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REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
ON THE ECONOMY
Osawatomie High School
December 6, 2011
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, everybody. Please, please have a seat. Thank you so much. Thank you. Good afternoon, everybody.
AUDIENCE: Good afternoon.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I want to start by thanking a few folks who’ve joined us today. We’ve got the mayor of Osawatomie, Phil Dudley is here. (Applause.) We have your superintendent Gary French in the house. (Applause.) And we have the principal of Osawatomie High, Doug Chisam. (Applause.) And I have brought your former governor, who is doing now an outstanding job as Secretary of Health and Human Services — Kathleen Sebelius is in the house. (Applause.) We love Kathleen.
My grandparents served during World War II. He was a soldier in Patton’s Army; she was a worker on a bomber assembly line. And together, they shared the optimism of a nation that triumphed over the Great Depression and over fascism. They believed in an America where hard work paid off, and responsibility was rewarded, and anyone could make it if they tried — no matter who you were, no matter where you came from, no matter how you started out. (Applause.)
And these values gave rise to the largest middle class and the strongest economy that the world has ever known. It was here in America that the most productive workers, the most innovative companies turned out the best products on Earth. And you know what? Every American shared in that pride and in that success — from those in the executive suites to those in middle management to those on the factory floor. (Applause.) So you could have some confidence that if you gave it your all, you’d take enough home to raise your family and send your kids to school and have your health care covered, put a little away for retirement.
Today, we’re still home to the world’s most productive workers. We’re still home to the world’s most innovative companies. But for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments — wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren’t — and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up.
Now, for many years, credit cards and home equity loans papered over this harsh reality. But in 2008, the house of cards collapsed. We all know the story by now: Mortgages sold to people who couldn’t afford them, or even sometimes understand them. Banks and investors allowed to keep packaging the risk and selling it off. Huge bets — and huge bonuses — made with other people’s money on the line. Regulators who were supposed to warn us about the dangers of all this, but looked the other way or didn’t have the authority to look at all.
It was wrong. It combined the breathtaking greed of a few with irresponsibility all across the system. And it plunged our economy and the world into a crisis from which we’re still fighting to recover. It claimed the jobs and the homes and the basic security of millions of people — innocent, hardworking Americans who had met their responsibilities but were still left holding the bag.
But, Osawatomie, this is not just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.
Now, in the midst of this debate, there are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. After all that’s happened, after the worst economic crisis, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess. In fact, they want to go back to the same policies that stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years. And their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.
You see, this isn’t the first time America has faced this choice. At the turn of the last century, when a nation of farmers was transitioning to become the world’s industrial giant, we had to decide: Would we settle for a country where most of the new railroads and factories were being controlled by a few giant monopolies that kept prices high and wages low? Would we allow our citizens and even our children to work ungodly hours in conditions that were unsafe and unsanitary? Would we restrict education to the privileged few? Because there were people who thought massive inequality and exploitation of people was just the price you pay for progress.
Theodore Roosevelt disagreed. He was the Republican son of a wealthy family. He praised what the titans of industry had done to create jobs and grow the economy. He believed then what we know is true today, that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. It’s led to a prosperity and a standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.
“Our country,” he said, “…means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy…of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.” (Applause.)
Now, for this, Roosevelt was called a radical. He was called a socialist — (laughter) — even a communist. But today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign: an eight-hour work day and a minimum wage for women — (applause) — insurance for the unemployed and for the elderly, and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax. (Applause.)
Factories where people thought they would retire suddenly picked up and went overseas, where workers were cheaper. Steel mills that needed 100 — or 1,000 employees are now able to do the same work with 100 employees, so layoffs too often became permanent, not just a temporary part of the business cycle. And these changes didn’t just affect blue-collar workers. If you were a bank teller or a phone operator or a travel agent, you saw many in your profession replaced by ATMs and the Internet.
Today, even higher-skilled jobs, like accountants and middle management can be outsourced to countries like China or India. And if you’re somebody whose job can be done cheaper by a computer or someone in another country, you don’t have a lot of leverage with your employer when it comes to asking for better wages or better benefits, especially since fewer Americans today are part of a union.
Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. “The market will take care of everything,” they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes — especially for the wealthy — our economy will grow stronger. Sure, they say, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else. And, they argue, even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, well, that’s the price of liberty.
Now, it’s a simple theory. And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That’s in America’s DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. (Laughter.) But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. (Applause.) It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ‘50s and ‘60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade. (Applause.) I mean, understand, it’s not as if we haven’t tried this theory.
Remember in those years, in 2001 and 2003, Congress passed two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history. And what did it get us? The slowest job growth in half a century. Massive deficits that have made it much harder to pay for the investments that built this country and provided the basic security that helped millions of Americans reach and stay in the middle class — things like education and infrastructure, science and technology, Medicare and Social Security.
Remember that in those same years, thanks to some of the same folks who are now running Congress, we had weak regulation, we had little oversight, and what did it get us? Insurance companies that jacked up people’s premiums with impunity and denied care to patients who were sick, mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes they couldn’t afford, a financial sector where irresponsibility and lack of basic oversight nearly destroyed our entire economy.
Look at the statistics. In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1 percent has gone up by more than 250 percent to $1.2 million per year. I’m not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars. I’m saying people who make a million dollars every single year. For the top one hundredth of 1 percent, the average income is now $27 million per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6 percent.
Now, this kind of inequality — a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression — hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country. That’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made. It’s also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run.
Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and it runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder. (Applause.) It leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them, that our elected representatives aren’t looking out for the interests of most Americans.
But there’s an even more fundamental issue at stake. This kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise that’s at the very heart of America: that this is a place where you can make it if you try. We tell people — we tell our kids — that in this country, even if you’re born with nothing, work hard and you can get into the middle class. We tell them that your children will have a chance to do even better than you do. That’s why immigrants from around the world historically have flocked to our shores.
And yet, over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk. You know, a few years after World War II, a child who was born into poverty had a slightly better than 50-50 chance of becoming middle class as an adult. By 1980, that chance had fallen to around 40 percent. And if the trend of rising inequality over the last few decades continues, it’s estimated that a child born today will only have a one-in-three chance of making it to the middle class — 33 percent. It’s heartbreaking enough that there are millions of working families in this country who are now forced to take their children to food banks for a decent meal. But the idea that those children might not have a chance to climb out of that situation and back into the middle class, no matter how hard they work? That’s inexcusable. It is wrong. (Applause.) It flies in the face of everything that we stand for. (Applause.)
Now, fortunately, that’s not a future that we have to accept, because there’s another view about how we build a strong middle class in this country — a view that’s truer to our history, a vision that’s been embraced in the past by people of both parties for more than 200 years.
So what does that mean for restoring middle-class security in today’s economy? Well, it starts by making sure that everyone in America gets a fair shot at success. The truth is we’ll never be able to compete with other countries when it comes to who’s best at letting their businesses pay the lowest wages, who’s best at busting unions, who’s best at letting companies pollute as much as they want. That’s a race to the bottom that we can’t win, and we shouldn’t want to win that race. (Applause.) Those countries don’t have a strong middle class. They don’t have our standard of living.
The race we want to win, the race we can win is a race to the top — the race for good jobs that pay well and offer middle-class security. Businesses will create those jobs in countries with the highest-skilled, highest-educated workers, the most advanced transportation and communication, the strongest commitment to research and technology.
The world is shifting to an innovation economy and nobody does innovation better than America. Nobody does it better. (Applause.) No one has better colleges. Nobody has better universities. Nobody has a greater diversity of talent and ingenuity. No one’s workers or entrepreneurs are more driven or more daring. The things that have always been our strengths match up perfectly with the demands of the moment.
Yes, business, and not government, will always be the primary generator of good jobs with incomes that lift people into the middle class and keep them there. But as a nation, we’ve always come together, through our government, to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed. (Applause.) And historically, that hasn’t been a partisan idea. Franklin Roosevelt worked with Democrats and Republicans to give veterans of World War II — including my grandfather, Stanley Dunham — the chance to go to college on the G.I. Bill. It was a Republican President, Dwight Eisenhower, a proud son of Kansas — (applause) — who started the Interstate Highway System, and doubled down on science and research to stay ahead of the Soviets.
Of course, those productive investments cost money. They’re not free. And so we’ve also paid for these investments by asking everybody to do their fair share. Look, if we had unlimited resources, no one would ever have to pay any taxes and we would never have to cut any spending. But we don’t have unlimited resources. And so we have to set priorities. If we want a strong middle class, then our tax code must reflect our values. We have to make choices.
In the long term, we have to rethink our tax system more fundamentally. We have to ask ourselves: Do we want to make the investments we need in things like education and research and high-tech manufacturing — all those things that helped make us an economic superpower? Or do we want to keep in place the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans in our country? Because we can’t afford to do both. That is not politics. That’s just math. (Laughter and applause.)
Keep in mind, when President Clinton first proposed these tax increases, folks in Congress predicted they would kill jobs and lead to another recession. Instead, our economy created nearly 23 million jobs and we eliminated the deficit. (Applause.) Today, the wealthiest Americans are paying the lowest taxes in over half a century. This isn’t like in the early ‘50s, when the top tax rate was over 90 percent. This isn’t even like the early ‘80s, when the top tax rate was about 70 percent. Under President Clinton, the top rate was only about 39 percent. Today, thanks to loopholes and shelters, a quarter of all millionaires now pay lower tax rates than millions of you, millions of middle-class families. Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1 percent. One percent.
Finally, a strong middle class can only exist in an economy where everyone plays by the same rules, from Wall Street to Main Street. (Applause.) As infuriating as it was for all of us, we rescued our major banks from collapse, not only because a full-blown financial meltdown would have sent us into a second Depression, but because we need a strong, healthy financial sector in this country.
But part of the deal was that we wouldn’t go back to business as usual. And that’s why last year we put in place new rules of the road that refocus the financial sector on what should be their core purpose: getting capital to the entrepreneurs with the best ideas, and financing millions of families who want to buy a home or send their kids to college.
Now, we’re not all the way there yet, and the banks are fighting us every inch of the way. But already, some of these reforms are being implemented.
If you’re a big bank or risky financial institution, you now have to write out a “living will” that details exactly how you’ll pay the bills if you fail, so that taxpayers are never again on the hook for Wall Street’s mistakes. (Applause.) There are also limits on the size of banks and new abilities for regulators to dismantle a firm that is going under. The new law bans banks from making risky bets with their customers’ deposits, and it takes away big bonuses and paydays from failed CEOs, while giving shareholders a say on executive salaries.
This is the law that we passed. We are in the process of implementing it now. All of this is being put in place as we speak. Now, unless you’re a financial institution whose business model is built on breaking the law, cheating consumers and making risky bets that could damage the entire economy, you should have nothing to fear from these new rules.
Some of you may know, my grandmother worked as a banker for most of her life — worked her way up, started as a secretary, ended up being a vice president of a bank. And I know from her, and I know from all the people that I’ve come in contact with, that the vast majority of bankers and financial service professionals, they want to do right by their customers. They want to have rules in place that don’t put them at a disadvantage for doing the right thing. And yet, Republicans in Congress are fighting as hard as they can to make sure that these rules aren’t enforced.
I’ll give you a specific example. For the first time in history, the reforms that we passed put in place a consumer watchdog who is charged with protecting everyday Americans from being taken advantage of by mortgage lenders or payday lenders or debt collectors. And the man we nominated for the post, Richard Cordray, is a former attorney general of Ohio who has the support of most attorney generals, both Democrat and Republican, throughout the country. Nobody claims he’s not qualified.
But the Republicans in the Senate refuse to confirm him for the job; they refuse to let him do his job. Why? Does anybody here think that the problem that led to our financial crisis was too much oversight of mortgage lenders or debt collectors?
THE PRESIDENT: Of course not. Every day we go without a consumer watchdog is another day when a student, or a senior citizen, or a member of our Armed Forces — because they are very vulnerable to some of this stuff — could be tricked into a loan that they can’t afford — something that happens all the time. And the fact is that financial institutions have plenty of lobbyists looking out for their interests. Consumers deserve to have someone whose job it is to look out for them. (Applause.) And I intend to make sure they do. (Applause.) And I want you to hear me, Kansas: I will veto any effort to delay or defund or dismantle the new rules that we put in place. (Applause.)
We shouldn’t be weakening oversight and accountability. We should be strengthening oversight and accountability. I’ll give you another example. Too often, we’ve seen Wall Street firms violating major anti-fraud laws because the penalties are too weak and there’s no price for being a repeat offender. No more. I’ll be calling for legislation that makes those penalties count so that firms don’t see punishment for breaking the law as just the price of doing business. (Applause.)
The fact is this crisis has left a huge deficit of trust between Main Street and Wall Street. And major banks that were rescued by the taxpayers have an obligation to go the extra mile in helping to close that deficit of trust. At minimum, they should be remedying past mortgage abuses that led to the financial crisis. They should be working to keep responsible homeowners in their home. We’re going to keep pushing them to provide more time for unemployed homeowners to look for work without having to worry about immediately losing their house.
Investing in things like education that give everybody a chance to succeed. A tax code that makes sure everybody pays their fair share. And laws that make sure everybody follows the rules. That’s what will transform our economy. That’s what will grow our middle class again. In the end, rebuilding this economy based on fair play, a fair shot, and a fair share will require all of us to see that we have a stake in each other’s success. And it will require all of us to take some responsibility.
It will require parents to get more involved in their children’s education. It will require students to study harder. (Applause.) It will require some workers to start studying all over again. It will require greater responsibility from homeowners not to take out mortgages they can’t afford. They need to remember that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
It will require those of us in public service to make government more efficient and more effective, more consumer-friendly, more responsive to people’s needs. That’s why we’re cutting programs that we don’t need to pay for those we do. (Applause.) That’s why we’ve made hundreds of regulatory reforms that will save businesses billions of dollars. That’s why we’re not just throwing money at education, we’re challenging schools to come up with the most innovative reforms and the best results.
And it will require American business leaders to understand that their obligations don’t just end with their shareholders. Andy Grove, the legendary former CEO of Intel, put it best. He said, “There is another obligation I feel personally, given that everything I’ve achieved in my career, and a lot of what Intel has achieved…were made possible by a climate of democracy, an economic climate and investment climate provided by the United States.”
This broader obligation can take many forms. At a time when the cost of hiring workers in China is rising rapidly, it should mean more CEOs deciding that it’s time to bring jobs back to the United States — (applause) — not just because it’s good for business, but because it’s good for the country that made their business and their personal success possible. (Applause.)
I think about a company based in Warroad, Minnesota. It’s called Marvin Windows and Doors. During the recession, Marvin’s competitors closed dozens of plants, let hundreds of workers go. But Marvin’s did not lay off a single one of their 4,000 or so employees — not one. In fact, they’ve only laid off workers once in over a hundred years. Mr. Marvin’s grandfather even kept his eight employees during the Great Depression.
We could be anywhere, but we are in Warroad.”
That’s how America was built. That’s why we’re the greatest nation on Earth. That’s what our greatest companies understand. Our success has never just been about survival of the fittest. It’s about building a nation where we’re all better off. We pull together. We pitch in. We do our part. We believe that hard work will pay off, that responsibility will be rewarded, and that our children will inherit a nation where those values live on. (Applause.)
And it is that belief that rallied thousands of Americans to Osawatomie — (applause) — maybe even some of your ancestors — on a rain-soaked day more than a century ago. By train, by wagon, on buggy, bicycle, on foot, they came to hear the vision of a man who loved this country and was determined to perfect it.
Thank you. God bless you. God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)