Friday, January 20, 2012

The State of the Union Obama Should Deliver

Vice President Biden, Speaker Boehner, Members of Congress, My Fellow Americans:

I come before you tonight to report on the State of our Union and to tell you that our country is getting back on the right track after surviving the most devastating economic blow we have experienced in three generations.  The state of our union is improving because of the resiliency of the American people, the ingenuity of our small businesses and entrepreneurs, the effectiveness and bravery of our soldiers and the unshakeable belief in American exceptionalism that is shown in ways both great and small each and every day throughout our country and in the many ways we support efforts around the globe.

When I first stood before you three years ago, our nation faced a dark time.  Our economy was shrinking at an annual rate of 9%, nearly three quarters of a million jobs were being lost each month and a grave risk of a second Great Depression stared us in the face.  Between late 2008 and early 2009, our country lost nearly 4 million jobs – a number that would be staggering had it occurred over six years, much less six months.  Wars raged in Iraq and Afghanistan and Osama Bin Laden remained at large. 

But even in a time that appeared so bleak, the power and strength of our ideas and our people were determined not to give up.  We used that time to clear away the excesses of a past era and usher in the policies that are beginning to bear meaningful fruit.  An auto industry that appeared on the brink of extinction has come back to life because of the willingness of labor unions and management to share in the sacrifice that was needed to put their financial house in order.  Our car companies are leaner, more competitive and producing more fuel efficient vehicles than at any other time in our country’s history.  In the meantime, we also worked with the entire auto industry to improve fuel efficiency standards that will reduce emissions and improve our environment in the years ahead. 

But our job creation has been more broad-based than that.  Over the past two years, as hiring first stabilized and then expanded, we have seen sustained manufacturing growth for the first time since the 1990s, a continued need for health care providers, nurses and other practitioners and even a modest rebound in construction.  As part of the American Jobs Act, I have called on Congress to continue investing in critical infrastructure programs that will rebuild and refurbish bridges, roads, schools and other public works projects that will not only put more people back to work, but are desperately needed in communities across the country. 

I am also proud to say that we have made significant new investments in alternative energy, which is now one of the fastest growing industries in our country, with dozens of new companies innovating and researching ways to leverage renewable sources have that has catapulted the United States into a competitive position globally.  Under my Administration, we approved the largest wind farm in North America, quadrupled the amount of clean energy utilized on public land and are now a world leader in clean energy investment.  These critical investments will not only pay off in the long run, as our dependence on foreign oil is reduced, but it will provide competitive wages for jobs that cannot be outsourced in the future. 

As it has been throughout those times in our nation’s history when prosperity was most broadly shared, my focus has been on creating an environment where middle and working class families can succeed.  This is why we have cut taxes for these families, expanded access to health coverage for young adults who are now able to stay on their parents plans until age 26, streamlined the student loan process and made college education more affordable, and launched a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau whose only job is to make sure that corporations play by the rules and do not try to take advantage of people when it comes to lending money to them.  By putting a floor beneath wage earners who suffered so deeply between 2007 and 2009, we are beginning to see the makings of a true economic rebound in our country. 

While these steps are a start, we must also acknowledge that too many Americans are still finding it difficult to secure a good job.  We have taken steps to provide tax credits for hiring veterans, and I have called for tax incentives that encourage insourcing jobs and employment and no longer rewarding companies who take their profits and workforce outside our borders.  Similarly, I am again calling on Congress to reject generous loopholes and tax exemptions for corporate jet owners, multinational oil corporations and other benefits that widen the gulf between rich and poor.  I am heartened by forward thinking ideas like the State of Georgia’s plan that connects unemployment with apprenticeships and part-time to full-time employment and I am open to hearing ideas from both sides of the aisle about other ways government can partner with business to keep the engine of job creation moving forward, but I reject, categorically, the idea that we should not be investing in our infrastructure, in modern transportation upgrades like high speed rail or allowing other nations to leapfrog ahead of us in the technologies of tomorrow.  We can continue strengthening job growth right here at home if Congress is willing to put country before party and make the investments in our nation that are so desperately needed.  We cannot wait. 

We must also do more to address the ongoing housing and foreclosure problem.  Tonight, I am announcing several steps to address this issue:  First, in order for the maximum number of home owners to take advantage of historically low interest rates, I am calling for a cap of $1,000 on all fees charged by governmental entities connected with the refinancing of mortgages by homeowners who are current on their payments and have been so for the past 6 months.  Further, I am asking the head of our Commodities Futures Trading Commission, Gary Gensler, to take on a further role in working directly with our nation’s largest lenders to create a program that encourages those lenders and servicers of mortgage debt to work with homeowners who are delinquent to refinance those loans in ways that include writing down principal, allowing for foreclosure and simultaneous rental back to the homeowner or other means to maintain home ownership where appropriate.  Third, I will propose so-called “cram down” legislation that will modify our bankruptcy laws and grant bankruptcy judges the authority to write down principal where such action is deemed in the best interest of the home owner. 

Simply because we are in an election season does not mean we should shirk our responsibilities to the American people.  I am again calling on Congress to immediately extend the payroll tax cut through the end of this year.  Unlike far larger tax cuts that were passed in prior years, ours is fully paid for with offsets and will help 160 million Americans.  In the meantime, I am again extending my hand to Congress to work with me on a long-term, balanced approach to our budget and debt issues that does not take important protections away from the elderly, the poor and children and asks of those who have been fortunate enough to have financial security to contribute their fair share.  Ours should not be a country that believes those who reap dividends and capital gains or utilize off shore tax shelters should benefit when police officers, teachers and firemen are taxed at higher rates.  Further, we cannot remove the very safeguards that have protected our senior citizens from the ravages of poverty and the vagaries of the health insurance system simply because we feel the strain of temporary fiscal pain.  No generation, no President and no Congress should support eliminating Medicare, a program that ensures basic health protection and coverage when we are old and is overwhelmingly supported by the American people, or Social Security, which has done more to rid our nation of poverty among our senior citizens than any other law in our nation’s history. 

This should not be a controversial decision.  In the 1980s, President Reagan worked with a Democratic Congress to raise taxes and make changes to Social Security that were done to improve our fiscal situation and ensure Social Security’s stability for decades to come.  In 1990, President George H.W. Bush also compromised with Democratic leaders to raise some taxes and also to put Congress on a “pay as you go” diet to rein in spending.  When President Clinton modestly raised taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans while making sensible investments in research and development, education, law enforcement and small business, our economy created more than 22 million new jobs.  Some may have forgotten, but when President Clinton left office, our national debt was on pace to be paid off – in full – by 2014.  The Social Security Trust Fund’s surplus ran into the trillions and our budget surplus topped $234 billion.  But when pay go rules were done away with, and tax cuts that primarily benefited the rich were passed, our economy suffered and more importantly, the people least able to bear the damage of recession were impacted.  These policies, along with an unfunded prescription drug plan and a decade of war have left our finances in peril. 

Make no mistake, everyone sitting in this chamber understands that we as a nation cannot continue to make the promises we all agree must be made – to our seniors, to our military and to the middle class that is the backbone of our country – without asking more of those who have the most.  To those who say that compromise is a dirty word, I say that our nation’s history proves you wrong and our nation’s future depends on our ability to find common ground.  We can no more continue to govern by crisis – debt ceiling, annual budget and tax cut extension - than we can govern under the reckless fiscal policies that got us into this mess in the first place.  We need to work together to solve our problems and put partisanship aside.  It was good enough for Reagan and Bush, surely it is good enough for Boehner and McConnell.

Even as we move to secure our nation’s long-term fiscal stability, we cannot short change the investments that must be made to ensure our nation’s long-term competitiveness.  That is why, under the leadership of Secretary Arne Duncan we have incentivized states that are willing to think creatively about ways to improve education.  Our Race to the Top program has attracted new ideas and proposals from dozens of states eager to experiment and think differently about public school education.  We are also providing grants to non-profits and other organizations willing to model Promise Community programs that are based on the wildly successful Harlem Children’s Zone program led by Geoffrey Canada in New York City.  Education does not need to be an either/or prospect of public schools on the one hand and private and charter schools on the other.  What we are showing is that our educational system is broad enough, and competitive enough to house both.  Charter schools are no more a panacea to what ails education than public schools are to blame.  There is good in both and there are also places in both where improvement is needed. 

This is also true of our own halls of government here in Washington, D.C. It is my firm belief that sensible, but not burdensome regulation is necessary and that is why I have advocated for powers like those now held by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and others that were passed as part of our financial reform work in the past Congress.  While some quickly forget that lax regulation and oversight helped cause the financial mess we found ourselves in a few years ago, I would not be upholding the oath of my office were I to ignore this fact and turn a blind eye to the need for financial, environmental and other oversight that ensures our clean air, water, the safety of our food supply and protection against financial predation.  While these protections are no doubt important, I do not advocate regulation for its own sake.  To date, I have approved fewer regulations than my predecessor and my staff and the agencies and cabinet offices carefully vet proposed regulations before allowing them to move forward.  Where we think regulation needs additional input, reconsideration or thought, we are not afraid to say so. 

Similarly, I recently asked Congress to provide authority for me to follow through on a pledge I made last year – to look across the executive branch and determine where greater efficiency and streamlining of government can take place.  A few weeks ago, I proposed the merging of several agencies and offices in an effort to reduce overlap and improve performance.  As we have asked federal workers to accept wage freezes and trimmed overall employment, I would ask Congressional offices to do the same – to look at places where they can be more efficient, spend fewer tax payer dollars and lead by example when it comes to providing our citizens a government that lives within its means.

Our work is of course not limited to the borders of our nation.  The brave men and women who are fighting for us abroad deserve our thanks and praise.  Because of their hard work, we have accomplished enormous things.  Our commitment in Iraq has been brought to an end and the future of that country placed securely in the hands of those who the Iraqi people have chosen to lead them.  Our aggressive pursuit of Al-Qaeda resulted in the killing of Osama Bin Laden and our intelligence gathering has led to the capture and killing of many other senior level Al Qaeda leaders. As we secure and hold territory in Afghanistan, we are also training Afghani forces to take over when we begin our withdrawal in 2014.  My Administration remains open to working with the Afghani government in negotiating an end to that war under terms well known to Taliban leaders – an acceptance of Afghanistan’s Constitution, a full renunciation of violence and terrorism and a willingness to work within the political process that has now been established.  Ultimately, America cannot dictate Afghanistan’s future, only the Afghani people can, but what we will not do is leave that country as it was before we got there – a terrorist safe haven used to launch attacks on American citizens. 

In other parts of the Middle East, my Administration will continue to work with those forces that are committed to peaceful democratic processes and encourage all governments to respect the rights of its citizens.  At the same time, we will not turn a blind eye to the work being done in Iran, where we are working under the leadership of Secretary Clinton to ensure that sanctions imposed on the Iranian regime remain firm, constricting and compel their government to understand the world does not support its drive for nuclear weaponry.  As we did in marshaling support and a broad based alliance to topple Khadafi’s dictatorship in Libya, we will continue working with allies in the Middle East and at the United Nations to smother Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear bomb. 

Our work will not be done tomorrow, next week, next month, or even during any of our terms of office.  But what we have done in the past three years, and more importantly, what we can do together in the next year, is solidify a foundation upon which the American Dream can be reborn, where our communities are again thriving, our employment base expanding and our faith and belief in the decency, goodness and fairness that is at the core of our country is renewed.  In the last decade, our country suffered through deep trauma, a terrorist attack, war and near economic Depression, but America is coming back because that is what we do.  I hope you will join me in working for all Americans so we can help ensure a better tomorrow.

Thank you and God Bless the United States of America.

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