President Obama Speaks to National Governors Association

February 25, 2013 | 14:04 | Public Domain

President Obama speaks to governors about the need to strengthen the economy and the middle class.

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Remarks by the President and Vice President at Meeting of the National Governors Association

State Dining Room

11:18 A.M. EST

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Thank you all.  I tell you what, I didn't know Jack was as good as he is until I heard that rhyme last night.  (Laughter.)  Jack, if you had done that, I’d be introducing you here.  (Laughter.)

Thank you all very, very much.  I’m sorry -- you guys are much more disciplined than the place I lived for 36 years, up on the Hill, and you’re running ahead of schedule.  And so the President is with me, and I want to thank you all for being here.  
We have a lot to work on.  There’s a lot from fixing a broken immigration system to rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure, and this new word everybody in America is learning about -- “sequester.”

This town, unlike many of your capitals, is I hope temporarily frozen in -- not indifference but in sort of an intense partisanship, the likes of which in my career I’ve only see the last couple years.  But you know the American people have moved to a different place.  By the way, thanks for being so nice to my wife last night.  I like you a hell of better.  (Laughter.) We disagreed on some things.  

But all kidding aside, I think the American people have moved -- Democrats, Republicans, independents.  They know that the possibilities for this country are immense.  They're no longer traumatized by what was a traumatizing event, the great collapse in 2008.  They're no longer worried, I think, about our economy being overwhelmed either by Europe writ large, the EU, or China somehow swallowing up every bit of innovation that exists in the world.  They're no longer, I think, worried about our economy being overwhelmed beyond our shores.  

And I don't think they're any more -- there’s no -- there’s very little doubt in any circles out there about America’s ability to be in position to lead the world in the 21st century, not only in terms of our foreign policy, our incredible defense establishment, but economically.  I think the American people are ready to get up.  As a civil rights leader, when I was coming up as a kid, said, they're just -- the American people are tired of being tired.  I think they're ready to get up and move.  And you guys know that because it’s happening in your states.  You probably feel it in your fingertips more than most of us do here in Washington.

And as I said, I think they know we’re better positioned than any nation in the world to lead the world.  And that's why I think they're so frustrated by what they see and don't see happening here in Washington.  And I think their frustration is turning into a little bit of anger.

I found an interesting dynamic -- without ruining any of your reputations and picking out any one of you -- but whether it was a Democrat or Republican governor I had been talking to last night and over this past weekend, I heard from several of you, both parties, how do you deal with this going on up here?  How do you deal with the Congress?  No distinction, Democrat or Republican, depending who I was talking to, no distinction about who you’re dealing with -- but how do you deal with this?  Because you guys deal and women deal with legislatures that are split.  Some of you represent a minority party as a governor, yet you get on very well with -- you accomplish things in your home state.  And as I said, I’ve been here long enough -- that's the way it used to work, and I think we can make it work that way again.

But there’s a number of things we have to do immediately, and we may disagree on how to address them, but I don't think anybody disagrees on the need for them to be addressed -- from implementing the Affordable Care Act.  It’s the law.  You all are grappling with that.  Each of you are making different decisions, but you’re grappling with it.  You’re moving and you’re making your own judgments.  

We also have to -- I don't think there’s much disagreement there’s a need for immigration reform.  I’ve not met a governor from the time of implementing the Recovery Act to now who doesn't think that we have do something about our crumbling infrastructure in order to impact on our productivity here in this country -- continue to attract, keep and bring back American business from abroad.  

And there’s very little disagreement on the need to build an education system that has such immense possibilities for our people.

But on most of these issues we’re united by more than what divides us.  All these issues intersect at a place -- the ones I just mentioned and others -- they intersect at a place where both the state and federal governments engage.  So we’re going to have to work together.  They overlap in many cases.  

We’ll have our differences, but we all should agree that the United States has to once again have the highest percentage of college graduates of any nation in the world.  I don't think there’s any disagreement.  Everybody agrees and some of you governors have led the way on early education and the consequences for the prospects of success for our children not only of graduating, but avoiding the criminal justice system.  You’ve all led in knowing that we have to have reform of our high school system so that we -- and not only finding a pathway for people who are going to four-year college and community college but go into the trades.  

So there’s so much agreement that I think we ought to be able to get a fair amount done.  And we should all agree that to grow our economy we have to invest in manufacturing, clean energy, infrastructure, education.  The question is who invests and how much and how -- we’re going to debate that.  But there’s not much disagreement about the need to invest.  

And I think we’re all -- I’ve never met a Democrat or Republican who’s been a governor who doesn't think that the American people should have the sense that hard work is going to be rewarded, that there’s a chance that if you work hard, you got an opportunity.  I don't know of any group of men or women who are a better living example of that than all of you sitting in front of me in your own experiences.  

So the question is -- we all use the phrase “move forward in a balanced way” -- when one man’s balance is another man’s imbalance, but that's what we got to talk about.  That's what’s at stake.  But the one thing that I don't think any of you lack is a vision about how great this country can be now that we’re coming back, that we ought to be able to reassert ourselves in a way that we own the 21st century.  And I know the guy I’m about to introduce believes that as strongly as all of you do.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the President -- who’s back with the pastry chef and I’m wondering what he’s doing back there.  (Laughter.)  The President of the United States, my friend, Barack Obama.  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you, everybody.  (Applause.)   Thank you.  Thank you, guys.  Please have a seat.  Well, welcome, everybody.  Thanks for being here.  

We all have a lot on our plate, everything from our immigration system to our education system.  As Joe talked about, our goal is to make sure that we can be an effective partner with you.

I want to thank the members of my Cabinet who are here, and members of the administration.  I want to thank Jack and Mary for their leadership of the NGA.  And everybody else, I just want to say thanks to you for being on your best behavior last night.  (Laughter.)  I’m told nothing was broken.  No silverware is missing.  (Laughter.)  I didn’t get any calls from the neighbors about the noise -- although I can’t speak for Joe’s after-party at the Observatory.  I hear that was wild.  (Laughter.)  

Now, I always enjoy this weekend when I have a chance to see the governors.  As leaders, we share responsibility to do whatever we can to help grow our economy and create good middle-class jobs, and open up new doors of opportunity for all of our people.  That’s our true north, our highest priority.  And it’s got to guide every decision that we make at every level.

As I’ve said, we should be asking ourselves three questions every single day:  How do we make America a magnet for good jobs? How do we equip our people with the skills and the training to get those jobs?  And how do we make sure if they get those jobs that their hard work actually pays off?  

As governors, you’re the ones who are on the ground, seeing firsthand every single day what works, what doesn’t work, and that's what makes you so indispensable.  Whatever your party, you ran for office to do everything that you could to make our folks’ lives better.  And one thing I know unites all of us, and all of you -- Democrats and Republicans -- and that is the last thing you want to see is Washington get in the way of progress.  

Unfortunately, in just four days, Congress is poised to allow a series of arbitrary, automatic budget cuts to kick in that will slow our economy, eliminate good jobs, and leave a lot of folks who are already pretty thinly stretched scrambling to figure out what to do.  

This morning, you received a report outlining exactly how these cuts will harm middle-class families in your states.  Thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off.  Tens of thousands of parents will have to deal with finding child care for their children.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose access to primary care and preventive care like flu vaccinations and cancer screenings.  Tomorrow, for example, I’ll be in the Tidewater region of Virginia, where workers will sit idle when they should be repairing ships, and a carrier sits idle when it should be deploying to the Persian Gulf.  

Now, these impacts will not all be felt on day one.  But rest assured the uncertainty is already having an effect.  Companies are preparing layoff notices.  Families are preparing to cut back on expenses.  And the longer these cuts are in place, the bigger the impact will become.

So while you are in town, I hope that you speak with your congressional delegation and remind them in no uncertain terms exactly what is at stake and exactly who is at risk.  Because here’s the thing -- these cuts do not have to happen.  Congress can turn them off any time with just a little bit of compromise. To do so, Democrats like me need to acknowledge that we’re going to have to make modest reforms in Medicare if we want the program there for future generations and if we hope to maintain our ability to invest in critical things like education, research and infrastructure.

I’ve made that commitment.  It’s reflected in proposals I made last year and the year before that, and will be reflected in my budget, and I stand by those commitments to make the reforms for smart spending cuts.  

But we also need Republicans to adopt the same approach to tax reform that Speaker Boehner championed just two months ago.  Under our concept of tax reform, nobody’s rates would go up, but we’d be able to reduce the deficit by making some tough, smart spending cuts and getting rid of wasteful tax loopholes that benefit the well-off and the well-connected.  

I know that sometimes folks in Congress think that compromise is a bad word.  They figure they’ll pay a higher price at the polls for working with the other side than they will for standing pat or engaging in obstructionism.  But, as governors, some of you with legislators controlled by the other party, you know that compromise is essential to getting things done.  And so is prioritizing, making smart choices.  

That’s how Governor O’Malley in Maryland put his state on track to all but eliminate his deficit while keeping tuition down and making Maryland’s public schools among the best in America five years running.  That’s how Governor Haslam balanced his budget last year in Tennessee while still investing in key areas like education for Tennessee’s kids.  Like the rest of us, they know we can’t just cut our way to prosperity.  Cutting alone is not an economic policy.  We’ve got to make the tough, smart choices to cut what we don’t need so that we can invest in the things that we do need.  

Let me highlight two examples of what we do need.  The first is infrastructure.  This didn’t used to be a partisan issue. I don’t know when exactly that happened.  It should be a no-brainer.  Businesses are not going to set up shop in places where roads and bridges and ports and schools are falling apart.  They’re going to open their doors wherever they can connect the best transportation and communications networks to their businesses and to their customers.  

And that’s why I proposed what we’re calling “fix-it-first” -- I talked about this in my State of the Union address -- to put people to work right now on urgent repairs like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.  And to make sure taxpayers don’t shoulder the entire burden, I also proposed a partnership to rebuild America that attracts private capital to upgrade what our businesses need most -- modern ports to move our goods, modern pipelines to withstand a storm, modern schools that are worthy of our children.

I know that some people in Congress reflexively oppose any idea that I put forward, even if it’s an idea that they once supported, but rebuilding infrastructure is not my idea.  It’s everybody’s idea.  It’s what built this country.  Governor Kitzhaber, a Democrat in Oregon, has made clean-energy infrastructure a top priority.  Governor Brownback of Kansas, a Republican, has been fighting to upgrade water infrastructure there.  

And folks who think spending really is our biggest problem should be more concerned than anybody about improving our infrastructure right now.  We're talking about deferred maintenance here.  We know we're going to have to spend the money.  And the longer we wait, the more it’s going to cost.  That is a fact.  I think Matt Mead, a Republican, put it pretty well in Wyoming’s state address.  He said failing to maintain our roads “is not a plan for being fiscally conservative.”  Well, what's true in Wyoming is true all across the United States.  

And we could be putting folks back to work right now.  We know contractors are begging for work.  They’ll come in on time, under budget, which never happens.   And we could make a whole lot of progress right now on things that we know we're going to have to do at some point.  This is like fixing the roof or repairing a boiler that's broken.  It will save us money in the long term.   

I know that one of the biggest hurdles that you face when it comes to fixing infrastructure is red tape.  And oftentimes, that comes out of Washington with regulations.  In my first term, we started to take some steps to address that.  And we’ve shaved months -- in some cases, even years -- off the timeline of infrastructure projects across America.

So today, I’m accelerating that effort.  We’re setting up regional teams that will focus on some of the unique needs each of you have in various parts of the country.  We’re going to help the Pacific Northwest move faster on renewable energy projects.  We’re going to help the Northeast Corridor move faster on high-speed rail service.  We’re going to help the Midwest and other states, like Colorado, move faster on projects that help farmers deal with worsening drought.  We’re going to help states like North Dakota and South Dakota and Montana move faster on oil and gas production.  All of these projects will get more Americans back to work faster.  And we can do even more if we can get Congress to act.    

The second priority that I want to talk about is education  -- and in particular, education that starts at the earliest age. I want to partner with each of you to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.  

Now, this is an area where we've already seen great bipartisan work at the state level.  I was just in Governor Deal’s state to highlight this issue because Georgia has made it a priority to educate our youngest kids.  And in the school district where I visited in Decatur, Georgia, you're already seeing closing of the achievement gap.  Kids who are poor are leveling up.  And everybody is seeing real improvement, because it's high-quality, early childhood education.

Study after study shows that the sooner children begin to learn in these high-quality settings, the better he or she does down the road, and we all end up saving money.  Unfortunately, today fewer than three in 10 four-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.  Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week in additional income for these kinds of preschool programs.  And poor kids, who need it most, lack access.  And that lack of access can shadow them for the rest of their lives.  We all pay a price for that.  

Every dollar we invest in early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on -- boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing incidents of violent crime.  

And again, I'm not the first person to focus on this. Governor Bentley has made this a priority in Alabama.  Governor Snyder is making it a priority in Michigan.  Governor Tomblin has made this a priority in West Virginia.  Even in a time of tight budgets, Republicans and Democrats are focused on high-quality early childhood education.  We want to make sure that we can be an effective partner in that process.

We should be able to do that for every child, everywhere -- Democrat, Republican, blue state, red state -- it shouldn't matter.  All of us want our kids to grow up more likely to read and write and do math at grade level, to graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own.  That will be better for every state.  That will be better for this country.  That's what high-quality early childhood education can deliver.  And I hope that you're willing to partner with us to make that happen.

Let me just close with this.  There are always going to be areas where we have some genuine disagreement, here in Washington and in your respective states.  But there are more areas where we can do a lot more cooperating than I think we've seen over the last several years.  To do that, though, this town has to get past its obsession with focusing on the next election instead of the next generation.

All of us are elected officials.  All of us are concerned about our politics, both in our own party’s as well as the other party’s.  But at some point, we've got to do some governing.  And certainly what we can't do is keep careening from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis.  As I said in the State of the Union, the American people have worked hard and long to dig themselves out of one crisis; they don't need us creating another one.  And unfortunately, that's what we've been seeing too much out there.

The American people are out there every single day, meeting their responsibilities, giving it their all to provide for their families and their communities.  A lot of you are doing the same things in your respective states.  Well, we need that same kind of attitude here in Washington.  At the very least, the American people have a right to expect that from their representatives.  

And so I look forward to working with all of you not just to strengthen our economy for the short term, but also to reignite what has always been the central premise of America’s economic engine, and that is that we build a strong, growing, thriving middle class where if you work hard in this country, no matter who you are, what you look like, you can make it; you can succeed.  That's our goal, and I know that's the goal of all of you as well.  
So I look forward to our partnering.  And with that, what I want to do is clear out the press so we can take some questions. (Applause.)

11:40 A.M. EST

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