Speeches from the 2008 Democratic National Convention
Remarks to the 2008 Democratic National Convention
Our youngest daughter, Katherine, graduated from high school a year ago. Sitting at her graduation, I couldn’t help but reflect on the difference between her journey to that milestone, and my own. I grew up in poverty on the South Side of Chicago. I went to overcrowded, sometimes violent public schools. I shared a room and a set of bunk beds with my mother and sister, so we would rotate from the top bunk to the bottom bunk to the floor, every third night on the floor.
I can’t think of a time when I didn’t enjoy reading, but I don’t remember actually ever owning a book as a child. I got my break in 1970 when I came to Massachusetts on a scholarship to boarding school. For me, that was like landing on a different planet. Our daughter Katherine, by contrast, has always had her own room. By the time she got to high school, she had already traveled on four continents, and had shaken hands in the White House with the President of the United States.
One generation and the circumstances of my life and family were profoundly transformed. And though that story is still not told as often as we’d like, it’s told more often in this country than any other place on earth. That is the American story. It is who we are. It is also what we stand for as Democrats: the simple notion that through hard work, tenacity, preparation and faith each of us has a chance at the American story. That American story is at risk today. More and more families are working harder but losing ground. The poor are in terrible shape. And the middle class are one paycheck away, one serious illness away, from being poor and deeply anxious about it. Together, we can change that. We’ve done it before.
In an earlier generation, as we faced dangers abroad and widespread suffering at home, our leaders responded with more than new policies. They summoned American aspirations and called on a generation to serve and to sacrifice. And that generation, the so-called “Greatest Generation,” fought and won the war; built the federal highway system and great public universities and other institutions; expanded the middle class; and ignited the civil rights revolution. That generation—through their service and their sacrifice—made it possible for many of us to live the American story.
Barack Obama understands that we must renew our commitment to the American story today.
And the gateway is through a first-rate education. That’s why Barack Obama wants to help our kids be ready to learn when they get to kindergarten, by investing in early education. That’s why he wants to fix and fund No Child Left Behind. That’s why he wants to better train and better reward high-performing teachers, why he wants to emphasize more math and science preparation, and why he wants to support the college ambitions of young people by helping them pay for it.
Barack Obama understands, like you do, that a well-educated America will make things again because we’ll be ready for emerging industries like clean energy, life sciences and high tech, which produce good jobs as well as a cleaner environment. And in that new economy, working people will again be able to see a path into the middle class and a secure future.
Now, John McCain says he believes in education, too. But he is against fully funding No Child Left Behind, against fully funding Head Start, against hiring more teachers and wants to abolish the Department of Education. This should come as no surprise. John McCain is just more of the same say-one-thing-do-another crowd in the White House today.
The same folks who say they believe in small government and fiscal restraint are responsible for the biggest expansion in the size of government and the size of the federal deficit in American history. The same folks, with John McCain leading the charge, who say they support seniors, want to privatize Social Security and put corporate pension funds up for grabs. The same folks who call themselves “compassionate conservatives” are the folks who abandoned all those people not only after Katrina, but before that storm. The American people have had enough.
But Democrats don’t deserve to win just because Republicans deserve to lose. If the American story is to have a chance, we need more than better programs and policies. We need better vision.
When I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the ‘50s and ‘60s, everything was broken. Playgrounds, schools, families and lives—all broken. But we had a community. Those were days when every child was under the jurisdiction of every single adult on the block. So if you messed up in front of Ms. Jones’ stoop, she would straighten you out as if you were hers and then call home, so you would get it twice. What those adults were trying to get across to us was that they had a stake in us. They wanted us to understand that membership in a community is seeing the stake that each of us has in our neighbor’s dreams and struggles, as well as our own.
Barack Obama has challenged us to rebuild our national community. To focus not on the things that tear us apart, but on those that bring us together; not on the right or the left, but right and wrong; not on yesterday, but tomorrow. These are the possibilities Barack Obama asks us to reach for. This is the kind of leadership he offers to bring to the presidency—not because government can solve every problem in everybody’s life; but because “government,” as Barney Frank likes to say, is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.
This will not be easy. The status quo is a powerful force. A lot of people, including some in our own party, would rather not have anybody rock the boat. If we want the leadership our times demand, we are going to have to work for it. We are going to have to ask Republicans, Independents and Democrats alike to take a chance on their own aspirations for a renewed American story. We are going to have to put our cynicism down and learn to say again, like that Greatest Generation, “Yes, we can.”
If you want the change our country yearns for, if you want leadership that inspires us to bring the best that we have and the best that we are to a renewed American cause, if you want more than a campaign for president, but a cause to renew the American dream, then let’s join hands and go to work to elect Barack Obama the next President of the United States.
to the 2008 Democratic National Convention Page