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President Obama's Speech Series on the Economy: A Better Bargain for the Middle Class

Speaker: Barack Obama
Published July 24, 2013

President Barack Obama gives a series of speeches on his vision for the economy, which he calls "A Better Bargain for the Middle Class."

Excerpt from the introductory speech, previewing the five topics President Obama will address in the series:

The first cornerstone of a strong and growing middle class has to be an economy that generates more good jobs in durable, growing industries. Over the past four years, for the first time since the 1990s, the number of American manufacturing jobs hasn't gone down; they've gone up. But we can do more. So I'll push new initiatives to help more manufacturers bring more jobs back to America. We'll continue to focus on strategies to create good jobs in wind, solar, and natural gas that are lowering energy costs and dangerous carbon pollution. And I'll push to open more manufacturing innovation institutes that turn regions left behind by global competition into global centers of cutting-edge jobs. Let's tell the world that America is open for business - including an old site right here in Galesburg, over on Monmouth Boulevard.

Tomorrow, I'll also visit the port of Jacksonville, Florida to offer new ideas for doing what America has always done best: building things. We've got ports that aren't ready for the new supertankers that will begin passing through the new Panama Canal in two years' time. We've got more than 100,000 bridges that are old enough to qualify for Medicare. Businesses depend on our transportation systems, our power grids, our communications networks - and rebuilding them creates good-paying jobs that can't be outsourced. And yet, as a share of our economy, we invest less in our infrastructure than we did two decades ago. That's inefficient at a time when it's as cheap as it's been since the 1950s. It's inexcusable at a time when so many of the workers who do this for a living sit idle. The longer we put this off, the more expensive it will be, and the less competitive we will be. The businesses of tomorrow won't locate near old roads and outdated ports; they'll relocate to places with high-speed internet; high-tech schools; systems that move air and auto traffic faster, not to mention get parents home to their kids faster. We can watch that happen in other countries, or we can choose to make it happen right here, in America.

In an age when jobs know no borders, companies will also seek out the country that boasts the most talented citizens, and reward them with good pay. The days when the wages for a worker with a high-school degree could keep pace with the earnings of someone who got some higher education are over. Technology and global competition aren't going away. So we can either throw up our hands and resign ourselves to diminished living standards, or we can do what America has always done: adapt, pull together, fight back and win.

Which brings me to the second cornerstone of a strong middle class: an education that prepares our children and our workers for the global competition they'll face.

If you think education is expensive, wait until you see how much ignorance costs in the 21st century. If we don't make this investment, we'll put our kids, our workers, and our country at a competitive disadvantage for decades. So we must begin in the earliest years. That's why I'll keep pushing to make high-quality preschool available to every four year-old in America - not just because we know it works for our kids, but because it provides a vital support system for working parents. I'll also take action to spur innovation in our schools that don't require Congress. Today, for example, federal agencies are moving on my plan to connect 99% of America's students to high-speed internet over the next five years. And we've begun meeting with business leaders, tech entrepreneurs, and innovative educators to identify the best ideas for redesigning our high schools so that they teach the skills required for a high-tech economy.

We'll also keep pushing new efforts to train workers for changing jobs. Here in Galesburg, many of the workers laid off at Maytag chose to enroll in retraining programs like the ones at Carl Sandburg College. And while it didn't pay off for everyone, many who retrained found jobs that suited them even better and paid even more. That's why I asked Congress to start a Community College to Career initiative, so that workers can earn the skills that high-tech jobs demand without leaving their hometown. And I'm challenging CEOs from some of America's best companies to hire more Americans who've got what it takes to fill that job opening, but have been laid off so long no one will give their resume an honest look.

I'm also going to use the power of my office over the next few months to highlight a topic that's straining the budgets of just about every American family - the soaring cost of higher education.

Three years ago, I worked with Democrats to reform the student loan system so that taxpayer dollars stopped padding the pockets of big banks, and instead helped more kids afford college. I capped loan repayments at 10% of monthly income for responsible borrowers. And this week, we're working with both parties to reverse the doubling of student loan rates that occurred a few weeks ago because of Congressional inaction.

It's all a good start - but it isn't enough. Families and taxpayers can't just keep paying more and more into an undisciplined system; we've got to get more out of what we pay for. Some colleges are testing new approaches to shorten the path to a degree, or blending teaching with online learning to help students master material and earn credits in less time. Some states are testing new ways to fund college based not just on how many students enroll, but how well they do. This afternoon, I'll visit the University of Central Missouri to highlight their efforts to deliver more bang for the buck. And in the coming months, I will lay out an aggressive strategy to shake up the system, tackle rising costs, and improve value for middle-class students and their families.

Now, if a good job and a good education have always been key stepping stones into the middle class, a home of your own has been the clearest expression of middle-class security. That changed during the crisis, when millions of middle-class families saw their home values plummet. Over the past four years, we've helped more responsible homeowners stay in their homes, and today, sales are up, prices are up, and fewer Americans see their homes underwater.

But we're not done yet. The key now is to encourage homeownership that isn't based on bubbles, but is instead based on a solid foundation, where buyers and lenders play by the same set of rules, rules that are clear, transparent, and fair. Already, I've asked Congress to pass a good, bipartisan idea - one that was championed by Mitt Romney's economic advisor - to give every homeowner the chance to refinance their mortgage and save thousands of dollars a year. I'm also acting on my own to cut red tape for responsible families who want to get a mortgage, but the bank says no. And we'll work with both parties to turn the page on Fannie and Freddie, and build a housing finance system that's rock-solid for future generations.

Along with homeownership, the fourth cornerstone of what it means to be middle class in this country is a secure retirement. Unfortunately, over the past decade, too many families watched their retirement recede from their grasp. Today, a rising stock market has millions of retirement balances rising. But we still live with an upside-down system where those at the top get generous tax incentives to save, while tens of millions of hardworking Americans get none at all. As we work to reform our tax code, we should find new ways to make it easier for workers to put money away, and free middle-class families from the fear that they'll never be able to retire. And if Congress is looking for a bipartisan place to get started, they don't have to look far: economists show that immigration reform that makes undocumented workers pay their full share of taxes would actually shore up Social Security for years.

Fifth, I will keep focusing on health care, because middle-class families and small business owners deserve the security of knowing that neither illness nor accident should threaten the dreams you've worked a lifetime to build.

As we speak, we are well on our way to fully implementing the Affordable Care Act. If you're one of the 85% of Americans who already have health insurance, you've got new benefits and better protections you didn't have before, like free checkups and mammograms and discounted medicine on Medicare. If you don't have health insurance, starting October 1st, private plans will actually compete for your business. You can comparison shop in an online marketplace, just like you would for TVs or plane tickets, and buy the one that fits your budget and is right for you. And if you're in the up to half of all Americans who've been sick or have a preexisting condition, this law means that that beginning January 1st, insurance companies finally have to cover you, and at the same rates they charge everybody else.

Now, I know there are folks out there who are actively working to make this law fail. But despite a politically-motivated misinformation campaign, the states that have committed themselves to making this law work are finding that competition and choice are actually pushing costs down. Just last week, New York announced that premiums for consumers who buy their insurance in these online marketplaces will be at least 50% less than what they pay today. That's right - folks' premiums in the individual market will drop by 50%. For them, and for the millions of Americans who have been able to cover their sick kids for the first time, or have been able to cover their employees more cheaply, or who will be getting tax breaks to afford insurance for the first time - you will have the security of knowing that everything you've worked hard for is no longer one illness away from being wiped out.

Finally, as we work to strengthen these cornerstones of middle-class security, I'm going to make the case for why we need to rebuild ladders of opportunity for all those Americans still trapped in poverty. Here in America, we've never guaranteed success. More than some other countries, we expect people to be self-reliant, and we've tolerated a little more inequality for the sake of a more dynamic, more adaptable economy. But that's always been combined with a commitment to upward mobility - the idea that no matter how poor you started, you can make it with hard work and discipline.

Unfortunately, opportunities for upward mobility in America have gotten harder to find over the past 30 years. That's a betrayal of the American idea. And that's why we have to do a lot more to give every American the chance to work their way into the middle class.

The best defense against all of these forces - global competition and economic polarization - is the strength of community. We need a new push to rebuild run-down neighborhoods. We need new partnerships with some of the hardest-hit towns in America to get them back on their feet. And because no one who works full-time in America should have to live in poverty, I will keep making the case that we need to raise a minimum wage that in real terms is lower than it was when Ronald Reagan took office. We are not a people who allow chance of birth to decide life's big winners and losers; and after years in which we've seen how easy it can be for any of us to fall on hard times, we cannot turn our backs when bad breaks hit any of our fellow citizens.

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