TOPIC: Economic Issues
April 26th, 2005
National Press Club
you. It's great to be here at the National Press Club - I want to
thank the club as well as the FDR Institute for arranging this luncheon
together. I'd also like to thank Anne Roosevelt and Jim Roosevelt,
who inspire us all by carrying on the proud legacy of their grandfather.
By the time the
Senate Finance Committee holds the first Senate hearing on the President's
Social Security plan today, we'll have heard just about everything
there is to be said about the issue. We've heard about privatization
and benefit cuts, about massive new debt and huge new risks, and
we've even been scared into thinking the system will go broke when
our kids retire, even though we know there'll be enough money then
to pay the vast majority of benefits.
I'm happy to address
some of these issues in the Q and A after the speech. But aside
from the usual back and forth of this debate, I can't help but think
about the larger issue at stake here.
Think about the
America that Franklin Roosevelt saw when he looked out the windows
of the White House from his wheelchair - an America where too many
were ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure. An America
where more and more Americans were finding themselves on the losing
end of a new economy, and where there was nothing available to cushion
Some thought that
our country didn't have a responsibility to do anything about these
problems, that people would be better off left to their own devices
and the whims of the market. Others believed that American capitalism
had failed and that it was time to try something else altogether.
But our President
believed deeply in the American idea.
that the freedom to pursue our own individual dreams is made possible
by the promise that if fate causes us to stumble or fall, our larger
American family will be there to lift us up. That if we're willing
to share even a small amount of life's risks and rewards with each
other, then we'll all have the chance to make the most of our God-given
And because Franklin
Roosevelt had the courage to act on this idea, individual Americans
were able to get back on their feet and build a shared prosperity
that is still the envy of the world.
The New Deal gave
the laid-off worker a guarantee that he could count on unemployment
insurance to put food on his family's table while he looked for
a new job. It gave the young man who suffered a debilitating accident
assurance that he could count on disability benefits to get him
through the tough times. A widow might still raise her children
without the indignity of charity. And Franklin Roosevelt's greatest
legacy promised the couple who put in a lifetime of sacrifice and
hard work that they could retire in comfort and dignity because
of Social Security.
Today, we're told
by those who want to privatize that promise how much things are
different and times have changed since Roosevelt's day.
I couldn't agree
A child born in
this new century is likely to start his life with both parents -
or a single parent - working full-time jobs. They'll try their hardest
to juggle work and family, but they'll end up needing child care
to keep him safe, cared for, and educated early.
They'll want to
give him the best education possible, but unless they live in a
wealthy town with good public schools, they'll have to settle for
less or find the money for private schools.
This student will
study hard and dream of going to the best colleges in the country,
but with tuition rising higher and faster than ever before, he may
have to postpone those dreams or start life deeper in debt than
any generation before him.
When he graduates
from college, this young man will find a job market where middle-class
manufacturing jobs with good benefits have long been replaced with
low-wage, low-benefit service sector jobs and high-skill, high-wage
jobs of the future.
To get those good
jobs, he'll need the skills and knowledge to not only compete with
other workers in America, but with highly skilled and highly knowledgeable
workers all over the world who are being recruited by the same companies
that once made their home in this country.
When he finally
starts his job, he'll want health insurance, but rising costs mean
that fewer employers can afford to provide that benefit, and when
they do, fewer employees can afford the record premiums.
When he starts
a family, he'll want to buy a house and a car and pay for child
care and college for his own children, but as he watches the lucky
few benefit from lucrative bonuses and tax shelters, he'll see his
own tax burden rise and his own paycheck barely cover this month's
And when he retires,
he'll hope that he and his wife have saved enough, but if there
wasn't enough to save, he'll hope that there will still be two Social
Security checks that come to the house every month.
These are the
challenges we face at the beginning of the 21st century. We shouldn't
exaggerate; we aren't seeing the absolute deprivation of the Great
Depression. But it cannot be denied that families face more risk
and greater insecurity than we have known since FDR's time, even
as those families have fewer resources available to help pull themselves
through the tough spots. Whereas people were once able to count
on their employer to provide health care, pensions, and a job that
would last a lifetime, today's worker wonders if suffering a heart
attack will cause his employer to drop his coverage, worries about
how much he can contribute to his own pension fund, and fears the
possibility that he might walk into work tomorrow and find his job
Yet, just as the
naysayers in Roosevelt's day told us that there was nothing we could
do to help people help themselves, the people in power today are
telling us that instead of sharing the risks of the new economy,
we should shoulder them on our own.
In the end, this
is what the debate over the future of Social Security is truly about.
After a lifetime
of hard work and contribution to this country, do we tell our seniors
that they're on their own, or that we're here for them to provide
a basic standard of living? Is the dignity of life in their latter
years their problem, or one we all share?
Since this is
Washington, you won't hear them answer those questions directly
when they talk about Social Security. Instead, they use the word
"reform" when they mean "privatize," and they
use "strengthen" when they really mean "dismantle."
They tell us there's a crisis to get us all riled up so we'll sit
down and listen to their plan to privatize.
But we know what
the whole thing's really about.
It's not just
about cutting guaranteed benefits by up to 50% -- though it certainly
It's not just
about borrowing $5 trillion from countries like China and Japan
to finance the plan - after all, we know how fiscal conservatives
hate debt and deficit.
And it's not even
about the ability private accounts to finance the gap in the system
- because even the privatization advocates admit they don't.
What this whole
thing is about, and why conservatives have been pushing it so hard
for so long now, is summed up in one sentence in one White House
memo that somehow made its way out of the White House:
first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we
can win - and in doing so, we can help transform the political and
philosophical landscape of the country."
And there it is.
Since Social Security was first signed into law almost seventy years
ago, at a time when FDR's opponents were calling it a hoax that
would never work and some likened it to communism, there has been
movement after movement to get rid of the program for purely ideological
reasons. Because some still believe that we can't solve the problems
we face as one American community; they think this country works
better when we're left to face fate by ourselves.
I understand this
view. There's something bracing about the Social Darwinist idea,
the idea that there isn't a problem that the unfettered free market
can't solve. It requires no sacrifice on the part of those of us
who have won life's lottery...and doesn't consider who our parents
were, or the education we received, or the right breaks that came
at the right time.
But I couldn't
disagree more. If we privatize Social Security, what will we tell
retirees whose investments in the stock market went badly? We're
sorry? Keep working? You're on your own?
expected benefits get cut and they have to choose between their
groceries and their prescriptions, what will we say then? That's
not our problem?
When our debt
climbs so high that our children face sky-high taxes just as they're
starting their first job, what will we tell them? Deal with it yourselves?
This isn't how
America works. This isn't how we saved millions of seniors from
a life of poverty seventy years ago. This isn't how we sent a greatest
generation of veterans to college so they could build the greatest
middle-class in history. And this isn't how we should face the challenges
of this new century either.
And yet, this
is the direction they're trying to take America on almost every
issue. Instead of trying to contain the skyrocketing cost of health
care and expand access to the uninsured, the idea behind the President's
Health Savings Accounts are to leave the system alone and give you
a few extra bucks to go find a plan you can afford on your own.
You deal with double digit inflation by going to the doctor less.
Instead of strengthening a pension system that provides defined
benefits to employees who've worked a lifetime, we'll give you a
tax break and hope that you invest well and save well in your own
little account. And if none of this works - if you couldn't find
affordable insurance and suffer an illness that leaves you thousands
of dollars in debt - then you should no longer count on being able
to start over by declaring bankruptcy because they've changed the
law to put the burden of debt squarely on your shoulders.
for oneself and showing individual initiative are American values
we all share. Frankly, they're values we could stand to see more
of in a culture where the buck is too often passed to the next guy.
They are values we could use more of here in Washington too.
But the irony
of this all-out assault against every existing form of social insurance
is that these safety nets are exactly what encourage each of us
to be risk-takers and entrepreneurs who are free to pursue our individual
ambitions. We get into a car knowing that if someone rear-ends us,
they will have insurance to pay for the repairs. We buy a house
knowing that our investment is protected by homeowners insurance.
We take a chance on start-ups and small businesses because we know
that if they fail, there are protections available to cushion our
fall. Corporations across America have limited liability for this
very reason. Families should too - and that's why we need social
insurance. This is how the market works.
This is how America
works. And if we want it to keep working, we need to develop new
ways for all of us to share the new risks of a 21st century economy,
not destroy what we already have.
The genius of
Roosevelt was putting into practice the idea that America doesn't
have to be a place where our individual aspirations are at war with
our common good; it's a place where one makes the other possible.
I think we will
save Social Security from privatization this year. And in doing
so, we will affirm our belief that we are all connected as one people
- ready to share life's risks and rewards for the benefit of each
and the good of all.
Let me close by
suggesting that Democrats are absolutely united in the need to strengthen
Social Security and make it solvent for future generations. We know
that, and we want that. And I believe that both Democrats and Republicans
can work together to do that. While we're at it, we can begin a
debate about the real challenges America faces as the baby boomers
begin to retire.
a handle on the growing cost of health care and prescription drugs.
About increasing individual and national savings. About strengthening
our pension system for the 21st century.
These are important
questions that require us to work together, not in a manufactured
panic about a genuine but solvable problem, but with the spirit
of pragmatism and innovation that will offer every American the
secure retirement they have earned.
You know, there
are times in the life of this nation where we are individual citizens
going about our own business, enjoying the freedoms we've been blessed
And then there
are times when we are one America, linked by the dignity of each
and the destiny of all.
The debate over
the future of Social Security must be one of these times.
The people I've
met since starting my campaign tell me they don't want a big government
that's running their lives, but they do want an active government
that will give them the opportunity to make the most of their lives.
the child born today and the senior moving into the twilight of
life, together we can provide that opportunity.
The day Franklin
Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act of 1935 into law, he began
by saying that "Today, a hope of many years' standing is in
large part fulfilled."
It is now time
to fulfill our hope for an America where we're in this together
- for our seniors, for our children, and for every American in the
years and generations yet to come.