Remarks by the President at the National Action Network Annual Gala
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
AT THE NATIONAL ACTION NETWORK ANNUAL GALA
Sheraton New York Hotel
New York, New York
6:01 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Good to be in New York City. Let me begin
by acknowledging some very, very special guests. Dr. Richardson, thank
you. Charlie Rangel, for your outstanding work on behalf of your
constituents. Mayor David Dinkins. (Applause.) Governor David
Paterson is here. (Applause.) State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.
DiNapoli, excuse me. This is another one that's hard to pronounce:
Stevie Wonder. (Laughter.) Martin Luther King III. (Applause.) All
the Keepers of the Dream honorees with us tonight, and the National
It is wonderful to be here as you celebrate your
20th anniversary. Some things have changed a lot since 1991. I told
Reverend Al backstage he's getting skinnier than me. (Laughter.) He's
getting skinnier than Spike. (Laughter.) But he hasn't lost his sense
of style. The other thing that hasn't changed is the National Action
Network's commitment to fight injustice and inequality here in New York
City and across America. And that's not only a testament to Reverend
Sharpton. It's a testament to all of you who are here tonight. I want
to commend you for the work that you've done over the last two decades
to lift up not only the African American community but the broader
American family. That's what you're about. (Applause.)
last time I came was in April of 2007, four months ago -- four years ago
this month. Back then I had fewer supporters. Most of you couldn't
pronounce my name, so Tom, don't feel bad. (Laughter.) I had a lot
fewer gray hairs. I was looking at some pictures -- I looked really
young back then. (Laughter.) I said that we were facing extraordinary
challenges in this country, but that what was stopping us from solving
them wasn't a lack of policies; it wasn't a lack of plans. What was
stopping us was a broken politics. A broken politics in Washington -- a
politics that was all about the next election instead of the next
generation; that was all about what we disagreed about instead of what
we had in common; a politics that made us cynical about our ability to
change this country.
And I said that if you stand with me and
believe in what we can do together, if you do what civil rights groups
like the National Action Network have always done, if you put your
shoulder to the wheel of history, then we can move this country toward
the promise of a better day. I told you at the time I wasn't a perfect
person, I wouldn't be a perfect President, but what I could commit to
was always telling you the truth even when it was hard, and I would
spend each and every day thinking about you.
And because you
made our campaign your own, because you believed in our ability to shape
our own destiny, we won that chance to bring about real change. And I
said on inauguration night in Chicago that that was simply the end of
the beginning, and that now the real business started.
didn't run and so many of you didn't support me just to win an
election. We won the election so that we could then actually get moving
on all the work that had been left undone. Even though we understood,
of course, the magnitudes of the challenges we faced, we didn't fully
realize until late in the game, probably the last month of the campaign,
that we would be facing the worst recession in generations -- a
recession that was leaving millions of Americans without a home, without
a job, without hope for the future.
And as Reverend Al said,
some folks have amnesia about this. Where are we two years later? Our
economy has started to grow again. The recovery is gaining momentum.
People are finally starting to get hired back. We had to make some
tough choices in between. You remember when we decided we had to move
to save the American auto industry and everybody said, that can't
happen. And then two weeks ago, GM just announced that it's going to
hire back every single worker that has been laid off and every U.S.
automaker is making a profit. (Applause.) But that wasn't popular.
That wasn't popular.
A while back, I visited a small trucking
business, and its owner Stephen Neal is one of our country's African
American business leaders. And he told me that because of the uptick in
our economy, he was buying new equipment and adding more workers. And
that's what's happening all across America. In the first three months
of this year, we've added nearly half a million private sector jobs --
nearly 2 million jobs in the last 13 months.
So we're making
progress, but we're not there yet. And I want you to know that so long
as there are Americans who cannot find work I will be fighting for jobs,
and so long as the gap between the wealthiest few and everybody else
keeps on growing I will be fighting for opportunity. And I know you'll
be right there alongside with me. (Applause.)
We are going to
keep fighting until every family gets a shot at the American Dream.
That's our North Star. That's the first thing I think about when I wake
up in the morning. That's the last thing I think about when I go to
bed at night -- the hopes and dreams of people who work hard every
single day, look after their families, take care of their
responsibilities, and just need a little bit of help to make it.
Now, there are Americans of all colors and creeds who are struggling to
live out those dreams today. That's part of what our campaign was
about, was reminding ourselves that everybody is in this together. Now,
what's also true, though, is the unemployment rate for African
Americans is almost double what it is for other groups. It's also true
that those with the least have been sacrificing the most during this
recession. What's also true is that even before the recession hit, too
many communities were marked by structural inequalities in health and
education and employment that made it profoundly difficult for too many
people to get ahead.
You understood that. I understood that.
That's part of the reason I ran for President, because I've seen the
frustration and the wounded pride in the eyes of folks who've lost their
jobs or a father who has to go home and tell his kids that we might not
have enough this month, might be losing our apartment this month. I've
heard the stories of struggling families who are doing everything right
and still at the end of the month don't quite have enough to pay the
bills. I did not start hearing those stories when I became President.
Those are stories that led me to run for President in the first place.
As Reverend mentioned, I got my start tackling the
problems of joblessness and hopelessness that afflict so many of our
cities and rural communities. I got my start working to bring
opportunity to neighborhoods that were full of boarded-up houses and
shuttered stores, fighting to keep kids off the street, fighting to get
them into school, fighting to make sure that they went on to college,
fighting to make real the promise of justice in our judicial system.
And these causes of justice and equality and opportunity, they aren't
just what led me into politics, they're what led ordinary people to sit
down at the front of the bus, to cross that bridge in Selma, to heed a
King's call to perfect our union. They're the heart of what makes us
Americans. That's who we are. And because of your support, they're the
causes that I've been carrying since I've been in the Oval Office.
With the help of folks at the grassroots, we passed historic health
insurance reform that will not only extend coverage to 30 million more
Americans and give Americans more affordable choices, but will narrow
the cruel health disparities between African Americans of different
backgrounds. That was because of your work. (Applause.)
passed Wall Street reform that will protect consumers from the kind of
predatory lending practices that helped cause this recession. We're
rewarding work with an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit. We're
tackling poverty with Promise Neighborhoods that build on the great work
of Geoffrey Canada up in Harlem. We're making sure our civil rights
and anti-discrimination laws are enforced. And if you're interested in
learning more, if you want to spread the word about what we're doing not
just in the African American community but all across the country, go
to our website and it will give you a long list of what we've done over
the last two years -- promises made and promises kept.
what we've tried to do over these past couple years -- advance the
causes that make us who we are. But we've still got more work to do.
If we're serious about opening up opportunity and making sure America
prospers in the 21st century, we're going to have to up our game as a
nation. I was talking to Magic right before we came out -- I was
talking about the Bulls, of course. (Laughter.) He's still picking the
Lakers, but he made the point, a young man Derek Rose upped his game,
worked hard, and is having an MVP season. Well, we have to do that in
classrooms, we have to do that in the workplaces, we've got to do that
in our communities and our neighborhoods. (Applause.) Our fathers got
to up their games.
If we want to attract new jobs and new
opportunities to our shores, we've got to make sure America can
out-compete the rest of the world. That's what we mean when we say we
got to win the future. It means we got to rebuild our crumbling
transportation networks with high-speed rail, upgrade our communications
networks with high-speed Internet. It means we're investing in
cutting-edge research and technology like clean energy -- and most of
all, making sure we are giving every one of our children the best
possible education. (Applause.) The best possible education is the
single most important factor in determining whether they succeed. But
it's also what will determine whether we succeed. It's the key to
opportunity. It is the civil rights issue of our time.
education is important to everybody here, especially Reverend Al. In
fact, a while back, he stopped by the White House to talk about
education. He was joined by the great mayor of this city, Mike
Bloomberg. He was also joined by Newt Gingrich. Newt -- hmm.
(Laughter.) Newt said he and Reverend Sharpton were "the original odd
couple." That's an understatement. (Laughter.)
But I welcomed
them to the White House because I don't think there's anything odd
about the two of them coming together around the importance of
education. When there is an achievement gap between students of
different races and backgrounds, that's not a Democratic problem, that's
not a Republican problem -- that is an American problem that we have to
address. (Applause.) When too many of our schools are failing our
children, too many of our kids are dropping out of school, that's not a
black or white or brown problem -- that is an American problem. We're
going to have to solve that problem. We are all responsible for the
education of all of our children.
That starts with parents
making sure that we're doing right at home, staying engaged in our
child's education, setting high expectation. Without parental
responsibility, nothing else we do will matter. But we also know that
each of us has a responsibility not just as parents, but as civic
leaders, as Americans, to do a better job of educating our children.
And that's why, two years ago, we started something called Race for the
Top. We're saying to states, prove you are serious about improving
education not just for some kids, but for all kids. And if you do, we
will show you the money. And for less than 1 percent of what our
country as a whole spends on education each year, Race to the Top has
led 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning and
student achievement, and developed plans for some of the schools that
are underperforming the worst. And all this was done not in
Washington. It was developed by Republican and Democratic governors
across the country.
We're going to have to take same approach
when it comes to fixing No Child Left Behind. Instead of measuring
students based on whether they're above or below some arbitrary test, we
need to make sure our students are graduating from high school ready
for a career, ready for college. That's what we need to do.
(Applause.) Instead of labeling our schools a failure one day --
instead of labeling our schools a failure one day and then throwing up
our hands and walking away, we've got to refocus on the schools that
need help the most. In the 21st Century, it's not enough to just leave
no child left behind. We've got to help every child get ahead.
(Applause.) That's our goal -- get every child on a path to academic
And we need to make sure that that path leads to a
college degree. That's why we ended a system where we were subsidizing
banks in the student loan program. They were taking billions of dollars
out of the student loan program. We said, why don't we give that to
the students directly? That would make sense. (Applause.) So we made
college more affordable for millions of students. Millions of students
across the country are now getting student loans that they weren't
getting before and more loans than they were getting before. That's why
we're making it easier to repay student loans so kids don't graduate,
like Michelle and I did, with massive loan payments each month. It was
more than our mortgage for 10 years. It's one of the things I try to
remember -- I try to remind people when they say, well, you're President
now. You're out of touch. I said, listen, it was only a few years ago
I was still paying off my student loans. (Applause.) And it's true, I
don't pump gas now, but I remember what it was like pumping gas.
(Laughter.) I remember. I remember the end of the month. (Laughter.)
I remember that. (Applause.)
We appreciate all of you
buying the book, Michelle and I. (Laughter.) That's the college fund
right there. (Laughter.) That was not a given. That's why we're
reinvesting in Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
(Applause.) That's why we are -- that's why we're upgrading our
community colleges that prepare so many working families to succeed in
this economy. And by taking all these steps, I'm confident we are going
to meet a goal that I set when I took office that I announced in my
first State of the Union: By the end of this decade, America will once
again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
That is something that we can achieve. That's something we can
That's how we can out-educate countries
around the world. That's how we will out-compete. That's how we will
win the future in the 21st century.
Now, one thing we won't be
able to win is -- if some of our people are falling behind, we will not
win the future. The only way for America to prosper is for all
Americans to prosper. We've seen that in the census that just came
out. The face of America is changing. You can't get away with having a
third of our children, half of our children, not doing well. Not
today, not in the 21st century. All of us -- black, white, Latino,
Native American, Asian American, men, women, disabled, non-disabled --
in America, we rise and fall together.
An America where the
American Dream is within reach of everybody, that's what we've been
fighting to build over the last two years. That's what the National
Action Network has been fighting to build over the past two decades. I
know that there are times where the work is frustrating. I know there
are times where it is hard. There are times when change can seem
painfully slow to come by. There are times when some of you may have
said, I don't know what Obama is doing there. There are times where you
lose hope, times when folks in Washington focus on scoring points
instead of solving problems. And some of you may just put up your hands
and say, politics is too tough.
But in those moments when we
start asking ourselves if change is possible, you've got to remember
what we've done together over the past few years. Remember all the
children who will graduate from high school ready for college and
beyond. Remember all the Americans who will no longer have to worry
about going bankrupt because they got sick. Remember all the families
who will no longer be exploited by insurance companies or a credit card
company or a mortgage lender.
I'm not asking you to think about
what we've already done so you can be satisfied with our progress. I
know this isn't the National Satisfaction Network. This is the National
Action Network. (Laughter and applause.) But I am asking you to draw
inspiration from the fact that we know change is possible. I am living
testament that change is possible. (Applause.) We know we have the
ability to put our shoulders to the wheel of history and steer America
towards the promise of a better day. We know that we stand on other
shoulders and step by step, inch by inch, we make progress.
That's what we've been doing. And if you're as committed as I am to
continuing to change this country for the better, if you feel the same
determination that I do to tackle the problems that haven't yet met, if
you're still willing to believe in what we can do together, I am
absolutely confident we will do what you've been doing for the last 20
years. We will build an America where the ideals of justice and
equality and opportunity are alive and well, and we will reclaim the
American Dream in our time. So thank you. God bless you. God bless
the United States of America. Thank you.