and cutting benefits, and eliminates basic protections.

What we want to do is compete on the basis of innovation. (Applause.) We want to compete on the basis of investment. We want to make sure that we've got the best broadband lines in the world. The notion that somehow South Korea and other countries can invest in broadband lines and we can't do the same here in America makes absolutely no sense, and CWA understands that. (Applause.) We should be investing to make us the most internet-linked of any economy in the world, and CWA workers should be doing the work. (Cheers, applause.)

You understand that entire communities are left behind when broadband access is only in some segments, in some towns, in some cities, and that we've got to have the same kind of universal access that we have for the post office and for phone service. Because that's what stitched America together and allowed people who had good ideas from all across the country, from every walk of life, to participate in the economy. We need to do the same thing for the digital economy.

You understand that even as the economy shifts, that there have to be basic protection for workers in the service industries. And that's why I'm so proud that I've partnered with AFA -- (cheers, applause) -- the united workers out there to make sure that they had decent benefits after the company was going to break their promise to the workers. And I stood with you because we know that that's what we do when we're in it together! And I'm proud of that. (Continued applause.)

And just as CWA understands this, we want to spread the word to all of the voters in the United States that there's a better vision for what's possible. We know what the challenges are today. We know we've got a healthcare system that is broken, that is bankrupting families and bankrupting businesses and bankrupting our government. We know that we've got an education system that is leaving too many children behind, despite the sloganeering; left the money behind for No Child Left Behind. (Applause.)

We know that we've got an economy that because of the global marketplace, made some people prosper more than ever in history, but that for too many ordinary Americans, they've seen their wages flatline and their salaries flatline, even as their costs for health care and college tuition and retirement have gone up.

We know that we've got an energy crisis in this country, that there's no reason we should be sending $800 million a day to some of the most hostile nations on earth so they can turn their weapons on us. (Applause.) That we should be able to achieve energy independence right here in America.

And we know that we are fighting a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged -- (cheers, applause) -- and that we shouldn't be sending half a trillion dollars overseas that could be invested right here at home to build roads and bridges and broadband lines and hospitals right here in America. (Continued applause.) A war that has cost us almost 3,200 lives, and has made us less safe than we were before we started because our standing in the world is diminished.

We know those things. But what we also know is that if we make better choices, there's no reason why we can't reverse the problems of the last six years. There is a core decency to the American people. Sometimes it's not always expressed in our politics, sometimes we don't pay attention. We're too busy trying to make sure that our kids get to school on time, that we're trying to pay the bills. Sometimes we're a little distracted. Maybe we listen to the wrong radio talk show hosts -- (laughter) -- or watch the wrong TV stations; we get a little confused about what's going on. But deep down, there's a core decency in the American people, and they understand in this election coming up in '08, more than ever, that we need to fundamentally change course. They are paying attention in this election, and they know that the reason we have not met the challenges that I just outlined is not because we don't have technical solutions, it's because of a failure of our politics, because our politics has been petty and it's been small and it's been focused on who's up and who's down in Washington instead of focusing on bringing people together around a common sense, practical, non-ideological agenda for change that's going to help every single American. (Applause.)

And that is the kind of politics -- (continued applause) -- that I want to see promoted in Congress, and that's the kind of politics that I want to see in Washington. You know? Because the fact is is that there are solutions out there for the problems that we face.

We know that if we invest more money in prevention in health care, so that children aren't going to the emergency room because they've got asthma but instead getting regular care from doctors, that we save money, that we apply medical technology to our health care bureaucracy -- we can eliminate all the red tape and bureaucracy and save money. We can take that money and we can invest it to make sure that every single American has health care in this country. In fact, I believe we can have -- (applause) -- universal health care in this country by the end of the next president's first term. (Continued applause). By the end of my first term in office as president, we can have universal health care in this country. (Cheers, continued applause.) There's no reason why we can't do it. It's beyond time to make it happen. (Continued applause.)

We know that if we invest in early childhood education, if we pay our teachers more and give them more flexibility in the classroom and give them a pathway for professional development, they are willing to be held accountable. They want their children to succeed that are in their classrooms. And we can reverse the constant decline in math and science that has inhibited innovation in this country. We know how to do it. What's lacking is not knowledge of how do it; what's been lacking is a sense of urgency that every child deserves a decent education in this country.

We know -- (interrupted by applause) -- we know that in terms of energy, Brazil right now; 80 percent of the new cars sold in Brazil are flexible-fuel vehicles that run on ethanol that is homegrown in Brazil. Nothing against Brazil, but if Brazil can do it, I know America can do it. There's no reason why we can't have energy independence in this country. (Applause.) And we know that in an economy as prosperous as us there is no reason why the burdens and the benefits of globalization can't be spread across the economy, so that everybody benefits and not just some. And that's the reason why I am in favor of car checks; that needs to be passed by the time the president needs to come to office. (Cheers, applause).

We need to build up our unions in this country so that they can get their wages and their benefits. (Continued applause, cheers.) There's nothing wrong with giving workers a fair share of the wealth they helped create. There's nothing wrong in protecting the pensions that have earned and they have negotiated. (Continued cheers, applause.) There's nothing wrong in making sure that workers can organize without intimidation. (Continued applause, cheers.) Those are the things that built this country and built the middle class.

And so the question is: What are we going to do to change our politics? What are we going to do to change our politics?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Throw the bum out. (Laughter.)

SEN. OBAMA: Well, the bum -- some of the bums have been thrown out. (Laughter, cheers.) But what we want to make sure -- (interrupted by continued cheers, applause). But we don't want new bums coming in. (Laughter, cheers, applause.) That's one thing we do have to do.

In order for us to make progress, if we want money to invest in broadband lines, then we're going to have to make sure that we bring this war in Iraq to a close. (Applause.)

That's a hundred billion dollars that are going overseas every year.

I am proud of the fact that I was opposed to this war from the start, that in 2002 I said it was a bad idea. (Applause.) I'm proud of the fact that I've got a bill in right now that says we've got to get our troops out by May 1st of -- we have to start getting our troops out by May 1st of this year and have our combat troops out by March 31st of 2008. (Applause continues.) It's time to bring our troops out of Iraq. (Cheers, applause.) I believe that.

And when we do that, when we start recognizing that if we match the strength of our military with the power of our diplomacy and the finesse of our alliances, that we can make ourselves secure, we can start focusing on the challenges here at home.

But I have to say this. I can't do it by myself. I am confident in my ability to lead. You know, people say that "he doesn't have as much seasoning as he needs. You know, he's got a lot of talent. He makes a good speech, and he's done good work, but you know, he hasn't been in Washington long enough."

AUDIENCE MEMBER: That's a benefit. (Laughter.)

SEN. OBAMA: And I have to tell them -- I say, well, you know, it's true I haven't been in Washington that long. But you know, I've got experience as a community organizer, working in some of the lowest-income neighborhoods in the country. (Applause.) And so I know what it's like for people to struggle, I know the challenges that they're facing, and I know that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they're given an opportunity.

I know from the experience of teaching constitutional law for 10 years at the University of Chicago that the Constitution is worth respecting. (Applause.) Unlike some of the folks in this administration, I know that. I've got that experience. (Applause continues.)

I've got experience as a state legislator, working to make sure that children who didn't have health care have health care, making sure that we reform a death penalty system that's broken, working arm in arm with unions like CWA to make sure that workers have basic protections. I know what it's like to actually deliver on promises that have been made.

I've done good work here in the United States Senate on some of the most important issues that we face, like nuclear proliferation.

But the main thing that I want to remind people is, I've been long enough in Washington to know that Washington needs to change.


SEN. OBAMA: I've been here that long. (Applause.)

But I can't change without you. There are going to be times where I get tired. There are going to be times where I get weary. There are going to be times where I make mistakes.


SEN. OBAMA: That's true. (Laughter.) Talk to my wife. (Laughter.) She'll tell you. (Laughter.)

But what I'm absolutely confident about is the capacity for all of you to lead a movement for change.

You know, this campaign that we're running has to be about your hopes. It's got to be about your dreams. This has to be a vehicle for you to achieve your dreams.

You know, I was down in Selma, Alabama, a while back, and we were celebrating the 42nd anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where a group of ordinary people -- women who worked as maids or cooks or housekeepers, men who worked as janitors or Pullman porters -- marched across this bridge, were turned back by fire hoses and dogs and tear gas and billy clubs, and yet came back and marched and ultimately brought about freedom.

And when I came back from the celebration, people said, "Boy, that was a wonderful celebration of African-American history." And I told them, "No, you don't understand. That was a celebration of American history" -- (applause) -- because it was a symbol of what can happen when people decide that things need to change.

And that is what the American people need to decide, and that's what CWA has to be a part of: a decision that the world, as it is, is not the world as it has to be; that we can create a different kind of America.

And that's been our history at every juncture. The minute that a bunch of patriots decided we're not going to have taxation without representation and threw all that tea in Boston Harbor, because they understood that they wanted a government of and by and for the people. It's the same idea that helped to end slavery; what Lincoln was talking about -- half slave and half free -- people organized and said that's not the kind of country that we want. It's the same thing that has brought about change each and every juncture in our history. Some woman somewhere was sitting across the kitchen table, she was looking at her husband, she said, "You know, I'm smarter than that guy. How come he gets the right to vote? We're going to get organized, women." (Applause.) And they decided that women were going to be full partners. And the Civil Rights movement, when even after slavery had ended, people were still suffering under Jim Crow, women who had spent their entire day doing other people's laundry and looking after somebody else's children decided to walk home instead of take the bus because they were marching for freedom.

At every single juncture, there have been people who have decided that we are going to have something different. When a million people, when a million voices rise up together and say things change in this country, things change.

And so I'm saying to you, CWA, that I want your support. I want to be a partner with you. But most of all, I want you to keep on marching. I want you to keep on working. You know, I am absolutely confident that if we make that commitment, that things are going to change. So let's make sure that we have a president in 2008 and a Congress in 2008 that is going to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. (Applause.) Let's make sure that we've got a president who cares about ordinary working people. I want you guys to keep on marching. If there's unemployment out there, if somebody's in poverty, I want you to keep on marching. If somebody doesn't have health care, I want you to keep on organizing. If somebody doesn't have a fair shot at the American dream, I want you to keep on working. If all of you decide that change is going to happen, it's going to happen. And one benefit of that may also be that you might elect a president named Barack Obama. (Cheers, applause.) Thank you very much. I appreciate you guys. Thank you.


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