TO THE UNITED NATIONS GENERAL ASSEMBLY
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning. Mr. President, Mr. Secretary General, fellow delegates, ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor to address you for the first time as the 44th President of the United States. (Applause.) I come before you humbled by the responsibility that the American people have placed upon me, mindful of the enormous challenges of our moment in history, and determined to act boldly and collectively on behalf of justice and prosperity at home and abroad.
I have been in office for just nine months -- though some days it seems a lot longer. I am well aware of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world. These expectations are not about me. Rather, they are rooted, I believe, in a discontent with a status quo that has allowed us to be increasingly defined by our differences, and outpaced by our problems. But they are also rooted in hope -- the hope that real change is possible, and the hope that America will be a leader in bringing about such change.
I took office at a time when many around the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust. Part of this was due to misperceptions and misinformation about my country. Part of this was due to opposition to specific policies, and a belief that on certain critical issues, America has acted unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others. And this has fed an almost reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often has served as an excuse for collective inaction.
Now, like all of you, my responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people, and I will never apologize for defending those interests. But it is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 -- more than at any point in human history -- the interests of nations and peoples are shared. The religious convictions that we hold in our hearts can forge new bonds among people, or they can tear us apart. The technology we harness can light the path to peace, or forever darken it. The energy we use can sustain our planet, or destroy it. What happens to the hope of a single child -- anywhere -- can enrich our world, or impoverish it.
In this hall, we come from many places, but we share a common future. No longer do we have the luxury of indulging our differences to the exclusion of the work that we must do together. I have carried this message from London to Ankara; from Port of Spain to Moscow; from Accra to Cairo; and it is what I will speak about today -- because the time has come for the world to move in a new direction. We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and our work must begin now.
We know the future will be forged by deeds and not simply words. Speeches alone will not solve our problems -- it will take persistent action. For those who question the character and cause of my nation, I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months.
On my first day in office, I prohibited -- without exception or equivocation -- the use of torture by the United States of America. (Applause.) I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed, and we are doing the hard work of forging a framework to combat extremism within the rule of law. Every nation must know: America will live its values, and we will lead by example.
We have set a clear and focused goal: to work with all members of this body to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies -- a network that has killed thousands of people of many faiths and nations, and that plotted to blow up this very building. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, we and many nations here are helping these governments develop the capacity to take the lead in this effort, while working to advance opportunity and security for their people.
In Iraq, we are responsibly ending a war. We have removed American combat brigades from Iraqi cities, and set a deadline of next August to remove all our combat brigades from Iraqi territory. And I have made clear that we will help Iraqis transition to full responsibility for their future, and keep our commitment to remove all American troops by the end of 2011.
I have outlined a comprehensive agenda to seek the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. In Moscow, the United States and Russia announced that we would pursue substantial reductions in our strategic warheads and launchers. At the Conference on Disarmament, we agreed on a work plan to negotiate an end to the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. And this week, my Secretary of State will become the first senior American representative to the annual Members Conference of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Upon taking office, I appointed a Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, and America has worked steadily and aggressively to advance the cause of two states -- Israel and Palestine -- in which peace and security take root, and the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians are respected.
To confront climate change, we have invested $80 billion in clean energy. We have substantially increased our fuel-efficiency standards. We have provided new incentives for conservation, launched an energy partnership across the Americas, and moved from a bystander to a leader in international climate negotiations.
To overcome an economic crisis that touches every corner of the world, we worked with the G20 nations to forge a coordinated international response of over $2 trillion in stimulus to bring the global economy back from the brink. We mobilized resources that helped prevent the crisis from spreading further to developing countries. And we joined with others to launch a $20 billion global food security initiative that will lend a hand to those who need it most, and help them build their own capacity.
We've also re-engaged the United Nations. We have paid our bills. We have joined the Human Rights Council. (Applause.) We have signed the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We have fully embraced the Millennium Development Goals. And we address our priorities here, in this institution -- for instance, through the Security Council meeting that I will chair tomorrow on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, and through the issues that I will discuss today.
This is what we have already done. But this is just a beginning. Some of our actions have yielded progress. Some have laid the groundwork for progress in the future. But make no mistake: This cannot solely be America's endeavor. Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone. We have sought -- in word and deed -- a new era of engagement with the world. And now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.
Now, if we are honest with ourselves, we need to admit that we are not living up to that responsibility. Consider the course that we're on if we fail to confront the status quo: Extremists sowing terror in pockets of the world; protracted conflicts that grind on and on; genocide; mass atrocities; more nations with nuclear weapons; melting ice caps and ravaged populations; persistent poverty and pandemic disease. I say this not to sow fear, but to state a fact: The magnitude of our challenges has yet to be met by the measure of our actions.
This body was founded on the belief that the nations of the world could solve their problems together. Franklin Roosevelt, who died before he could see his vision for this institution become a reality, put it this way -- and I quote: "The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man, or one party, or one nation…. It cannot be a peace of large nations -- or of small nations. It must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world."
The cooperative effort of the whole world. Those words ring even more true today, when it is not simply peace, but our very health and prosperity that we hold in common. Yet we also know that this body is made up of sovereign states. And sadly, but not surprisingly, this body has often become a forum for sowing discord instead of forging common ground; a venue for playing politics and exploiting grievances rather than solving problems. After all, it is easy to walk up to this podium and point figures -- point fingers and stoke divisions. Nothing is easier than blaming others for our troubles, and absolving ourselves of responsibility for our choices and our actions. Anybody can do that. Responsibility and leadership in the 21st century demand more.
In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold. The traditional divisions between nations of the South and the North make no sense in an interconnected world; nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War.
The time has come to realize that the old habits, the old arguments, are irrelevant to the challenges faced by our people. They lead nations to act in opposition to the very goals that they claim to pursue -- and to vote, often in this body, against the interests of their own people. They build up walls between us and the future that our people seek, and the time has come for those walls to come down. Together, we must build new coalitions that bridge old divides -- coalitions of different faiths and creeds; of north and south, east, west, black, white, and brown.
The choice is ours. We can be remembered as a generation that chose to drag the arguments of the 20th century into the 21st; that put off hard choices, refused to look ahead, failed to keep pace because we defined ourselves by what we were against instead of what we were for. Or we can be a generation that chooses to see the shoreline beyond the rough waters ahead; that comes together to serve the common interests of human beings, and finally gives meaning to the promise embedded in the name given to this institution: the United Nations.
That is the future America wants -- a future of peace and prosperity that we can only reach if we recognize that all nations have rights, but all nations have responsibilities as well. That is the bargain that makes this work. That must be the guiding principle of international cooperation.
Today, let me put forward four pillars that I believe are fundamental to the future that we want for our children: non-proliferation and disarmament; the promotion of peace and security; the preservation of our planet; and a global economy that advances opportunity for all people.
First, we must stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and seek the goal of a world without them.
This institution was founded at the dawn of the atomic age, in part because man's capacity to kill had to be contained. For decades, we averted disaster, even under the shadow of a superpower stand-off. But today, the threat of proliferation is growing in scope and complexity. If we fail to act, we will invite nuclear arms races in every region, and the prospect of wars and acts of terror on a scale that we can hardly imagine.
A fragile consensus stands in the way of this frightening outcome, and that is the basic bargain that shapes the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It says that all nations have the right to peaceful nuclear energy; that nations with nuclear weapons have a responsibility to move toward disarmament; and those without them have the responsibility to forsake them. The next 12 months could be pivotal in determining whether this compact will be strengthened or will slowly dissolve.
America intends to keep our end of the bargain. We will pursue a new agreement with Russia to substantially reduce our strategic warheads and launchers. We will move forward with ratification of the Test Ban Treaty, and work with others to bring the treaty into force so that nuclear testing is permanently prohibited. We will complete a Nuclear Posture Review that opens the door to deeper cuts and reduces the role of nuclear weapons. And we will call upon countries to begin negotiations in January on a treaty to end the production of fissile material for weapons.
I will also host a summit next April that reaffirms each nation's responsibility to secure nuclear material on its territory, and to help those who can't -- because we must never allow a single nuclear device to fall into the hands of a violent extremist. And we will work to strengthen the institutions and initiatives that combat nuclear smuggling and theft.
All of this must support efforts to strengthen the NPT. Those nations that refuse to live up to their obligations must face consequences. Let me be clear, this is not about singling out individual nations -- it is about standing up for the rights of all nations that do live up to their responsibilities. Because a world in which IAEA inspections are avoided and the United Nation's demands are ignored will leave all people less safe, and all nations less secure.
In their actions to date, the governments of North Korea and Iran threaten to take us down this dangerous slope. We respect their rights as members of the community of nations. I've said before and I will repeat, I am committed to diplomacy that opens a path to greater prosperity and more secure peace for both nations if they live up to their obligations.
But if the governments of Iran and North Korea choose to ignore international standards; if they put the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability and the security and opportunity of their own people; if they are oblivious to the dangers of escalating nuclear arms races in both East Asia and the Middle East -- then they must be held accountable. The world must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise, and that treaties will be enforced. We must insist that the future does not belong to fear.
That brings me to the second pillar for our future: the pursuit of peace.
The United Nations was born of the belief that the people of the world can live their lives, raise their families, and resolve their differences peacefully. And yet we know that in too many parts of the world, this ideal remains an abstraction -- a distant dream. We can either accept that outcome as inevitable, and tolerate constant and crippling conflict, or we can recognize that the yearning for peace is universal, and reassert our resolve to end conflicts around the world.
That effort must begin with an unshakeable determination that the murder of innocent men, women and children will never be tolerated. On this, no one can be -- there can be no dispute. The violent extremists who promote conflict by distorting faith have discredited and isolated themselves. They offer nothing but hatred and destruction. In confronting them, America will forge lasting partnerships to target terrorists, share intelligence, and coordinate law enforcement and protect our people. We will permit no safe haven for al Qaeda to launch attacks from Afghanistan or any other nation. We will stand by our friends on the front lines, as we and many nations will do in pledging support for the Pakistani people tomorrow. And we will pursue positive engagement that builds bridges among faiths, and new partnerships for opportunity.
Our efforts to promote peace, however, cannot be limited to defeating violent extremists. For the most powerful weapon in our arsenal is the hope of human beings -- the belief that the future belongs to those who would build and not destroy; the confidence that conflicts can end and a new day can begin.
And that is why we will support -- we will strengthen our support for effective peacekeeping, while energizing our efforts to prevent conflicts before they take hold. We will pursue a lasting peace in Sudan through support for the people of Darfur and the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, so that we secure the peace that the Sudanese people deserve. (Applause.) And in countries ravaged by violence -- from Haiti to Congo to East Timor -- we will work with the U.N. and other partners to support an enduring peace.
I will also continue to seek a just and lasting peace between Israel, Palestine, and the Arab world. (Applause.) We will continue to work on that issue. Yesterday, I had a constructive meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. We have made some progress. Palestinians have strengthened their efforts on security. Israelis have facilitated greater freedom of movement for the Palestinians. As a result of these efforts on both sides, the economy in the West Bank has begun to grow. But more progress is needed. We continue to call on Palestinians to end incitement against Israel, and we continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. (Applause.)
The time has come -- the time has come to re-launch negotiations without preconditions that address the permanent status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians, borders, refugees, and Jerusalem. And the goal is clear: Two states living side by side in peace and security -- a Jewish state of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people. (Applause.)
As we pursue this goal, we will also pursue peace between Israel and Lebanon, Israel and Syria, and a broader peace between Israel and its many neighbors. In pursuit of that goal, we will develop regional initiatives with multilateral participation, alongside bilateral negotiations.
Now, I am not naïve. I know this will be difficult. But all of us -- not just the Israelis and the Palestinians, but all of us -- must decide whether we are serious about peace, or whether we will only lend it lip service. To break the old patterns, to break the cycle of insecurity and despair, all of us must say publicly what we would acknowledge in private. The United States does Israel no favors when we fail to couple an unwavering commitment to its security with an insistence that Israel respect the legitimate claims and rights of the Palestinians. (Applause.) And -- and nations within this body do the Palestinians no favors when they choose vitriolic attacks against Israel over constructive willingness to recognize Israel's legitimacy and its right to exist in peace and security. (Applause.)
We must remember that the greatest price of this conflict is not paid by us. It's not paid by politicians. It's paid by the Israeli girl in Sderot who closes her eyes in fear that a rocket will take her life in the middle of the night. It's paid for by the Palestinian boy in Gaza who has no clean water and no country to call his own. These are all God's children. And after all the politics and all the posturing, this is about the right of every human being to live with dignity and security. That is a lesson embedded in the three great faiths that call one small slice of Earth the Holy Land. And that is why, even though there will be setbacks and false starts and tough days, I will not waver in my pursuit of peace. (Applause.)
Third, we must recognize that in the 21st century, there will be no peace unless we take responsibility for the preservation of our planet. And I thank the Secretary General for hosting the subject of climate change yesterday.
The danger posed by climate change cannot be denied. Our responsibility to meet it must not be deferred. If we continue down our current course, every member of this Assembly will see irreversible changes within their borders. Our efforts to end conflicts will be eclipsed by wars over refugees and resources. Development will be devastated by drought and famine. Land that human beings have lived on for millennia will disappear. Future generations will look back and wonder why we refused to act; why we failed to pass on -- why we failed to pass on an environment that was worthy of our inheritance.
And that is why the days when America dragged its feet on this issue are over. We will move forward with investments to transform our energy economy, while providing incentives to make clean energy the profitable kind of energy. We will press ahead with deep cuts in emissions to reach the goals that we set for 2020, and eventually 2050. We will continue to promote renewable energy and efficiency, and share new technologies with countries around the world. And we will seize every opportunity for progress to address this threat in a cooperative effort with the entire world.
And those wealthy nations that did so much damage to the environment in the 20th century must accept our obligation to lead. But responsibility does not end there. While we must acknowledge the need for differentiated responses, any effort to curb carbon emissions must include the fast-growing carbon emitters who can do more to reduce their air pollution without inhibiting growth. And any effort that fails to help the poorest nations both adapt to the problems that climate change have already wrought and help them travel a path of clean development simply will not work.
It's hard to change something as fundamental as how we use energy. I know that. It's even harder to do so in the midst of a global recession. Certainly, it will be tempting to sit back and wait for others to move first. But we cannot make this journey unless we all move forward together. As we head into Copenhagen, let us resolve to focus on what each of us can do for the sake of our common future.
And this leads me to the final pillar that must fortify our future: a global economy that advances opportunity for all people.
The world is still recovering from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In America, we see the engine of growth beginning to churn, and yet many still struggle to find a job or pay their bills. Across the globe, we find promising signs, but little certainty about what lies ahead. And far too many people in far too many places live through the daily crises that challenge our humanity -- the despair of an empty stomach; the thirst brought on by dwindling water supplies; the injustice of a child dying from a treatable disease; or a mother losing her life as she gives birth.
In Pittsburgh, we will work with the world's largest economies to chart a course for growth that is balanced and sustained. That means vigilance to ensure that we do not let up until our people are back to work. That means taking steps to rekindle demand so that global recovery can be sustained. And that means setting new rules of the road and strengthening regulation for all financial centers, so that we put an end to the greed and the excess and the abuse that led us into this disaster, and prevent a crisis like this from ever happening again.
At a time of such interdependence, we have a moral and pragmatic interest, however, in broader questions of development -- the questions of development that existed even before this crisis happened. And so America will continue our historic effort to help people feed themselves. We have set aside $63 billion to carry forward the fight against HIV/AIDS, to end deaths from tuberculosis and malaria, to eradicate polio, and to strengthen public health systems. We are joining with other countries to contribute H1N1 vaccines to the World Health Organization. We will integrate more economies into a system of global trade. We will support the Millennium Development Goals, and approach next year's summit with a global plan to make them a reality. And we will set our sights on the eradication of extreme poverty in our time.
Now is the time for all of us to do our part. Growth will not be sustained or shared unless all nations embrace their responsibilities. And that means that wealthy nations must open their markets to more goods and extend a hand to those with less, while reforming international institutions to give more nations a greater voice. And developing nations must root out the corruption that is an obstacle to progress -- for opportunity cannot thrive where individuals are oppressed and business have to pay bribes. That is why we support honest police and independent judges; civil society and a vibrant private sector. Our goal is simple: a global economy in which growth is sustained, and opportunity is available to all.
Now, the changes that I've spoken about today will not be easy to make. And they will not be realized simply by leaders like us coming together in forums like this, as useful as that may be. For as in any assembly of members, real change can only come through the people we represent. That is why we must do the hard work to lay the groundwork for progress in our own capitals. That's where we will build the consensus to end conflicts and to harness technology for peaceful purposes, to change the way we use energy, and to promote growth that can be sustained and shared.
I believe that the people of the world want this future for their children. And that is why we must champion those principles which ensure that governments reflect the will of the people. These principles cannot be afterthoughts -- democracy and human rights are essential to achieving each of the goals that I've discussed today, because governments of the people and by the people are more likely to act in the broader interests of their own people, rather than narrow interests of those in power.
The test of our leadership will not be the degree to which we feed the fears and old hatreds of our people. True leadership will not be measured by the ability to muzzle dissent, or to intimidate and harass political opponents at home. The people of the world want change. They will not long tolerate those who are on the wrong side of history.
This Assembly's Charter commits each of us -- and I quote -- "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women." Among those rights is the freedom to speak your mind and worship as you please; the promise of equality of the races, and the opportunity for women and girls to pursue their own potential; the ability of citizens to have a say in how you are governed, and to have confidence in the administration of justice. For just as no nation should be forced to accept the tyranny of another nation, no individual should be forced to accept the tyranny of their own people. (Applause.)
As an African American, I will never forget that I would not be here today without the steady pursuit of a more perfect union in my country. And that guides my belief that no matter how dark the day may seem, transformative change can be forged by those who choose to side with justice. And I pledge that America will always stand with those who stand up for their dignity and their rights -- for the student who seeks to learn; the voter who demands to be heard; the innocent who longs to be free; the oppressed who yearns to be equal.
Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation from the outside. Each society must search for its own path, and no path is perfect. Each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its people and in its past traditions. And I admit that America has too often been selective in its promotion of democracy. But that does not weaken our commitment; it only reinforces it. There are basic principles that are universal; there are certain truths which are self-evident -- and the United States of America will never waver in our efforts to stand up for the right of people everywhere to determine their own destiny. (Applause.)
Sixty-five years ago, a weary Franklin Roosevelt spoke to the American people in his fourth and final inaugural address. After years of war, he sought to sum up the lessons that could be drawn from the terrible suffering, the enormous sacrifice that had taken place. "We have learned," he said, "to be citizens of the world, members of the human community."
The United Nations was built by men and women like Roosevelt from every corner of the world -- from Africa and Asia, from Europe to the Americas. These architects of international cooperation had an idealism that was anything but naïve -- it was rooted in the hard-earned lessons of war; rooted in the wisdom that nations could advance their interests by acting together instead of splitting apart.
Now it falls to us -- for this institution will be what we make of it. The United Nations does extraordinary good around the world -- feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, mending places that have been broken. But it also struggles to enforce its will, and to live up to the ideals of its founding.
I believe that those imperfections are not a reason to walk away from this institution -- they are a calling to redouble our efforts. The United Nations can either be a place where we bicker about outdated grievances, or forge common ground; a place where we focus on what drives us apart, or what brings us together; a place where we indulge tyranny, or a source of moral authority. In short, the United Nations can be an institution that is disconnected from what matters in the lives of our citizens, or it can be an indispensable factor in advancing the interests of the people we serve.
We have reached a pivotal moment. The United States stands ready to begin a new chapter of international cooperation -- one that recognizes the rights and responsibilities of all nations. And so, with confidence in our cause, and with a commitment to our values, we call on all nations to join us in building the future that our people so richly deserve.
Thank you very much, everybody. (Applause)
Remarks of President Barack Obama
The White House
September 19, 2009
Leaders of the world’s largest economies will gather next week in Pittsburgh for the second time this year. The first meeting of the G-20 nations in April came at the height of the global financial crisis – a crisis that required unprecedented international cooperation to jumpstart the world’s economies and help break the downward spiral that enveloped all our nations.
At next week’s summit, we’ll have, in effect, a five-month checkup to review the steps each nation has taken – separately and together – to break the back of this economic crisis. And the good news is that we’ve made real progress since last time we met – here at home and around the world.
In February, we enacted a Recovery Act, providing relief to Americans who need it, preventing layoffs, and putting Americans back to work. We’ve worked to unlock frozen credit markets, spurring lending to Americans looking to buy homes or cars, take out student loans, or finance small businesses. And we’ve challenged other nations to join us not only to spur global demand, but to address the underlying problems that caused such a deep global recession in the first place.
Because of the steps taken by our nation and all nations, we can now say that we have stopped our economic freefall. But we also know that stopping the bleeding isn’t nearly enough. Our work is far from over. We know we still have a lot to do here at home to build an economy that is producing good jobs for all those who are looking for work today. And we know we still have a lot to do, in conjunction with nations around the world, to strengthen the rules governing financial markets and ensure that we never again find ourselves in the precarious situation we found ourselves in just one year ago.
As I told leaders of our financial community in New York City earlier this week, a return to normalcy can’t breed complacency. To protect our economy and people from another market meltdown, our government needs to fundamentally reform the rules governing financial firms and markets to meet the challenges of the 21st century. We cannot allow the thirst for reckless schemes that produce quick profits and fat executive bonuses to override the security of our entire financial system and leave taxpayers on the hook for cleaning up the mess. And as the world’s largest economy, we must lead, not just by word, but by example, understanding that in the 21st century, financial crises know no borders. All of us need to act more responsibly on behalf of a better economic future.
That is why, at next week’s G20 summit, we’ll discuss some of the steps that are required to safeguard our global financial system and close gaps in regulation around the world – gaps that permitted the kinds of reckless risk-taking and irresponsibility that led to the crisis. And that’s why I’ve called on Congress to put in place a series of tough, common-sense rules of the road that will protect consumers from abuse, let markets function fairly and freely, and help prevent a crisis like this from ever happening again.
Central to these reforms is a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Part of what led to this crisis were not just decisions made on Wall Street, but also unsustainable mortgage loans made across the country. While many folks took on more than they knew they could afford, too often folks signed contracts they didn’t fully understand offered by lenders who didn’t always tell the truth. That’s why we need clear rules, clearly enforced. And that’s what this agency will do.
Consumers shouldn’t have to worry about loan contracts written to confuse, hidden fees attached to their mortgages, and financial penalties – whether through a credit card or debit card – that appear without a clear warning on their statements. And responsible lenders, including community banks, trying to do the right thing shouldn’t have to worry about ruinous competition from unregulated and unscrupulous competitors.
Not surprisingly, lobbyists for big Wall Street banks are hard at work trying to stop reforms that would hold them accountable and they want to keep things just the way they are. But we cannot let politics as usual triumph so business as usual can reign. We cannot let the narrow interests of a few come before the interests of all of us. We cannot forget how close we came to the brink, and perpetuate the broken system and breakdown of responsibility that made it possible.
In the weeks and months ahead, we have an opportunity to build on the work we’ve already done. An opportunity to rebuild our global economy stronger that before. An opportunity not only to protect the American people and America’s economy, but to promote sustained and balanced growth and prosperity for our nation and all nations. And that’s an opportunity I am determined to seize.
So, thanks for listening and thanks for watching, and to our Jewish friends, who are celebrating Rosh Hashanah, have a happy and healthy New Year. Shanah Tovah.
Remarks of President Barack Obama
The White House
September 12, 2009
On Wednesday, I addressed a joint session of Congress and the American people about why we need health insurance reform and what it will take to do it.
Since then, I’ve continued to hear from many Americans across the country about why this is so urgent and important.
I’ve heard from Americans who can’t get health coverage; men and women who worry that one accident or illness could drive them into bankruptcy.
And I’ve heard from Americans with insurance who thought that "the uninsured" always referred to someone else – but between skyrocketing costs and insurance company practices; they’re beginning to worry that they could find themselves uninsured too.
It’s an anxiety that’s keeping more and more Americans awake at night. Over the last twelve months, nearly six million more Americans lost their health coverage – that’s 17,000 men and women every single day. We’re not just talking about Americans in poverty, either – we’re talking about middle-class Americans. In other words, it can happen to anyone.
And based on a brand-new report from the Treasury Department, we can expect that about half of all Americans under 65 will lose their health coverage at some point over the next ten years. If you’re under the age of 21 today, chances are more than half that you’ll find yourself uninsured at some point in that time. And more than one-third of Americans will go without coverage for longer than one year.
I refuse to allow that future to happen. In the United States of America, no one should have to worry that they’ll go without health insurance – not for one year, not for one month, not for one day. And once I sign my health reform plan into law – they won’t.
My plan will provide more security and stability to those who have health insurance; offer quality, affordable choices to those who currently don’t; and bring health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government under control.
First of all, if you are among the hundreds of millions of Americans who already have insurance through your job, or Medicare, or Medicaid, or the VA, nothing in my plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have.
What my plan will do is make the insurance you have work better for you. We’ll make it illegal for insurance companies to deny you coverage because of a pre-existing condition, drop your coverage when you get sick, or water it down when you need it most. They’ll no longer be able to place some arbitrary cap on the amount of coverage you can receive in a given year or over a lifetime, and we will place a limit on how much you can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses – because no one should go broke just because they get sick.
Second, if you’re one of the more than thirty million American citizens who can’t get coverage, you’ll finally have quality, affordable choices. If you lose your job, change your job, or start your own business, you will be able to get coverage.
And as I have said over and over again, I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits – period. This plan will be paid for. The middle-class will realize greater security, not higher taxes. And if we can successfully slow the growth of health care costs by just one-tenth of one percent each year, it will actually reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the long term.
Affordable, quality care within reach for the tens of millions of Americans who don’t have it today. Stability and security for the hundreds of millions who do. That’s the reform we seek.
We have had a long and important debate. But now is the time for action. Because every day we wait, more Americans will lose their health care, their businesses, and their homes – but also the dreams they’ve worked for and the peace of mind they deserve. They are why we have to succeed.
So if you’re willing to put country before party and the interests of our children above our own; if you refuse to settle for a politics where scoring points is more important than solving problems; and if you believe, as I do, that America can still come together to do great things – then join us. Give us your help. And we will finally get health insurance reform done this year.
It has now been nearly a century since Theodore Roosevelt first called for health care reform. And ever since, nearly every President and Congress, whether Democrat or Republican, has attempted to meet this challenge in some way. A bill for comprehensive health reform was first introduced by John Dingell Sr. in 1943. Sixty-five years later, his son continues to introduce that same bill at the beginning of each session. (Applause.)
more security and more stability.
If you lose your job or you change your job, you'll be able to get coverage. If you strike out on your own and start a small business, you'll be able to get coverage. We'll do this by creating a new insurance exchange -- a marketplace where individuals and small businesses will be able to shop for health insurance at competitive prices. Insurance companies will have an incentive to participate in this exchange because it lets them compete for millions of new customers. As one big group, these customers will have greater leverage to bargain with the insurance companies for better prices and quality coverage. This is how large companies and government employees get affordable insurance. It's how everyone in this Congress gets affordable insurance. And it's time to give every American the same opportunity that we give ourselves. (Applause.)
This was a good idea when Senator John McCain proposed it in the campaign, it's a good idea now, and we should all embrace it. (Applause.)
Likewise -- likewise, businesses will be required to either offer their workers health care, or chip in to help cover the cost of their workers. There will be a hardship waiver for those individuals who still can't afford coverage, and 95 percent of all small businesses, because of their size and narrow profit margin, would be exempt from these requirements. (Applause.)
But we can't have large businesses and individuals who can afford coverage game the system by avoiding responsibility to themselves or their employees. Improving our health care system only works if everybody does their part.
Unfortunately, in 34 states, 75 percent of the insurance market is controlled by five or fewer companies. In Alabama, almost 90 percent is controlled by just one company. And without competition, the price of insurance goes up and quality goes down. And it makes it easier for insurance companies to treat their customers badly -- by cherry-picking the healthiest individuals and trying to drop the sickest, by overcharging small businesses who have no leverage, and by jacking up rates.
And the insurance reforms that I've already mentioned would do just that. But an additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange. (Applause.) Now, let me be clear. Let me be clear. It would only be an option for those who don't have insurance. No one would be forced to choose it, and it would not impact those of you who already have insurance. In fact, based on Congressional Budget Office estimates, we believe that less than 5 percent of Americans would sign up.
Now, much of the rest would be paid for with revenues from the very same drug and insurance companies that stand to benefit from tens of millions of new customers. And this reform will charge insurance companies a fee for their most expensive policies, which will encourage them to provide greater value for the money -- an idea which has the support of Democratic and Republican experts. And according to these same experts, this modest change could help hold down the cost of health care for all of us in the long run.
Now, finally, many in this chamber -- particularly on the Republican side of the aisle -- have long insisted that reforming our medical malpractice laws can help bring down the cost of health care. (Applause.) Now -- there you go. There you go. Now, I don't believe malpractice reform is a silver bullet, but I've talked to enough doctors to know that defensive medicine may be contributing to unnecessary costs. (Applause.) So I'm proposing that we move forward on a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first and let doctors focus on practicing medicine. (Applause.) I know that the Bush administration considered authorizing demonstration projects in individual states to test these ideas. I think it's a good idea, and I'm directing my Secretary of Health and Human Services to move forward on this initiative today. (Applause.)
This has always been the history of our progress. In 1935, when over half of our seniors could not support themselves and millions had seen their savings wiped away, there were those who argued that Social Security would lead to socialism, but the men and women of Congress stood fast, and we are all the better for it. In 1965, when some argued that Medicare represented a government takeover of health care, members of Congress -- Democrats and Republicans -- did not back down. They joined together so that all of us could enter our golden years with some basic peace of mind.
Remarks of President Barack Obama
Saturday, September 5, 2009
As we spend time with family and friends this Labor Day weekend, many of us will also be thinking about the state of working America. Yesterday, we received a report showing that job losses have slowed dramatically compared to just a few months ago. Earlier in the week, we learned that the manufacturing sector has posted its first gains in eighteen months, and that many of the banks that borrowed money at the height of the financial crisis are now returning it to taxpayers with interest.
These are only the most recent signs that the economy is turning around, though these signs are little comfort to those who’ve experienced the pain of losing a job in the previous month, or in the previous two years of this recession. That’s why it is so important that we remain focused on speeding our economic recovery. Throughout America today, tens of thousands of recovery projects are underway, repairing our nation’s roads, bridges, ports and waterways; renovating schools; and developing renewable energy. We’re putting Americans back to work doing to the work America needs done – and mostly in private sector jobs.
But even as we take aggressive steps to put people back to work, it is also important that we keep faith with men and women looking back on a lifetime of labor; hard-working Americans who deserve to know that their efforts have resulted in a secure future, including a secure retirement. For this recession has not only led to the loss of jobs, but also the loss of savings. The drop in home values, for example, has also meant a drop in the value of the largest single investment most families have. And the decline in the financial markets has led to a decline in the value of 401(k)s and other sources of savings and retirement security. As a result, over the past two years, the American people have lost about $2 trillion in retirement savings.
This carries a painful toll. I’ve heard from so many who’ve had to put off retirement, or come out of retirement, to make ends meet. I’ve heard from seniors who worked hard their whole lives but now, in their golden years, are unsure of where to turn to pay the bills, afford the prescriptions, or keep the home in which they raised a family. And having too little in savings not only leaves people financially ill-prepared for retirement, but also for whatever challenges life brings. It places in jeopardy so many dreams, from owning a home to attending college.
The fact is, even before this recession hit, the savings rate was essentially zero, while borrowing had risen and credit card debt had increased. Many were simply struggling to stay afloat as incomes were stagnant – or falling – and jobs were scarce; that’s important to remember. But there were also those who spent beyond their means. And more broadly, tens of millions of families have been, for a variety of reasons, unable to put away enough money for a secure retirement. Half of America’s workforce doesn’t have access to a retirement plan at work. And fewer than 10 percent of those without workplace retirement plans have one of their own.
We cannot continue on this course. And we certainly cannot go back to an economy based on inflated profits and maxed-out credit cards; the cycles of speculative booms and painful busts; a system that put the interests of the short-term ahead of the needs of long-term. We have to revive this economy and rebuild it stronger than before. And making sure that folks have the opportunity and incentive to save – for a home or college, for retirement or a rainy day – is essential to that effort. If you work hard and meet your responsibilities, this country is going to honor our collective responsibility to you: to ensure that you can save and secure your retirement. That is why we are announcing several common-sense changes that will help families put away money for the future.
First, we’re going to make it easier for small businesses to do what large businesses do: allow workers to automatically enroll in a 401(k) or an individual retirement account. We know that automatic enrollment has made a big difference in participation rates by making it simpler for workers to save – and that’s why we’re going to expand it to more people.
Second, we’ll make it easier for people to save their federal tax refunds, which 100 million families receive. Today, if you have a retirement account, you can have your refund deposited directly into your account. With this change, we’ll make it easier for those without retirement plans to save their refunds as well. You’ll be able to check a box on your tax return to receive your refund as a savings bond.
Third, we’ll make it possible for employees to put payments for unused vacation and sick days into their retirement plan if they wish. Right now, most workers don’t have that option.
And fourth, the IRS and the Treasury Department are creating a plain-English, easy-to-follow guide, as well as a website, to help folks navigate what are often very complicated waters, especially for workers changing jobs who often are unsure how best to continue saving for retirement. Because the rules ought to be written to encourage people to save – instead of discouraging them.
We’ll also build on these steps by working with Congress. As part of my budget, I’ve proposed ensuring that nearly every American has access to a retirement savings account through his or her job. This plan would make it possible for workers to automatically enroll in IRAs through payroll contributions. And the budget simplifies and expands a tax credit for millions of families, matching half of a family’s savings up to $1,000 per year and depositing the tax credit directly into a retirement account.
This is a difficult time for our country. But I am confident that we can meet the challenges we face and leave behind something better; that we are ready to take responsibility for our future once again – as individuals and as a nation. I hope that all of you have the chance to enjoy this Labor Day weekend with family and friends. But my larger hope and expectation is that next Labor Day, the economic storms we’re weathering now will have given way to brighter and more prosperous times.