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Remarks by Vice President Joe Biden at the House Democratic Issues Conference

Location: Williamsburg, VA



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VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: (In progress) -- the comparisons to the Great Depression or World War II or the Civil War. I'm not making that. I'm not here in Williamsburg, you know, to use the easy references to what they went through, and our founding fathers. But you know, every once in a while a generation of leaders gets -- gets a set of problems that are configured in a way that there is no historical precedent to look back on -- other than our grit, other than, you know, some courage and determination -- to know how to deal with it.

The president and I were talking about something yesterday in the Oval Office -- which, to the press here, I'll not suggest what it was -- but the response was to the folks that were in the office with us -- was, you know, if we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, we stand up there and we make really tough decisions, there's still a 30-percent chance we're going to get it wrong. You, too. You, too. Because I can't think of a time, as a student of history -- and I've participated in this business as long as almost anybody but my chairman from Michigan. I think I've been here -- not a lot of you have served more than 36 years.

And I'll tell you something: Things are different. It's not just how it rhetorically rolls off our tongue and we say, you know, we have an economic crisis, the worst since the Great Depression, a recession like 1982, unemployment very high, two wars. You know, we say it. We've said it so often the last six or eight months. It's like somehow these things have happened before, this way.

Well, I don't know of any other economic crisis where in some countries banks are bigger than the countries. The banks are sick worldwide. We talk about banks being too big to fail. In other countries, the banks are too big for the countries. They're bigger than the sum of the country. Their ability, through monetary policy, their ability through their legislative process to affect outcomes -- literally, the bank's bigger. They make up about 2 percent of our GDP. In other countries, it's 35 or 40 percent of their GDP.

Anybody can remember that's happened before? Can anybody remember a time when we found ourselves in a recession that -- worldwide that both relates to the way it was generated, started here, but the way we had this sort of sclerosis in our -- in our -- you know, in the bloodstream and flow of capital? Anybody can remember a time when we're talking about if we don't make some real changes, deficits of a trillion (dollars), $200 billion a year for as far as they eye could see, if we don't get it right, which you guys have already?

So I guess what I'm trying to say is it's not hyperbole. You know, we sometime -- we've all been in the business so long. This is all such a part of our DNA. We all care so much about this, the people assembled in this room that it's like a little bit when I got -- made my last speech in the Senate. I said, you know, when I got here, there were a lot of giants in the Senate. And I started naming those giants in the Senate, people when I got down there I was in awe as a 30-year old kid meeting them. (Audio break) -- plain old doing their job.

And I used a rhetorical -- made a rhetorical point. I said, you know, I lift up the drawer on my desk -- we're like kids in the Senate. You know, we carve our names in our desks. You guys can't do it on tabletops, you know, I mean -- and in my desk, I -- John Kennedy's desk, Scoop Jackson, go back to people -- I won't bore you with it. My comment to my colleagues was I'm confident when they sat at these desks they didn't think they were making history. They didn't think what they were doing was going to be written about and going to be looked back on by folks like us who say, my God, they were something else.

And the question is -- I said to my colleagues -- when you write your name in that desk, and your successor 20 years from now opens it up and looks down at your name, are they going to think, my God, this guy really -- this woman really did something?

I know that sounds corny. But I think we're in one of those places.

I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, not since World War II at least has a caucus gathered with so many challenges facing our country and the stakes so high. It's not so much how bad they are now. It's, we know what happens if we miss, if we miss. The slope is pretty steep. Opportunities are great.

We also know that though we've been here before, in the sense that people just like us got through these kinds of times, even though this is unique. And they got through and they got us to a better place. They didn't just get us through. They got us to a better place.

You know, we talk about those folks now in hushed tones. You know, we talk about Roosevelt and General Marshall and John Kennedy. We talk about the Depression, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Joe McCarthy, civil rights. You know, we talk about those things.

We go, wow, those guys really made some tough decisions. But back then, like us, they're just doing their jobs. They're just doing their jobs. And they made some really tough decisions.

But the interesting thing, if I look back, on the times people went through stuff like this before, even though it's not the same, the bottom line was, there were no easy decisions.

And there are very few decisions that they made that were popular. That's the bad news, folks. You all are like I am. You're fingertip politicians. That's what I am at my core. Not a whole lot of easy decisions out there. You're already figuring that out. We're all figuring that out.

But you know, I guess, the generic message I want to make, before I get to a little bit of substance here, is that in most instances, our predecessors took advantage of these crises and turned them into opportunities. And they consciously did it. It wasn't unconsciously. It didn't just happen.

They consciously did it with the single exception probably of 9/11. We all know. You've heard me and others and you've said it. You know, I think, history is going to judge -- as my mother would say, God love him -- President Bush harshly, not for all the mistakes he's made -- who knows what mistakes we would have made -- but for the opportunities he squandered.

He had a nation ready to make real sacrifices. He had a nation ready. What would have happened if at 9:12 or 9:14, he had made a speech and said, "My fellow Americans," and outlined how -- the difficulty we faced and said, "But I'm making two announcements today.

And one, I'm sending an energy bill to the United States Congress. It will be painful. But it will free us of the iron grip of the oligarchs of oil. And I expect -- no, I demand -- that you support me." (Applause.)

Who the hell would have said -- who would have said -- now, I mean, look. We're all pros here. I -- you know, you all -- and many of you speak a lot better than I do. But I'm trying to just be straight.

Who in America (would say ?), "Whoa, whoa, whoa. That's too tough, man. Don't ask me that now. Whoa. And by the way, that may screw up the appropriations process here." (Laughter.) "And that may get the authorizers ahead of the appropriators. And that may get the House and the Senate -- oh, whoa, wait. We can't do that, man."

But he blew it. He blew it.

What would have happened if he said, "And by the way, I call for a meeting of the world's major powers to meet with me in Brussels on October the 30th to begin to jointly plan the demise of the rise of radical fundamentalism"? Who wouldn't have shown up? Who could have afforded not to show up? And what an opportunity to expose lack of cooperation, forcing responsibilities.

Well, in a strange sense, I don't think we're very far from that moment. In a strange sense, I think we have available to us a similar kind of opportunity. Not as targeted, not as precise, not as much of an -- you know, the notion of "Oh my God, we all may die" kind of thing. But I think the American people -- and no one knows it better than the House does -- they're a hell of a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and a hell of a lot more resilient, and a hell of a lot tougher. And they know there's no easy choices, man.

There's no easy choices. Anybody in here think there was any way to get credit flowing without taking my money and rewarding SOBs who have not acted well by just allowing them (to ?) survive? Who the heck likes doing that? We've already had to do it. Not because -- in normal times, you go back and poll your district and go "Oh, hey, hey, Jack, I -- (not me ?), no. I (don't want ?) any part of that one." Am I right? You know I'm right.

But this is one of those cases where you've had to really take some very -- bites out of a pretty bitter apple already. And I want to tell you, you know, these uncharted waters -- you've all already stepped up, man. You stepped up in a big way, the House. You stepped up, you acted rapidly, you acted quickly. You were willing to take what is not an easy pill to swallow on some of the votes you cast. You came through in a timely way with the economic recovery package. You made some even more difficult votes, in another sense, politically, already.

And my sense is you're all ready to make more. You know you have to. No one's relishing them. No one's relishing them. And like I said, I may have to -- I told Steny and I told the leader -- excuse me, the speaker -- I may have to go back after this.

I'm supposed to head from here to -- not keynote -- I'm supposed to make a major address at Wehrkunde in Germany to sort of set for the first time our administration's policy outlines out to the European -- our European friends. But I may just get in that plane -- by the way, I got to ride -- that's a nice plane I got, you know what I mean? (Laughter.) I always voted for public housing and never thought it was going to be this good. (Laughter.)

I -- but there is -- as I'm coming down the steps, they say, you may go back -- get in the plane and go back to Washington, because I may be asked to go see my former colleagues. (Applause.) And, well, I don't know. (Laughs.) I think that -- I think Berlin may be more hospitable. (Laughter.)

But all kidding aside, you know, here we are, you know -- we could go through the litany -- I'm not going to do it -- of all the problems we face. And we know how hard it is, pushing the -- pushing the economy, because it's at the top of the list. It's affecting everybody, unemployment, two months.

I was in your home state yesterday, Steny, another 70 -- 30,000 unemployed just in a month. I mean, your states -- I just happened to be in Steny's state, doing an event. And, you know, we're talking about 2 million jobs lost in a couple months. And everybody knows here this is going to get worse before it gets better and it's going to -- and in our ordinary mind-set, it's going to be harder to explain to our constituents than it was even now, why there's not any immediate, you know, immediate response to unemployment by all you're doing. You're doing all this; why hadn't anything happened?

But that's why Barack and I believe -- and I think you all do, too -- that it's so critically important there be transparency and accountability to everything we do so people can actually see what we're doing. That also means if we doing stuff that's a mistake, it turns out to -- they're going to see it more clearly, but they should. They should see, because I think the one thing they won't forgive us for -- they won't forgive us for not trying, if we don't try. That's the one thing I don't think they're going to forgive us for. I think they'll forgive us for mistakes, knowing we're in uncharted waters, if we make mistakes on the margins here.

But, look, the -- one of the things we're going to have to do, to state the obvious, after we get through this economic recovery package, is we have to build an economy. And it's a trite phrase a lot of us use, but it's not trite, it's profound. We have to build an economy for the 21st century. That's where the opportunity comes. That's where the opportunity comes where we're going to get House, Senate, administration, appropriators, authorizers, everybody together on the same page to lay down not a continuation of the existing programs but fundamentally new approaches to energy and education and how we're going to deal with our economy. And they're going to be -- and they're going to be hard.

But I do think the public is ready. You know, we made a little bit of a down payment, you all did. And hopefully -- and we proposed on a smart grid and made a little bit of a down payment on the infrastructure efforts that we need in order to, again, have a 21st- century economy.

We made a little bit -- and I know everybody's dissatisfied either that we did too much and we, you know, crossed the line in terms of the way this place is set up, or we did too little. But the bottom line is, we got it started.

But here's the point I want to make. For Barack and me, the measure two years and four years and six years from now, whether or not we did it the right way, is whether the middle class is growing. There's a simple, basic measure -- (applause) -- for real, literally, literally, not, you know -- because, folks, we -- I -- speak for myself -- I went through a period where we had real economic growth -- and I'm sitting there as a senator. The middle class didn't move. The middle class in fact didn't move. There used to be this unwritten, you know, alliance that came out of the '30s, that, you know, workers share in the productivity increases they produce. Well, that didn't happen. That didn't happen.

And that's why I'm -- Barack asked me to head up this middle class task force. And hopefully it's not just going to be another task force. It literally has given me access -- and five Cabinet officers know that I don't have operational control, but that they have to help put together and be available to me to put together a total package as to what are the elements of, what constitutes the prospect as we grow ourselves out of this problem into a new era that the middle class is -- really has buy-in.

And you all know what the issues are: raise everything from a rational tax policy straight through to whether they have access to education to whether or not there's health care, I mean, you know. And we got to just make sure, when we're doing these macroeconomic -- making these macroeconomic decisions, that we start to build in so it's irredeemable, if you will, the middle class buy-in and the middle class benefitting from the stuff we're going to do.

I'm talking too long to you. I was going to speak more to that. But let me move for a second to what I was supposed to talk about. (Laughter.)

I was asked to talk about a foreign policy. You know that old joke: You know, an expert's anyone from out of town with a briefcase. I'm out of town, but I have no briefcase, and I know a lot of you know as much and more about foreign policy as I do. But it's like that old joke -- hope you Texans aren't offended -- but in Delaware that old joke about the Texan who said, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." Well, I may not know much about it, but I know what I think, and I know what I think we have to do.

And let me speak to a couple things.

First of all, that there's enormous opportunities we have right now, but we have some very heavy lifting to do in the short term, in terms of foreign policy.

Here's the good news. The world has embraced President Obama in a way I have never seen in my 36 years of travel. I'm in -- this is my eighth president, and I have never seen anything remotely approaching the sense of optimism and genuine, genuine, genuine excitement about a new president. They believe we have an informed president who has fully committed to the best of American values and who's going to lead with the totality of American power -- that is, economic, diplomatic, as well as military -- not just -- not just by -- (applause) -- not just by, as I'm -- often pointed out, I say a lot, not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.

And they're looking forward to it.

We need to be realistic about what we're facing here. Our economic team conducted a full review of the economic situation facing the United States and the world before -- before -- conducting a full review of how to proceed. You know, if we had accepted the base line in November and December and January we were told we were being left with, it was viewed even then by the outgoing administration as much rosier than it is.

What did we do? We brought in -- many of you brought in the best economic teams on the center or left -- even some folks on the right -- came in and analyzed them. We came down and we laid down a marker for the American people as honestly as we could, where we're starting, what the base line is for the economy.

Well, I argued from the day after we won that we need a base line on foreign policy similarly situated. You all know back in your districts that -- the vast majority of people in my district, or my state of Delaware, they think we're on the way of having won in Iraq and we're on our way home; it's just a matter of how quickly we can leave; and everything's going to be jake.

And the vast majority of Americans, up until very recently, think, well, God, Iraq, well, we won that, didn't we? That's already done. You don't hear a lot of talk about -- I mean, excuse me, Afghanistan. You don't hear a lot of talk about that. You're starting to hear a lot more about it now.

And so I argued that -- and the president fully supported it -- that we need a base line, just like we need an economic base line, on our foreign policy, particularly as it relates to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the Middle East. What is the base line? What are we inheriting, and what is the circumstance?

And I know George and a couple of you recently went and made a similar trip that I just made, and I'm anxious to compare notes with you all. But so that's why the president asked me. And I heard it said, "What the hell is Biden going off on the first official trip, before he's even sworn in?" Because we concluded that we couldn't wait till we got sworn in to begin to figure out what we're doing, because an awful lot's in train, man. This is a big government. This is even bigger than I thought it was, Rosa. (Laughter.) I didn't know how damn big it was until I got on that airplane. But this is a big government. And inertia -- inertia ends up forcing a lot of decisions; or more importantly, making a lot of decisions. And so that's why I went on that trip.

And I came back, and since then, the president has ordered a full, total review of our policy on each of those areas; came around and brought -- I believe, picked two very first-rate envoys. Not that there's not -- and people say, "Well, gee, isn't that undercutting the secretary of State, or the vice president, or the secretary of Defense?" There is so much work to do out there, man, there is so much on the plate out there, that our objective is to get the best minds we can available, just as quickly as we can, to do as rational -- rational -- unvarnished assessment of where we stand at this very moment as we can. (Applause.)

And so here's what I found.

As we shift our military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, I think the road remains incredibly -- incredibly perilous. In Iraq, in my view, the progress is real. It is real. And we have some first-rate military guys there. Odierno -- (audio break). But they've always done what we've asked them to do. They've never failed to get it done.

But they're also very, very realistic about the end game here. We are -- in my view, if you're thinking of this in a -- like the Super Bowl, we're on the 20-yard line moving in. But there's an awful lot to be done. My staff says I confuse people when I say this -- but I'm used to confusing people. (Laughter.)

It's a little like -- you know, we have this thing in Iraq now, as many of you know, and Ike knows it better than anybody, and Jack Murtha and others who deal with this every day -- we have a SOFA. We have this deal where our military is going to draw down and we think we're going to be consistent with the president's commitments and we think we're going to be able to do all that. But there's another need.

There's a need for a domestic, political SOFA inside Iraq, not with us. But you saw the election that just took place. It was free. Lower turnout than the last one, I might add. It was free of violence. That's a big, positive positive step. But folks, these folks haven't gotten their political arrangements together yet, and it's a big deal.

What about boundary disputes? What about Kirkuk? What about the next series of elections relating to regional government? What about the power flowing from the center or from the provinces? This is a big deal.

And so we believe our administration is going to have to be very deeply involved in not only keeping the commitment that we made of drawing down our troops in an orderly fashion consistent with what we said; we also think we're going to have to get in there and be much more aggressive in helping them -- forcing them to deal with these issues that could cause us, when we leave, to leave behind a place that's not so stable. The hard work of the political reconciliation is doable, but it's not done yet. There is no -- as we've all said, there's no military solution to Iraq. The military's provided the opportunity for us, but we got a lot more work to do.

So my overall assessment before we do the final assessment and announce it to you all relatively shortly, I believe that it's doable but a lot of hard diplomatic work, significantly more effort in dealing with the neighbors and dealing with the parties within, because as I said -- by the way, there's still no hydrocarbon law, for example.

You know, there's still no definition of what we're going to do about Kirkuk. There's still no boundary dispute settlement. These are flashpoints of consequence, manageable, I believe, but a lot of work to be done.

With regard to Afghanistan, the economic and security and social conditions there are daunting, are daunting. We face what every other great power has faced throughout Afghanistan.

You have three things working against you, anyone does, in Afghanistan; geography, demography and history. And they have been viewed as insurmountable from a historical perspective.

So the question is, this is just Joe Biden now. I'm not speaking for the president, because this is not done yet. I think we're closer to being on our 20-yard-line, with 80 yards to go, to continue this ridiculous metaphor, because we've got a long, long way to go there.

And roughly 70 percent of the population is illiterate. 70 percent live in rural areas that are disconnected and have for centuries been disconnected from a central government and from each other.

Poverty is widespread. Basic infrastructure is lacking. The national and local governments have little capacity to deliver service, let alone security. And you have five neighboring nations who view their interest being affected by what happens in Afghanistan.

And so after my trip, President Obama ordered a comprehensive review of the policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we want to make sure that our goals are clear and achievable because, I would respectfully suggest, none of you nor us could say precisely what our goal is in Afghanistan.

What is the goal? Precisely what is the goal? And I don't want to prejudge the review although I have strong feelings about it. But I'll say this much. The United States will continue to work for a stable Afghanistan, so it's not a haven for terrorists.

And we expect, we expect, to share that commitment, with the governments and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as with our allies and partners, because the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan is not just our problem. It's the world's problem. We've got to make Afghanistan the world's responsibility, not just the United States'. (Applause.)

And so folks, to tackle that problem, to state the obvious, we need a comprehensive strategy that brings together our civilian and military resources, prevents becoming a safe haven for terrorists and helps the Afghan people develop a capacity to deal with their own future.

And we also have to strengthen our cooperation, with the people and the government of Pakistan, because there is no solution, and many of you know this. There is no solution in Afghanistan without Pakistan.

If their bottom line is fundamentally different than our bottom line, we've got a big, big problem. The basic driver of violence in Afghanistan is the struggle over and among the Pashtun.

They -- they -- they live on both sides of that 1,500-mile Afghan- Pakistani border. And it's porous. Although 14 million Pashtuns live in Afghanistan -- but 27 million Pashtun live in Pakistan. Now, they make up the majority of the population in Afghanistan. But they are literally -- literally -- only half the total -- they're less than -- excuse me, they're one-third the population of the Pashtun. Twice as many Pashtun live all the way up through Waziristan, up into Swat and in those areas, than live in Afghanistan.

So if we think we can solve this problem, which is essentially (an) intra-Pashtun problem right now, without -- without working it out somehow with Pakistan, I think we are making a very, very bad judgment. We need to do much more in that context, in my view, to help stabilize Pakistan and to foster economic development and opportunity throughout the country.

And I think the best antidote to extremism that threatens Pakistan itself -- a nuclear-weapon state with a very fragile democracy sitting on a fault line with India and with the second- largest Muslim -- which has the second-largest Muslim population in the world -- is that we -- we got to get engaged, in a way. We -- we have to change the relationship with Pakistan (from ?) one that's transactional to one that is permanent. We lost a lot of ground.

You know, everybody's so excited about Kayani, who heads up their military. He is the last military guy to go through our schooling system. That's why we can deal with him so well. The Pressler Amendment ended, essentially, cooperation, and cut it off. So the military-to-military impact we've had in the past, as I can tell you, is gone. So we got a lot to do. They lack capacity, as well as will in some areas.

The bottom line is -- and I'm taking too much of your time -- is that we need to demonstrate to the Pakistani people that the United States is not a transactional ally that only pays attention and -- when they do what we need them to do, but is, in fact, an ally that has their long-term interest in -- and that's why I hope we're going to be coming back to you -- I believe the administration will -- to support what used to be called the Biden-Lugar Amendment for $1.5 billion: commitment to them that's economic; economic. Now, again, I talked about -- (applause) -- hard votes.

Guys, we're going to come up to you, and your appropriators and your authorizers are going to be sitting there and say, "Joe, you want me to vote for $1.5 billion for Pakistan? And I'm -- I have -- I just lost another 70,000 jobs in my state this month?" Goes back to my point about hard decisions. Hard decisions.

Every time you think of that one, think of -- think of Truman demobilizing 12 million men and women in uniform after having a million of them killed by the very people -- he came along and said, "By the way, let's give them hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild their country." And imagine what would have happened if the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan -- not been put in place. They're the kind of hard decisions.

So, folks, let me conclude by saying, look, at the end of the day I think this is -- I think we get rewarded or punished not based on whether we make mistakes as we try to go through this but whether or not we seem small, whether or not we are seen as political, whether or not we're seen as only looking at our self-interest. Folks, nobody, if we make it, is going to say, you know, the House did it or the Senate did it or the president did it or the Senate didn't do it or the House didn't do it or they did.

The bottom line is -- this is such a trite expression -- we're all going to sink or swim together, man. There ain't anything in between. There really isn't. Unlike anytime before, I'm telling you, this one politician's point of view -- it won't matter. You can do everything right in the House and we can do everything wrong at the White House and you're toast. Conversely, you can do everything wrong and we can do everything right. We're toast. This is about all of us. We're in this together.

And the commitment I'll make to you -- (applause) -- the commitment I'll make to you -- and I'm sure the president will make, has made to you -- when we get through this, we try to make the -- make these tough decisions and some of us are going to have to swallow hard -- some of you already swallowed hard, and they're going to have to swallow hard other places and so are we -- to get a unified position, that when it's done -- if it works, as I am absolutely convinced it will -- I'm absolutely convinced that our best days are ahead of us. I'm not just saying that. I really believe that with every fiber in my being, that this is an opportunity.

But when we do, you're going to be -- I'm sure you're going to be nailed in ads, you know, they voted on that, or a 30-second ad. I promise you, as old Jim Eason (sp) once said to me, I'll come campaign for you or against you, whichever will help you the most in your district. (Laughter.) And so will the president, because, again, we're all in this together.

We can't get -- the only thing we can get wrong is not reaching a consensus among ourselves as a White House, a Senate and a House and demonstrating to the American people that we're thinking small and politically. You have not. You've thought big.

Nancy, let me close by saying thank you. Thank you personally as the vice president. And I'm sure -- I was with you when the president personally thanked you, and he means it. Thank you for taking such swift, decisive action and moving, as you did, within the limits that were laid out there. And I just hope we're able to -- and I believe we will, over the next weekend, be able to finish this, get it done and then move on.

But anyway, thank you all so much. I appreciate -- (inaudible due to applause).


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