Good afternoon. It’s great to be back at GW. I want you to know that one of the reasons I worked so hard with Democrats and Republicans to keep the government open was so I could be here today with all of you. I wanted to make sure you had one more excuse to skip class. You’re welcome.
I want to give a special thanks to Steven Knapp, the president of GW. I just saw him. Where is he? There he is, right there. Thank you. We’ve got a lot of distinguished guests here, a couple people I want to acknowledge. Of course, my outstanding vice president, Joe Biden is here. Our Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner is in the house. Jack Lew, the director of the office of management and budget. Gene Sperling, chairman of the National Economic Council is here. Members of our bipartisan fiscal commission are here, including the two outstanding chairs, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson are here. And of course we have a number of members of Congress here today. I’m grateful for all of you taking the time to attend.
What we’ve been debating here in Washington over the last few weeks will affect the lives of the students here and families all across America in potentially profound ways. This debate over budgets and deficits is about more than just numbers on a page, more than just cutting and spending. It’s about the kind of future we want. It’s about the kind of country we believe in. And that’s what I want to talk about today.
From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America’s wealth and prosperity. More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.
But there has always been another thread running throughout our history – a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. We believe, in the words of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves. And so we’ve built a strong military to keep us secure, and public schools and universities to educate our citizens. We’ve laid down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce. We’ve supported the work of scientists and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives, unleashed repeated technological revolutions, and led to countless new jobs and entire industries. Each of us has benefitted from these investments, and we are a more prosperous country as a result.
Part of this American belief that we are all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say to ourselves, and so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, and those with disabilities. We’re a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further – we would not be a great country without those commitments.
For much of the last century, our nation found a way to afford these investments and priorities with the taxes paid by its citizens. As a country that values fairness, wealthier individuals have traditionally born a greater share of this burden than the middle class or those less fortunate. Everybody pays, but the wealthier have borne a little more. This is not because we begrudge those who’ve done well – we rightly celebrate their success. Rather, it is a basic reflection of our belief that those who have benefitted most from our way of life can afford to give back a little bit more. Moreover, this belief has not hindered the success of those at the top of the income scale, who continue to do better and better with each passing year.
Now, at certain times – particularly during periods of war or recession – our nation has had to borrow money to pay for some of our priorities. And as most families understand, a little credit card debt isn’t going to hurt if it’s temporary.
But as far back as the 1980s, America started amassing debt at more alarming levels, and our leaders began to realize that a larger challenge was on the horizon. They knew that eventually, the Baby Boom generation would retire, which meant a much bigger portion of our citizens would be relying on programs like Medicare, Social Security, and possibly Medicaid. Like parents with young children who know they have to start saving for the college years, America had to start borrowing less and saving more to prepare for the retirement of an entire generation.
To meet this challenge, our leaders came together three times during the 1990s to reduce our nation’s deficit. They forged historic agreements that required tough decisions made by the first President Bush, then made by President Clinton; by Democratic Congresses and a Republican Congress. All three agreements asked for shared responsibility and shared sacrifice, but they largely protected the middle class, our commitments to seniors; they protected key investments in our future.
As a result of these bipartisan efforts, America’s finances were in great shape by the year 2000. We went from deficit to surplus. America was actually on track to becoming completely debt-free, and we were prepared for the retirement of the Baby Boomers.
But after Democrats and Republicans committed to fiscal discipline during the 1990s, we lost our way in the decade that followed. We increased spending dramatically for two wars and an expensive prescription drug program – but we didn’t pay for any of this new spending. Instead, we made the problem worse with trillions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts – tax cuts that went to every millionaire and billionaire in the country; tax cuts that will force us to borrow an average of $500 billion every year over the next decade.
To give you an idea of how much damage this caused to our national checkbook, consider this: in the last decade, if we had simply found a way to pay for the tax cuts and the prescription drug benefit, our deficit would currently be at low historical levels in the coming years.
Of course, that’s not what happened. And so, by the time I took office, we once again found ourselves deeply in debt and unprepared for a Baby Boom retirement that is now starting to take place. When I took office, our projected deficit, annually, was more than $1 trillion. On top of that, we faced a terrible financial crisis and a recession that, like most recessions, led us to temporarily borrow even more. In this case, we took a series of emergency steps that saved millions of jobs, kept credit flowing, and provided working families extra money in their pockets. It was absolutely the right thing to do, but these steps were expensive, and added to our deficits in the short term.
So that’s how our fiscal challenge was created. That’s how we got here. And now that our economic recovery is gaining strength, Democrats and Republicans must come together and restore the fiscal responsibility that served us so well in the 1990s. We have to live within our means, we have reduce our deficit, and we have to get back on a path that will allow us to pay down our debt. And we have to do it in a way that protects the recovery, and protects the investments we need to grow, create jobs, and helps us win the future.
Now, before I get into how we can achieve this goal, some of you – particularly the younger people here, you don’t qualify Joe – some of you might be wondering, “Why is this so important? Why does this matter to me?”