Hello, Racine! It is great to be back home in the Midwest. I thought I'd get out of Washington for the day and escape the heat. Maybe get a brat and some cheese curds while I'm here. Just don't tell Michelle.
What I really wanted was the chance to talk with all of you about what's on your mind. And all of our minds. I know that towns like Racine are still hurting from this recession. This city has the second highest unemployment in the state, and I can only imagine how much pain that's caused and how many lives have been upended. Maybe you're still out of work, and you're tired of sending out resumes with no response. Maybe you've got a job, but you can't seem to pay that stack of bills that keeps piling up in your kitchen. Or maybe you've looked through the family budget, and have no idea how you'll put enough money away for your kids' college education or your own retirement.
I hear worries like this all the time – from the folks I talk to and in the letters I read each night. It's frustrating and it's heartbreaking. That's why even though there's plenty of challenges on our plate, none is more important than reversing the damage of the great recession and getting folks back to work.
We had to take some tough steps to pull the country out of the freefall we faced when I took office. Back then, the economy was shrinking faster than it had in decades. Today, it's growing again. Back then, we were losing an average of 750,000 jobs a month. Today, we've added private sector jobs for five months in a row.
So now the economy is headed in the right direction. But I know that for a lot of Americans – for Racine and many other communities- it's not headed there fast enough. Not if you're out of work. Not if you can't pay the mortgage. Not if you can't take care of your family. I understand that. The truth is, from the day we walked into the White House, we knew that the crisis we faced was so severe that it would take months, and even years, to dig ourselves out from one of the worst recessions in history.
That's why I've been fighting for additional steps to speed up this recovery and keep our economy growing. We want an extension of unemployment benefits for workers who lost their job through no fault of their own. We want to help small business owners get the loans they need to keep their doors open and hire more workers. We want relief for struggling states so they don't have to lay off thousands of teachers and cops and firefighters.
Unfortunately, a minority of Senators from the other party has a different idea. As we speak, they're using their power to stop this relief from going to the American people. In fact, they won't even let these measures come up for a vote.
Now, some of this is just politics. Before I was even inaugurated, the congressional leaders of the other party got together and made a calculation that if I failed, they'd win. They figure if they just keep saying no to everything and nothing gets done, they'll get more votes in November. It's no wonder folks are so cynical about politics.
But to be fair, the other party's opposition has also been rooted in their sincere beliefs about how the economy works. They believe that our economy will do better if we simply let the banks and oil companies and insurance industry make their own rules. They still believe that—even after Wall street crashed and the BP oil well blew. They think we should keep on doing what they did for most of the last decade, leading up to the recession. Their prescription for every challenge is pretty much the same: cut taxes for the wealthy, cut rules for corporations and cut working folks loose to fend for themselves.
The problem is, we've already tried these ideas. We tried them for a good part of the last decade. And we know where they led us.
On Wall Street, the financial industry and its lobbyists spent years chipping away at rules and safeguards that could have prevented the meltdown caused by Lehmann Brothers and AIG. Instead, we saw a disaster that nearly led to the collapse of our economy.
In the Gulf of Mexico, we don't yet know what caused the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. But we do know that for decades, the oil industry has been able to essentially write its own rules and safety regulations. Industry insiders were put in charge of industry oversight. And oil and gas companies were basically allowed to fill out their own safety inspection forms.
In Washington, nearly a decade of tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires led to little more than sluggish job growth and a smaller middle class. And for all the other party's moralizing about fiscal discipline, these economic policies also turned a $237 billion surplus into a $1.3 trillion deficit.
Now, I've never believed that government has all the answers. Government cannot and should not replace businesses as the true engine of growth and job creation in this country. Government should live within its means, and we should root out waste and abuse of taxpayer dollars wherever we can. And too much regulation can stifle competition and hurt businesses.
But throughout our nation's history, we have recognized that there have been times when only government has been able to do what individuals couldn't do and corporations wouldn't do. That's how we have railroads and highways; public schools and police forces. That's how we've made possible scientific research that's led to medical breakthroughs and technological wonders That's how we have Social Security, a minimum wage, and laws to protect the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. That's how we have rules to ensure that mines are safe and that oil companies pay for the spills they cause.
There have always been those who've said no to these ideas and policies. There were accusations that Social Security would lead to socialism, and that Medicare was a government takeover. There were automakers who argued that installing seat belts was unnecessary and unaffordable. There were skeptics who thought the cleaning of our water and our air would bankrupt our economy.
Well you know what? The skeptics were wrong then, and they're wrong today. This debate we're having in Washington isn't about big government or small government. It's about responsible government. It's about accountable government. It's about a government that stands on the side of the American people – a government that breaks down barriers to opportunity and prosperity. That's the kind of government we need.
We already tried the other side's ideas. We already know where their theories led us. And now we have a choice as a nation. We can return to the failed economic policies of the past, or we can keep building a stronger future. We can go backward, or we can keep moving forward.
I don't know about you, but I want to move forward.
As we speak, we're on the verge of passing the most comprehensive financial reform since the Great Depression – reform that will prevent a crisis like this from happening again. It's reform that will protect our economy from the recklessness and irresponsibility of a few. Reform that will protect consumers against the unfair practices of credit card companies and mortgage lenders. Reform that ensures taxpayers are never again on the hook for Wall Street's mistakes.
But most of our friends in the other party are planning on voting against this reform. In fact, just yesterday, I was stunned to hear the leader of the Republicans in the House say that financial reform was like using a nuclear weapon to target an ant. That's right. He compared the financial crisis to an ant. The same financial crisis that led to the loss of nearly eight million jobs. The same crisis that cost people their homes and their lives savings.
Well if the Republican leader is that out of touch with the struggles facing the American people, he should come here to Racine and ask people if they think the financial crisis was an ant. He should ask the men and women who've been out of work for months at a time. He should ask the Americans who send me letters every night that talk about how they're barely hanging on.
These Americans don't believe the financial crisis was an ant. They know that it's what led to the worst recession since the Great Depression. And they expect their leaders in Washington to do whatever it takes to make sure a crisis like this never happens again. The Republican leader might want to maintain a status quo on Wall Street. But we want to move America forward.
There are some folks in the other party who are also against raising the limit on what companies like BP have to pay for the environmental disasters they cause. And a few Republicans have even said they're against the $20 billion fund that will be used to compensate the workers and businesses in the Gulf whose livelihoods have been harmed by the oil spill – a fund that is paid for by BP. The top Republican on the energy committee even had the nerve to apologize to BP for the fact that we made them set up this fund. Apologize to BP! He actually called the fund "a tragedy." A tragedy? A tragedy is what the people of the Gulf are going through right now. That's the tragedy. And our government has a responsibility to hold the corporations accountable that caused it. They want to take us backwards. We want to move forward.
Some of the same folks in Washington also want to maintain a status quo where we rely on oil and other fossil fuels for all of our energy needs. Even though we know that our dependence on these finite sources of energy jeopardizes our national security, our prosperity, and our planet.
I want to move forward. I believe it's time for this country to embrace a clean energy future. I don't want clean energy jobs and businesses to end up in places like China. I want this industry to take root in the United States of America. Already, we've provided entrepreneurs and small business owners with tax credits and loan guarantees that will lead to 720,000 clean energy jobs by 2012 – good-paying, middle-class, American jobs. It's time to build on that progress, not undo it. It's time we passed legislation that makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America's businesses. It's time to embark on a national mission to change the way we use and produce energy. It's time to move forward.
These are incredibly challenging times for America – especially for middle-class families and others who have been hurt by this recession. And unfortunately, the problems we face will not go away overnight. No President or politician has the power to make that happen – though many will try to tell you that as we get closer to Election Day.
What we can do is make a choice about which direction we want to take this country. What we can do – what we've always done – is to shape our own destiny as a nation.
The interests of the status quo will always have the most vocal and powerful defenders. There will always be lobbyists for the bank or the insurance industry that doesn't want more regulation; or the corporation that would prefer to see more tax breaks instead of more investments in infrastructure or education. And let's face it – a lot of us find the prospect of change scary, even when we know the status quo isn't working for us.
But there are no powerful interests to lobby for the clean energy company that may start a few years from now; or the research that may lead to a life-saving medical breakthrough; or the student who may not be able to afford a college education.
It's our job as a nation to advocate on behalf of the America we hope for – to make decisions that will benefit the next generation. Even if it's not always popular. Even if we can't always see those benefits in the short-term.
If we do that now – if we continue building that foundation and making those hard decisions on behalf of the next generation, I have no doubt that we will leave our children the America we hope for. Thank you.