“I come before you to speak about the future of America and our Middle Class. The two have been inextricably linked throughout our history.
I also speak about the future of the Democratic Party, my Party, the Party historically committed to a strong, growing Middle Class, a commitment too many voters now question.
Middle Class Americans know that President Bush and his Administration represent the privileged. They know that Democrats stand for those less fortunate, and proudly so. They look to Washington and see a government absorbed in self-interest. Who speaks for them, those neither rich nor poor? Too often, their answer is “no one.”
For the future of our nation and the future of my Party, that must change. If this President will not speak for our Middle Class, I will. And if Democrats want to lead this nation, we must.
As Democrats and Americans, we must build an “Opportunity Society” to strengthen our Middle Class. We must confront the challenges Middle Class Americans face – health care costs, college affordability, retirement security and more – so that all can build lives of greater prosperity and promise. And we must reward hard work, thrift and ingenuity so that all who aspire to it can join the Middle Class.
This must be the work of our generation.
It has not been the work of President Bush and this Administration.
For five years, America has been governed by those who believe that what is best for the most fortunate among us is what is best for all.
That is wrong.
A strong, vibrant Middle Class is what makes America a land of opportunity, stability, and shared values.
But the American Middle Class did not happen by accident. It was built.
For twelve generations, Americans have made the tough decisions, the sacrifices, done the hard work to make America an exceptional nation.
Now is our time.
We must begin by recognizing the challenges and unprecedented change facing Middle Class Americans today.
Globalization is transforming our economy. Too many good jobs are going overseas. Employees can no longer count on good health insurance or pensions. Skyrocketing health and energy costs squeeze family budgets.
A Middle Class life has never been easy, but it’s getting harder by the day.
Our aging population means more families are caring for their children – and their parents, too.
At a time when a college degree is still the best ticket to success, fewer and fewer Middle Class families can afford the cost.
All of this and more is moving the American Dream out of reach for too many and creating anxiety for our Middle Class.
They ask, how can our children hope to have a better future if things continue like this?
I am confident they can. But not with the leaders we’ve got and not if we continue down the road that we’re on.
President Bush and Vice President Cheney have done more for fewer Americans and less for most Americans than any Administration in history.
They have either ignored the challenges facing our Middle Class or made matters worse.
Through inaction, incompetence, and ideological extremism, the Bush Administration and their friends in Congress have made the ladder of success much harder to climb.
On issue after issue, Bush, Cheney and Rove have lived for today and forgotten about tomorrow. They have focused on the next election not the next generation. And they have cynically appealed to Americans’ narrow self-interest instead of the common good. They may have won some elections, but the American Middle Class has lost valuable ground.
College costs go up, and they raise interest rates on student loans.
Retirement insecurities mount, and they want to privatize Social Security making seniors less secure.
When companies go bankrupt, executives get golden parachutes and workers’ pensions get the shaft. Just look at Delphi in my home state. It’s a disgrace.
Middle Class jobs are eliminated because of global competition. Their response? Turn a blind eye to currency manipulation, illegal subsidies and intellectual property theft squandering American hard work and ingenuity.
Health care costs are skyrocketing, and they have no prescription.
Energy costs soar, hitting consumers at the pump. Their answer is to have no answer. America is more dependent on imported oil today than we were on 9/11. On one of the defining challenges of our time, we’ve made no progress whatsoever. None.
Vice President Cheney, who is in Iowa today, tells audiences that “Household net worth is at an all-time high.” Like so much about this Administration, he is technically accurate but grossly misleading. The truth is that Middle Class Americans are working harder than ever and receiving less. Average household income has declined every year during the Bush presidency.
The Administration has increased the national debt by nearly $3 trillion, money our Middle Class and children must repay with interest. They borrow from Japan, China, Persian Gulf Countries, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Germany, even Mexico. They are mortgaging our future. This is not how great leaders act.
This Administration has been stunningly blind to the forces shaping our future.
Ideologues and special interests win. The Middle Class loses. It’s that simple. And it must change.
But while Americans are crying out for something better, they see Washington as indifferent, hostile or self-absorbed. And they’re right.
Washington is broken. There is a chasm between what Middle America needs and what Washington delivers: all wedge issues, all spin, all cynicism, all gridlock, all the time.
It’s as if Washington is on a different planet.
Once you could tell a system was broken when it took a crisis to trigger a response. But today, right now, we have crisis after crisis…Katrina, energy, the budget, health costs, Iraq, …and to each of these crises, the system doesn’t respond.
Washington rewards and preserves the status quo as though that were its central purpose.
Too many have forgotten that we represent the interests of our constituents in Washington, not the other way around.
Too many have forgotten what Harry Truman said: In America, it’s not the politicians who run the country. It’s the people. The politicians are just the hired help.
As frustration mounts with a broken Washington, the Middle Class looks to the Democratic Party for hope – as they always have. And what do they see?
I was born and raised a Democrat. I am proud of what my Party has accomplished for America. If you look at the great progress of the last century – the changes in America that make you most proud– none of them would have occurred without the leadership of the Democratic Party.
Lifting this country out of the Great Depression, winning two World Wars, drawing the line in the sand against communism, landing a man on the moon, civil rights, women’s rights, the GI Bill, Social Security, Medicare, aid to education, and on and on.
These were the accomplishments that shaped America’s century and made America’s blue and white-collar workers the most prosperous and free on Earth.
But that was long ago. Memories are short.
We may consider ourselves the party of the Middle Class, but too many Middle Class Americans no longer consider us their party.
They have left the Democratic Party in droves --costing us the last two presidential elections and the last six congressional elections, and if we don’t learn some lessons, we’ll lose in 2006 and 2008 as well.
We must not let that happen. Because the Middle Class is more than a source of votes for my Party, it is a fundamental part of who we are as Democrats and Americans.
So I offer this advice to my fellow Democrats: without an agenda that speaks directly to the Middle Class and all who aspire to it, we are no longer the Party of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Clinton. And we will not be a majority party. Our nation must do better, but for that to happen, we Democrats must, too.
We have both a patriotic responsibility and a political imperative to reclaim our legacy as the party of the Middle Class by fighting for their interests and by producing results that make a difference in their lives.
This begins with understanding their concerns.
In my travels across Indiana and 22 other states last year, in coffee shops, living rooms, and union halls talking with ordinary Americans about their hopes, their dreams, and their anxieties, three areas dominate.
One is Security. All Americans know it is a dangerous world. Three thousand people were killed on September 11th. Suicidal terrorists have pledged to attack again - and they have in London, Madrid, Amman, Bali, and across Iraq. North Korea has expanded its nuclear arsenal and tested missiles intended to hit the United States. Hamas is in charge of the Palestinian Authority. The Middle East is aflame. And the radical leader of Iran seeks nuclear weapons, has pledged to destroy Israel, and has asked his people to imagine a world without the United States.
Most Americans know – and this is borne out in poll after poll – that President Bush and Karl Rove are a lot better at national security politics than national security policy. Instead of making us more secure, they have undermined our security. Iraq is the foremost example. They have turned it into a tragic, tragic, mess.
Democrats can do better.
America needs a national security strategy that is both tough and smart. We Democrats must reclaim the tough and smart legacy of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy, and aggressively challenge the President and his party about who can do a better job of securing this country. We must go toe to toe with Republicans on this issue, not try to change the subject or pretend it doesn’t exist. Ceding the ground of national security to the Republican Party has hurt our standing with the Middle Class. We must never make that mistake again. Most Americans are also looking for leaders who share their values and understand their lives. Many are working longer hours for less money while their children are alone at home at the mercy of a coarsening culture. Parents are anxious about the influence of violent video games and Internet pornography, obscene music and television, and the danger of predators stalking our children across cyberspace. As a parent with young children, I share these concerns.
Values matter, and Democrats must understand the non-economic pressures facing most families today, not just the economic ones. We must have an agenda that speaks to the heart and the pocketbook, not one or the other. But economic opportunity is always on people’s minds. It is my focus today.
As Democrats, we must ask: “Does our agenda speak to the great majority of Americans in the economic middle?”
Too often, they are telling us “no” – and voting for Republicans in increasing numbers. Why? Because too often our signature proposals do nothing directly for them. Just one example:
Over the past 10 years, the economic issue emphasized most by Democrats is raising the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage is absolutely the right thing to do. And shame on the Republicans for blocking it for all of these years.
But this year, less than three percent of workers earned the minimum wage or less.
Raising the minimum wage must be an important part of the Democratic economic agenda – it is the moral, just and wise thing to do. But it cannot be seen as the entirety of our economic agenda.
Working to eliminate poverty, which my friend John Edwards speaks so eloquently about is a moral imperative. But if we don't also directly strengthen the Middle Class, we will never achieve our potential as a nation. And Democrats will not be in position to help anyone, poor and Middle Class alike.
We must convince Middle Class Americans that we’re on their side not only by fighting poverty but by directly addressing their challenges, too. Too often they see one not the other. It must be both.
And we must embrace Middle Class economic values. Americans have always believed that hope is more powerful than fear, opportunity as essential as security, a ladder up as important as a safety net below. That success – through hard work, ingenuity, and thrift – is a virtue to admire not envy.
This is what we did in Indiana. It was Middle Class prosperity from good jobs that paid for health care, education, and greater opportunity for the less fortunate. The Middle Class was our engine of progress. It must be for the nation as well.
As you all undoubtedly know, I am thinking about running for President – I haven’t made a final decision – but if I do run, creating opportunity for Middle Class Americans will be a centerpiece of my campaign. It’s a message I will take across America on behalf of other candidates this fall.
I will go into greater detail later, but today, I want to lay out just a few of the potential building blocks of an Opportunity Society for our Middle Class.
We must begin by making college more affordable.
In a global economy that values ingenuity and technological know-how, a college degree is as important as a high school diploma was 50 years ago. Now, we must make it as common.
We could provide a $6,000 refundable tax credit to cover the first $6,000 of college costs. This would pay for 100 percent of the average tuition for a four-year public university and help families making up to $100,000 per year, 87 percent of all Americans.
Rising health care costs are also squeezing family budgets and harming small businesses, the most dynamic part of our economy. People ask me about health care more than any other domestic issue.
We cannot solve this complex problem today, but we can start.
The risk of catastrophic illness – cancer, heart disease, stroke – raises insurance premiums for small businesses and individuals substantially. We could cap individual and small business risk by covering 75 percent of health costs above $50,000. This would cut insurance premiums by up to 20 percent for small businesses and individuals, helping 57 million middle income Americans.
Retirement security is another challenge for Middle Class Americans. Social Security, pensions and savings are all part of the answer, and all must be strengthened.
This is not the forum for addressing Social Security’s long-term imbalances, but privatizing the system would only make seniors’ insecurities worse. Social Security has done more to help Middle Class seniors from falling into poverty than anything else.
But it takes more to maintain a Middle Class life in retirement than Social Security.
Workers who’ve earned pensions deserve protection. When corporations try to shed their obligations in bankruptcy, employee benefits deserve priority status.
And we need to make it easier for all Americans to save for retirement. The system should favor the Middle Class by replacing the current 401(k) and IRA deduction with a 30 percent government match. This would promote retirement savings for more than 90 percent of Americans to supplement pensions and Social Security.
Finally, energy security and affordability is a defining challenge of our time. With drivers and businesses getting hit at the pump, it’s an important Middle Class issue, too.
I propose tax credits up to $3,400 for the purchase of new, high mileage vehicles to help drivers conserve and to make ethanol widely available so consumers can chose between gasoline and ethanol, whichever is cheaper.
These ideas, and many more, are the types of things we should consider to help Middle Class Americans meet our challenges and fulfill our potential.
It’s possible that all are not doable at once, and all must comply with fiscal reality. But the important thing is to begin, to let Middle Class Americans know that we’re on their side, share their priorities and will help whenever we can.
We have waited too long.
For 230 years, Americans have been dedicated to the self-evident truths that all men and women are created equal and have been endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
At the heart of this ideal – at the heart of the American Promise – is that everyone who’s willing to work hard and dream big and sacrifice can make their dreams come true.
Now, the tides of history challenge that belief, whether a nation characterized not by class differences but common opportunity, common values, common dreams – a dominant Middle Class – can survive.
I believe it can. And I believe it must.
But nothing is pre-ordained or etched in stone. Our destiny is up to us.
Our present leaders have proven inadequate to the task. They have not focused on our future and what will make it better.
Instead, they are committed to a deep-seated philosophical belief, hostile to our Middle Class. It is the same conceit used throughout history to justify concentration of opportunity in the hands of the few.
This is not the American way. It is not the Democratic Party way.
At this critical moment, when a brighter future filled with more hope and opportunity and progress is ours to make, we must do better than what George Bush has offered us.
We must change the dysfunctional mess that is Washington.
We must re-establish the Democratic Party as the instrument of Middle Class progress.
We must summon the American people to meet the challenges and make the hard decisions these times demand.
The road to American greatness does not lie down the path of least resistance. We have followed that course too long.
With new leaders and a new direction, there is no obstacle we cannot overcome.
And if we do these things, our Middle Class will prosper. America will be strong. The Democratic Party will lead the nation.
And most important, we will deserve to.