Remarks of Senator Barack Obama (La Crosse, WI)
We meet here at a time of great uncertainty. Our economy is in crisis. The dreams of so many Americans are at risk. And the American people are waiting for leadership from Washington.
On Monday, over the course of a few hours, the failure to pass the economic rescue plan in the House led to the single largest decline of the stock market in two decades. Over one trillion dollars of wealth was lost by the time the markets closed. And it wasn't just the wealth of a few CEOs or Wall Street executives. The 401Ks and retirement accounts that millions count on for their family's future are now smaller. The state pension funds of teachers and government employees lost billions upon billions of dollars. Hardworking Americans who invested their nest egg to watch it grow are now watching it disappear.
But while the decline of the stock market is devastating, the consequences of the credit crisis that caused it will be even worse if we do not act and act immediately.
Because of the housing crisis, we are now in a very dangerous situation where financial institutions across this country are afraid to lend money. If all that meant was the failure of a few big banks on Wall Street, it would be one thing.
But that's not what it means. What it means is that if we do not act, it will be harder for you to get a mortgage for your home or the loans you need to buy a car or send your children to college. What it means is that businesses won't be able to get the loans they need to open new factories, or hire more workers, or make payroll for the workers they have. Thousands of businesses could close. Millions of jobs could be lost. A long and painful recession could follow.
Let me be perfectly clear. The fact that we are in this mess is an outrage. It's an outrage because we did not get here by accident. This was not a normal part of the business cycle. This was not the actions of a few bad apples.
This financial crisis is a direct result of the greed and irresponsibility that has dominated Washington and Wall Street for years. It's the result of speculators who gamed the system, regulators who looked the other way, and lobbyists who bought their way into our government. It's the result of an economic philosophy that says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else; a philosophy that views even the most common-sense regulations as unwise and unnecessary. And this crisis is the final verdict on this failed philosophy - a philosophy that we cannot afford to continue.
But while there is plenty of blame to go around and many in Washington and on Wall Street who deserve it, all of us now have a responsibility to solve this crisis because it affects the financial well-being of every single American. There will be time to punish those who set this fire, but now is the moment for us to come together and put the fire out.
I know that many of you are feeling anxiety right now - about your jobs, about your homes, about your life savings. But I also know this - I know that we can steer ourselves out of this crisis. Because that's who we are. Because this is the United States of America. This is a nation that has faced down war and depression; great challenges and great threats. And at each and every moment, we have risen to meet these challenges - not as Democrats, not as Republicans, but as Americans. With resolve. With confidence. With that fundamental belief that here in America, our destiny is not written for us, but by us. That's who we are, and that's the country we need to be right now.
This is not just a Wall Street crisis - it's an American crisis, and it's the American economy that needs this rescue plan. I understand why people would be skeptical when this President asks for a blank check to solve a problem. I've spent most of my time in Washington being skeptical of this Administration, and this time was no different. That's why over a week ago, I demanded that this plan include specific proposals to protect the American taxpayer - protections that the Administration eventually agreed to, as well as Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
First, I said we needed an independent board to provide oversight and accountability for how and where this money is spent at every step of the way.
Second, I said that we cannot help banks on Wall Street without helping the millions of innocent homeowners who are struggling to stay in their homes. They deserve a plan too.
Third, I said that I would not allow this plan to become a welfare program for the Wall Street executives whose greed and irresponsibility got us into this mess.
And finally, I said that if American taxpayers are financing this solution, then you should be treated like investors - you should get every penny of your tax dollars back once this economy recovers.
This last part is important, because it's been the most misunderstood and poorly communicated part of this plan. This is not a plan to just hand over $700 billion of your money to a few banks. If this is managed correctly, we will hopefully get most or all of our money back, or possibly even turn a profit on the government's investment - every penny of which will go directly back to you, the investor.
The rescue plan now includes those four principles. It also includes a proposal I made yesterday morning to expand federal deposit insurance for families and small businesses across America who have invested their money in our banks. This will boost small businesses, make our banking system more secure, and help restore confidence by reassuring families that their money is safe.
Even with all these taxpayer protections, this plan is not perfect. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have legitimate concerns about it. I know many Americans share those concerns. But it is clear that this is what we must do right now to prevent a crisis from turning into a catastrophe. That's why I've been reaching out to leaders in both parties to do whatever I can to help pass this plan. That's why I'll be flying back to Washington today to cast my vote to safeguard the American economy. And to the Democrats and Republicans who have opposed this plan, I say - step up to the plate and do what's right for the country, because the time to act is now.
I know many Americans are wondering what happens next. Passing this bill will not be the end of our work to strengthen our economy - it's just the beginning of a long, hard road ahead. So let me tell you exactly how I'll move forward as President.
From the moment I take office, my top priority will be to do everything I can to make sure that your tax dollars are protected. I will demand a full review of this financial rescue plan to make sure that it is working for you. If you - the American taxpayer - are not getting your money back, then we will change how this program is being managed. If need be, we will send new legislation to Congress to make sure that taxpayers are protected in line with the principles that I have put forward. You should expect nothing less from Washington.
If we do have losses, I've proposed a Financial Stability Fee on the financial services industry so Wall Street foots the bill - not the American taxpayer. And as I modernize the financial system to create new rules of the road to prevent another crisis, we will continue this fee to build up a reserve so that if this happens again, it will be the money contributed by banks that's put at risk.
This will only work if there is real enforcement and real accountability. And that starts with presidential leadership. So let me be very clear: when I am President, financial institutions will do their part and pay their share, and American taxpayers will never again have to put their money on the line to pay for the greed and irresponsibility of Wall Street. That's a pledge that I'll make to you today, and it's one that I'll keep as President of the United States.
Accountability must start with this rescue plan, but it cannot end there. Across Wisconsin - and across the country - families are sitting down at the kitchen table and making hard choices. You're planning for your future in tough times. You're squeezing just a little bit more out of next month's paycheck so you can pay next month's bills. It's time for Washington to do the same.
We cannot mortgage our children's future on a mountain of debt. It's time to put an end to the run-away spending and the record deficits - it's not how you would run your family budget, and it must not be how Washington handles your tax dollars. It's time to return to the fiscal responsibility and pay as you go budgeting that we had in the 1990s. Many in Congress have been fighting for these commonsense principles, and I will be a President who supports them and makes sure they succeed. That's why I'm not going to stand here and simply tell you what I'm going to spend - I'm going to start by telling you how we're going to save when I am President.
I will go through the entire federal budget, page by page, line by line, and eliminate the programs that don't work and aren't needed. We should start by ending a war in Iraq that is costing us $10 billion a month while the Iraqi government sits on a $79 billion surplus. We should stop sending $15 billion a year in overpayments to insurance companies for Medicare, and go after tens of billions of dollars in Medicare and Medicaid fraud. We need to stop sending three billion a year to banks that provide student loans the government could provide for less. And we can end the hundreds of millions a year in subsidies to agribusiness that can survive just fine without your tax dollars, and use some of the money to help struggling family farmers. That's what I'll do as President.
And we can't stop there. We lose $100 billion every year because corporations set up mailboxes offshore so they can avoid paying a dime of taxes in America. In the Senate, I worked across the aisle to crack down on these schemes. And as President, I will shut down those offshore tax havens and all those corporate loopholes once and for all. You shouldn't have to pay higher taxes because some big corporation cut corners to avoid paying theirs. All of us have a responsibility to pay our fair share. That's accountability. And that's what we'll have when I'm President.
As for the programs we do need, I will make them work better and cost less. I will create a High-Performance Team of experts that evaluates every agency and every office based on how well they're serving the American taxpayer. I will save billions of dollars by cutting private contractors and improving management and oversight of the hundreds of billions of dollars our government spends on contracts. And I will finally end the abuse of no-bid contracts once and for all - the days of sweetheart deals for Halliburton will be over when I'm in the White House.
Make no mistake: we need to end an era in Washington where accountability has been absent, oversight has been overlooked, and your tax dollars have been turned over to wealthy CEOs and well-connected corporations. You need leadership that you can trust to work for you - not for the special interests who have had their thumb on the scale. And together, we will tell the Washington lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda are over. They have not funded this campaign, they won't work in my White House, and they won't drown out the voices of the American people when I'm President.
Now, people have asked whether the size of this rescue plan, together with the weakening economy, means that the next President will have to scale back his agenda and some of his proposals. The answer is yes and no. With less money flowing into the Treasury, some useful programs or policies that I've proposed on the campaign trail may need to be delayed.
But there are certain investments in our future that we cannot delay precisely because our economy is in turmoil. You can always put off giving your house a new paint job or renovating your kitchen, but when your roof is crumbling or your heater goes, you realize that these are long-term investments you need to make right away.
The same is true of our economy. We cannot wait to help Americans keep up with rising costs and shrinking paychecks by giving our workers a middle-class tax cut. We cannot wait to relieve the burden of crushing health care costs. We cannot wait to create millions of new jobs by rebuilding our roads and our bridges and investing in the renewable sources of energy that will stop us from sending $700 billion a year to tyrants and dictators for their oil. And we cannot wait to educate the next generation of Americans with the skills and knowledge they need to compete with any workers, anywhere in the world. Those are the priorities we cannot delay.
As soon as we pass this rescue plan, we need to move with the same sense of urgency to rescue families on Main Street who are struggling to pay their bills and keep their jobs. I've said it before and I'll say it again: we need to pass an economic stimulus plan that will help folks cope with rising food and gas prices, save one million jobs by rebuilding our schools and roads, and help states and cities avoid budget cuts and tax increases. A plan that would extend expiring unemployment benefits for those Americans who've lost their jobs and cannot find new ones.
Beyond this stimulus, we need an economic agenda to restore opportunity for Americans and prosperity to America. So that we're not borrowing debt from China and buying oil from Saudi Arabia. So that the jobs of the future don't go to better-educated workers in India and the cars of the future aren't made in Japan. So that we can leave a legacy of greater opportunity to our children and their children. That is how we will emerge from this crisis stronger and more prosperous than we were before, and that is what I will do as President of the United States.
I will begin by reforming our tax code so that it doesn't reward the lobbyists who wrote it, but the American workers and small businesses who deserve it. I will eliminate capital gains taxes for small businesses and start-ups, so that we can grow our economy and create the high-wage, high-tech jobs of tomorrow.
I will cut taxes - cut taxes - for 95% of all workers and their families. And if you make less than $250,000 a year, you will not see your taxes increase one single dime - because in an economy like this, the last thing we should do is raise taxes on the middle-class.
I will reform our health care system to relieve families, businesses, and the entire economy from the crushing cost of health care by investing in new technology and preventative care. If you have health care, my plan will lower your premiums. If you don't, you'll be able to get the same kind of coverage that members of Congress give themselves. And I will stop insurance companies from discriminating against those who are sick and need care the most.
To create new jobs, I'll invest in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure - our roads, schools, and bridges. We'll rebuild our outdated electricity grid and build new broadband lines to connect America. And I'll create the jobs of the future by transforming our energy economy. We'll tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power. I'll help our auto companies re-tool so that the fuel-efficient cars of the future are built right here the United States. I'll make it easier for the American people to afford these new cars. And I'll invest 150 billion dollars over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy - wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels; an investment that will lead to new industries and five million new jobs that pay well and can't ever be outsourced
And if I am President, I will meet our moral obligation to provide every child a world-class education, because it will take nothing less to compete in the global economy. I'll invest in early childhood education. I'll recruit an army of new teachers, and pay them higher salaries and give them more support. But in exchange, I will ask for higher standards and more accountability. And we will keep our promise to every young American - if you commit to serving your community or your country, we will make sure you can afford a college education.
Finally, I will modernize our outdated financial regulations and put in the place the common-sense rules of the road I've been calling for since March - rules that will keep our market free, fair, and honest; rules that will make sure Wall Street can never get away with the stunts that caused this crisis again.
These are the changes and reforms that we need. Bottom-up growth that will create opportunity for every American. Investments in the technology and innovation that will restore prosperity and lead to new jobs and a new economy for the 21st century. Common-sense regulations for our financial system that will prevent a crisis like this from ever happening again.
I won't pretend this will be easy or come without cost. We will all need to sacrifice and we will all need to pull our weight because now more than ever, we are all in this together. What this crisis has taught us is that at the end of the day, there is no real separation between Main Street and Wall Street. There is only the road we're traveling on as Americans - and we will rise or fall on that journey as one nation; as one people.
This country and the dream it represents are being tested in a way that we haven't seen in nearly a century. And future generations will judge ours by how we respond to this test. Will they say that this was a time when America lost its way and its purpose? When we allowed our own petty differences and broken politics to plunge this country into a dark and painful recession?
Or will they say that this was another one of those moments when America overcame? When we battled back from adversity by recognizing that common stake that we have in each other's success?
This is one of those moments. I realize you're cynical and fed up with politics. I understand that you're disappointed and even angry with your leaders. You have every right to be. But despite all of this, I ask you to believe - believe in this country and your ability to change it. I ask you what has been asked of the American people in times of trial and turmoil throughout history - what was asked at the beginning of the greatest financial crisis this nation ever endured. In his first fireside chat, Franklin Roosevelt told his fellow Americans that "...there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people themselves. Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. Let us unite in banishing fear. Together, we cannot fail."
America, together, we cannot fail. Not now. Not when we have a crisis to solve and an economy to save. Not when there are so many Americans without jobs and without homes. Not when there are families who can't afford to see a doctor, or send their child to college, or pay their bills at the end of the month. Not when there is a generation that is counting on us to give them the same opportunities and the same chances that we had for ourselves.
We can do this. Americans have done this before. Some of us had grandparents or parents that said maybe I can't go to college but my child can; maybe I can't have my own business but my child can. I may have to rent, but maybe my children will have a home they can call their own. I may not have a lot of money but maybe my child will run for Senate. I might live in a small village but maybe someday my son can be president of the United States of America.
Now it falls to us. Together, we cannot fail. And I need you to make it happen. If you want the next four years looking just like the last eight, then I am not your candidate. But if you want real change - if you want an economy that rewards work, and that works for Main Street and Wall Street; if you want tax relief for the middle class and millions of new jobs; if you want health care you can afford and education that helps your kids compete; then I ask you to knock on some doors, make some calls, talk to your neighbors, and give me your vote on November 4th. And if you do, I promise you - we will win Wisconsin, we will win this election, and we will change America together. Thank you La Crosse, God bless you, and may God bless America.