Return to Transcripts main page
Coverage of Barack Obama's Speech. Aired 12:30-1p ET
Aired September 7, 2018 - 12:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[12:30:00] BARACK OBAMA, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: And no shame about tapping into America's dark history of racial and ethnic and religious division. Appealing to tribe, appealing to fear, pitting one group against another, telling people that order and security will be restored if it weren't for those who don't look like us or don't sound like us or don't pray like we do, that's an old playbook. It's as old as time. And in a healthy democracy, it doesn't work. Our antibodies kick in, and people of goodwill from across the political spectrum call out the bigots and the fear mongers and work to compromise and get things done and promote the better angels of our nature.
But when there's a vacuum in our democracy, when we don't vote, when we take our basic rights and freedoms for granted, when we turn away and stop paying attention and stop engaging and stop believing and look for the newest diversion, the electronic versions of bread and circuses, then other voices fill the void. A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment takes hold and demagogues promise simple fixes to complex problems. No promise to fight for the little guy, even as they cater to the wealthiest and most powerful. No promise to clean up corruption and then plunder away. They start undermining norms that ensure accountability and try to change the rules to entrench their power further. And they appeal to racial nationalism that's barely veiled, if veiled at all.
I understand this is not just a matter of Democrats versus Republicans or liberals versus conservatives. At various times in our history, this kind of politics has infected both parties. Southern Democrats were the bigger defenders of slavery. It took a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, to end it. Dixicrats filibuster anti-lynching legislation, opposed the idea of expanding civil rights. And although it was a Democratic president and a majority Democrat Congress, spurred on by young marchers and protesters that got the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act over the finish line, those historic laws also got passed because of the leadership of Republicans, like Illinois' own Everett Dirksen (ph).
So neither party has had a monopoly on wisdom. Neither party has been exclusively responsible for us going backwards instead of forwards. But I have to say this because sometimes we hear a plague on both your houses. Over the past few decades, it wasn't true when Jim Edgar was the governor here in Illinois, or Jim Thompson was governor, got a lot of good Republican friends here in Illinois, but over the past few decades, the politics of division and resentment and paranoia has unfortunately found a home in the Republican Party. This Congress has championed the unwinding of campaign finance laws to
give billionaires outside influence over our politics. Systematically attacked voting rights to make it harder for young people, the minorities and the poor to vote. Handed out tax cuts without regard to deficits. Slashed the safety net wherever it could, cast dozens of votes to take away health insurance from ordinary Americans, embraced wild conspiracy theories, like those surrounding Benghazi or my birth certificate, rejected science, rejected facts on things like climate change, embraced a rising absolutism from a willingness to default on America's debt by not paying our bills, to a refusal to even meet, much less consider, a qualified nominee for the Supreme Court because he happened to be nominated by a Democratic president. None of this is conservative.
[12:36:00] I don't mean to pretend I'm channeling Abraham Lincoln now, but that's not what he had in mind, I think, when he helped form the Republican Party. It's not conservative. It sure isn't normal. It's radical. It's a vision that says the protection of our power and those who back us is all that matters even when it hurts the country. It's a vision that says the few who can afford high-price lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions set the agenda. And over the past two years, this vision is now nearing its logical conclusion.
So that with Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, without any checks or balances whatsoever, they've provided another $1.5 trillion in tax cuts to people like me who, I promise, don't need it and don't even pretend to pay for them. It's supposed to be the party supposedly of fiscal conservatism. Suddenly deficits do not matter. Even though just two years ago, when the deficit was lower, they said I couldn't afford to help working families or seniors on Medicare because the deficit was an existential crisis.
What changed? What changed?
They're subsidizing polluters with taxpayer dollars, allowing dishonest lenders to take advantage of veterans and students and consumers again. They've made it so that the only nation on earth to pull out of the global climate agreement, it's not North Korea, it's not Syria, it's not Russia or Saudi Arabia, it's us. The only country. There are a lot of countries in the world. We're the only ones.
They're undermining our alliances, cozying up to Russia. What happened to the Republican Party?
Its central organizing principle in foreign policy was the fight against communism, and now they're cozying up to the former head of the KGB. Actively blocking legislation that would defend our elections from Russian attack. What happened?
Their sabotage of the Affordable Care Act has already cost more than 3 million Americans their health insurance. And if they're still in power next fall, you better believe they're coming at it again. They've said so.
In a healthy democracy, there's some checks and balances on this kind of behavior, this kind of inconsistency, but right now there's nothing.
Republicans who know better in Congress, and they're there, they're quoted saying, yes, we know this is kind of crazy, are still bending over backwards to shield this behavior from scrutiny or accountability or consequence, seem utterly unwilling to find the backbone to safeguard the institutions that make our democracy work. And, by the way, the claim that everything will turn out OK because there are people inside the White House who secretly aren't following the president's orders, that is not a check. I'm being serious here. That's not how our democracy's supposed to work.
[12:40:33] These people aren't elected. They're not accountable. They're not doing us a service by actively promoting 90 percent of the crazy stuff that's coming out of this White House. And then saying, don't worry, we're preventing the other 10 percent. That's not how things are supposed to work.
This is not normal. These are extraordinary times. And they're dangerous times.
But here's the good news. In two months we have the chance, not the certainty, but the chance to restore some semblance of sanity to our politics, because there is actually only one real check on bad policy and abuse of power. That's you. You and your vote.
Look, Americans will always have disagreements on policy. This is a big country. It is a raucous country. People have different points of view.
I happen to be a Democrat. I support Democratic candidates. I believe our policies are better and that we have a bigger, bolder vision of opportunity and equality and justice and inclusive democracy. We know there are a lot of jobs young people aren't getting a chance to occupy or aren't getting paid enough or aren't getting benefits like insurance. It's harder for young people to save for a rainy day, let alone retirement. So Democrats aren't just running on good, old ideas, like a higher minimum wage, they're running on good new ideas, like Medicare for all, giving workers seats on corporate boards, reversing the most egregious corporate tax cuts to make sure college students graduate debt free.
We know that people are tired of toxic corruption and that democracy depends on transparency and accountability. So Democrats aren't just running on good old ideas, like requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns, and barring lobbyists from making campaign contributions, but on good, new ideas, like barring lobbyists from getting paid by foreign governments.
We know that climate change isn't just coming. It is here. So Democrats aren't just running on good old ideas, like increasing gas mileage in our cars, which I did and which Republicans are trying to reverse, but on good, new ideas, like putting a price on carbon pollution.
We know that in a smaller, more connected world, we can't just put technology back in a box. We can't just put walls up all around America. Walls don't keep out threats like terrorism or disease. And that's why we propose leading our alliances and helping other countries develop and pushing back against tyrants.
And Democrats talk about reforming our immigration system so, yes, it is orderly and it is fair and it is legal, but it continues to welcome strivers and dreamers from all around the world.
That's why I'm a Democrat. That's a set of ideas that I believe in.
But I am here to tell you that even if you don't agree with me or Democrats on policy, even if you believe in more libertarian economic theories, even if you are an evangelical and our position on certain social issues is a bridge too far, even if you think my assessment of immigration is mistaken and the Democrats aren't serious enough about immigration enforcement, I'm here to tell you that you should still be concerned with our current course and should still want to see a restoration of honesty and decency and lawfulness in our government.
[12:45:55] It should not be Democratic or Republican. It should not be a partisan issue to say that we do not pressure the attorney general or the FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents or to explicitly call on the attorney general to protect members of our own party from prosecution because an election happens to be coming up.
I'm not making that up. That's not hypothetical.
It shouldn't be Democratic or Republican to say that we don't threaten the freedom of the press because they say things or publish stories we don't like. I complained plenty about Fox News, but you never heard me threaten to shut them down or call them enemies of the people.
It shouldn't be Democratic or Republican to say we don't target certain groups of people based on what they look like or how they pray. We are Americans. We're supposed to stand up to bullies, not follow them. We're supposed to stand up to discrimination. And we're sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers. How hard can that be, saying that Nazis are bad?
And I'll be honest, sometimes I get into arguments with progressive friends about what the current political movement requires. There are well-meaning folks passionate about social justice who think things have gotten so bad, the lines have been so starkly drawn, that we have to fight fire with fire. We have to do the same things to the Republicans that they do to us. Adopt their tactics. Say whatever works. Make up stuff about the other side.
I don't agree with that. It's not because I'm soft. It's not because I'm interested in promoting an empty bipartisanship. I don't agree with it because eroding our civic institutions and our civic trust and making people angrier and yelling at each other and making people cynical about government, that always works better for those who don't believe in the power of collective action. You don't need an effective government or a robust press or reasoned debate to work when all you're concerned about is maintaining power. In fact, the more cynical people are about government, the angrier and more dispirited they are about the prospects for change, the more likely the powerful are able to maintain their power.
But we believe that in order to move this country forward, to actually solve problems and make people's lives better, we need a well- functioning government. We need our civic institutions to work. We need cooperation among people of different political persuasions.
And to make that work, we have to restore our faith in democracy. We have to bring people we need cooperation among people of different political persuasions. And to make that work, we have to restore our faith in democracy. We have to bring people together, not tear them apart.
[12:50:15] We need majorities in Congress and state legislatures who are serious about governing and want to bring about real change and improvements in people's lives. And we won't win people over by calling them names or dismissing entire chunks of the country as racist or sexist or homophobic.
When I say bring people together, I mean all of our people. You know, this whole notion that has sprung up recently about Democrats needing to choose between trying to appeal to white working class voters, or voters of color and women and LGBT Americans, that's nonsense. I don't buy that. I got votes from every demographic. We won by reaching out to everybody and competing everywhere and by fighting for every vote. And that's what we've got to do in this election and every election after that.
And we can't do that if we immediately disregard what others have to say from the start because they're not like us, because they're not -- because they're white or they're black or they're a man or a woman or they're gay or they're straight. If we think that somehow there's no way they can understand how I'm feeling and therefore don't have any standing to speak on certain matters because we're only defined by certain characteristics, that doesn't work if you want a healthy democracy. We can't do that if we traffic in absolute when is it comes to policy.
You know, to make democracy work, we have to be able to get inside the reality of people who are different, have different experiences, come from different backgrounds. We have to engage them even when it is frustrating. We have to listen to them, even when we don't like what they have to say. We have to hope that we can change their minds, and we have to remain open to them changing ours.
And that doesn't mean, by the way, abandoning our principles or caving to bad policy in the interests of maintaining some phony version of civility. That seems to be, by the way, the definition of civility offered by too many congressional Republicans right now. We will be polite so long as we get 100 percent of what we want and you don't call us out on the various ways that we're sticking it to people. And we'll click our tongues and issue vague statements of disappointment when the president does something outrageous, but we won't really actually do anything about it. That's not civility. That's abdicating your responsibilities.
But, again, I digress. Making democracy work means holding on to our principles, having
clarity about our principles, and then having the confidence to get in the arena and have a serious debate. And it also means appreciating that progress does not happen all at once, but when you put your shoulder to the wheel, if you're willing to fight for it, things do get better.
And let me tell you something, particularly young people here. Better is good. I used to have to tell my young staff this all the time in the White House, better is good. That's the history of progress in this country. Not perfect, better.
The Civil Rights Act didn't end racism, but it made things better. Social Security didn't eliminate all poverty for seniors, but it made things better for millions of people. Do not let people tell you the fight's not worth it because you won't get everything that you want. The idea that, well, you know, there's racism in America, so I'm not going to bother voting, no point, that makes no sense. You can make it better.
[12:55:01] Better is always worth fighting for. That's how our founders expected this system of self-government to work. That through the testing of ideas and the application of reason and evidence and proof, we could sort through our differences and nobody would get exactly what they wanted, but it would be possible to find a basis for common ground.
And that common ground exists. Maybe it's not fashionable to say that right now. It's hard to see it with all the nonsense in Washington. It's hard to hear it with all the noise. But common ground exists. I have seen it. I have lived it.
I know there are white people who care deeply about black people being treated unfairly. I have talked to them and loved them. And I know there are black people who care deeply about the struggles of white rural America. I'm one of them. And I have a track record to prove it.
I know there are evangelicals who are deeply committed to doing something about climate change. I've seen them do the work. I know there are conservatives who think there's nothing compassionate about separating immigrant children from their mothers. I know there are Republicans who believe government should only perform a few minimal functions but that one of those functions should be making sure nearly 3,000 Americans don't die in a hurricane and its aftermath.
Common ground's out there. I see it every day. It's just how people interact, how people treat each other. You see it on the ball field. You see it at work. You see it in places of worship.
But to say that common ground exists doesn't mean it will inevitably win out. History shows the power of fear. And the closer that we get to Election Day, the more those invested in the politics of fear and division will work -- will do anything to hang on to their recent gains.
Fortunately, I am hopeful, because out of this political darkness, I am seeing a great awakening of citizenship all across the country. I cannot tell you how encouraged I've been by watching so many people get involved for the first time or the first time in a long time. They're marching and they're organizing and they're registering people to vote and they're running for office themselves.
Look at this crop of Democratic candidates running for Congress and running for governor and running for the state legislature, running for district attorney, running for school board. It is a movement of citizens who happen to be younger and more diverse and more female than ever before. And that's really useful.
We need more women in charge. But we've got first-time candidates. We've got veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Record numbers of women. Americans who have previously maybe didn't have an interest in politics as a career, but laced up their shoes and rolled up their sleeves and grabbed a clipboard because they, too, believe this time's different. This moment's too important to sit out.
And if you listen to what these candidates are talking about in individual races across the country, you'll find they're not just running against something, they are running for something. And they're running to restore the honor and compassion that should be the essence of public service.
[12:59:58] And speaking as a Democrat, that's when the Democratic Party's always made the biggest difference in the lives of the American people. When we led with conviction and principle and bold, new ideas.
The antidote --