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Keepers of the Dream Awards Gala

Keepers of the Dream Awards Gala


(applause) The President:
Thank you so much. Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you. Please, have a
seat; have a seat. Thank you so much. Thank you. Good to be in New York City. Let me begin by acknowledging
some very, very special guests. Dr. Richardson, thank you. Charlie Rangel, for your
outstanding work on behalf of your constituents. Mayor David Dinkins. (applause) Governor David Paterson is here. (applause) State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. DiNapoli, excuse me. This is another one that’s hard
to pronounce: Stevie Wonder. (laughter) Martin Luther King III. (applause) All the Keepers of the Dream
honorees with us tonight, and the National Action Network. It is wonderful to be here as
you celebrate your 20th anniversary. Some things have changed
a lot since 1991. I told Reverend Al backstage
he’s getting skinnier than me. (laughter) He’s getting
skinnier than Spike. (laughter) But he hasn’t lost
his sense of style. The other thing that hasn’t
changed is the National Action Network’s commitment to fight
injustice and inequality here in New York City and
across America. And that’s not only a testament
to Reverend Sharpton. It’s a testament to all of
you who are here tonight. I want to commend you for the
work that you’ve done over the last two decades to lift up
not only the African American community but the
broader American family. That’s what you’re about. (applause) The last time I came
was in April of 2007, four months ago — four
years ago this month. Back then I had
fewer supporters. Most of you couldn’t pronounce
my name, so Tom, don’t feel bad. (laughter) I had a lot fewer gray hairs. I was looking at
some pictures — I looked really young back then. (laughter) I said that we were facing
extraordinary challenges in this country, but that what was
stopping us from solving them wasn’t a lack of policies;
it wasn’t a lack of plans. What was stopping us
was a broken politics. A broken politics
in Washington — a politics that was all about
the next election instead of the next generation; that was all
about what we disagreed about instead of what
we had in common; a politics that made us cynical about
our ability to change this country. And I said that if you stand
with me and believe in what we can do together, if you do what
civil rights groups like the National Action Network
have always done, if you put your shoulder
to the wheel of history, then we can move this country
toward the promise of a better day. I told you at the time I
wasn’t a perfect person, I wouldn’t be a
perfect President, but what I could commit to was
always telling you the truth even when it was hard, and I
would spend each and every day thinking about you. And because you made
our campaign your own, because you believed in our
ability to shape our own destiny, we won that chance
to bring about real change. And I said on inauguration night
in Chicago that that was simply the end of the beginning, and
that now the real business started. Because I didn’t run and so many
of you didn’t support me just to win an election. We won the election so that we
could then actually get moving on all the work that
had been left undone. Even though we
understood, of course, the magnitudes of the
challenges we faced, we didn’t fully realize
until late in the game, probably the last
month of the campaign, that we would be facing the
worst recession in generations — a recession that was leaving
millions of Americans without a home, without a job, without
hope for the future. And as Reverend Al said, some
folks have amnesia about this. Where are we two years later? Our economy has
started to grow again. The recovery is
gaining momentum. People are finally
starting to get hired back. We had to make some tough
choices in between. You remember when we decided we
had to move to save the American auto industry and everybody
said, that can’t happen. And then two weeks ago, GM just
announced that it’s going to hire back every single worker
that has been laid off and every U.S. automaker is
making a profit. (applause) But that wasn’t popular. That wasn’t popular. A while back, I visited a
small trucking business, and its owner Stephen Neal is
one of our country’s African American business leaders. And he told me that because
of the uptick in our economy, he was buying new equipment
and adding more workers. And that’s what’s happening
all across America. In the first three
months of this year, we’ve added nearly half a
million private sector jobs — nearly 2 million jobs
in the last 13 months. So we’re making progress,
but we’re not there yet. And I want you to know that so
long as there are Americans who cannot find work I will
be fighting for jobs, and so long as the gap between
the wealthiest few and everybody else keeps on growing I will
be fighting for opportunity. And I know you’ll be right
there alongside with me. (applause) We are going to keep fighting
until every family gets a shot at the American Dream. That’s our North Star. That’s the first thing I think
about when I wake up in the morning. That’s the last thing I think
about when I go to bed at night — the hopes and dreams of
people who work hard every single day, look
after their families, take care of their
responsibilities, and just need a little
bit of help to make it. Now, there are Americans of
all colors and creeds who are struggling to live out
those dreams today. That’s part of what
our campaign was about, was reminding ourselves that
everybody is in this together. Now, what’s also true, though,
is the unemployment rate for African Americans is almost
double what it is for other groups. It’s also true that those with
the least have been sacrificing the most during this recession. What’s also true is that even
before the recession hit, too many communities were marked
by structural inequalities in health and education and
employment that made it profoundly difficult for too
many people to get ahead. You understood that. I understood that. That’s part of the reason
I ran for President, because I’ve seen the
frustration and the wounded pride in the eyes of folks
who’ve lost their jobs or a father who has to go home and
tell his kids that we might not have enough this month, might be
losing our apartment this month. I’ve heard the stories of
struggling families who are doing everything right and still
at the end of the month don’t quite have enough
to pay the bills. I did not start hearing those
stories when I became President. Those are stories that led me to run
for President in the first place. (applause) As Reverend mentioned, I got my
start tackling the problems of joblessness and hopelessness
that afflict so many of our cities and rural communities. I got my start working to bring
opportunity to neighborhoods that were full of boarded-up
houses and shuttered stores, fighting to keep
kids off the street, fighting to get
them into school, fighting to make sure that
they went on to college, fighting to make real the
promise of justice in our judicial system. And these causes of justice
and equality and opportunity, they aren’t just what
led me into politics, they’re what led ordinary people
to sit down at the front of the bus, to cross that
bridge in Selma, to heed a King’s call
to perfect our union. They’re the heart of
what makes us Americans. That’s who we are. And because of your support,
they’re the causes that I’ve been carrying since I’ve
been in the Oval Office. With the help of folks
at the grassroots, we passed historic health
insurance reform that will not only extend coverage to 30
million more Americans and give Americans more
affordable choices, but will narrow the cruel health
disparities between African Americans of different
backgrounds. That was because of your work. (applause) We passed Wall Street reform
that will protect consumers from the kind of predatory lending
practices that helped cause this recession. We’re rewarding work with an
expanded Earned Income Tax Credit. We’re tackling poverty with
Promise Neighborhoods that build on the great work of Geoffrey
Canada up in Harlem. We’re making sure our civil
rights and anti-discrimination laws are enforced. And if you’re interested
in learning more, if you want to spread the word
about what we’re doing not just in the African American
community but all across the country, go to our website and
it will give you a long list of what we’ve done over
the last two years — promises made and promises kept. That’s what we’ve tried to do
over these past couple years — advance the causes that
make us who we are. But we’ve still got
more work to do. If we’re serious about opening
up opportunity and making sure America prospers in
the 21st century, we’re going to have to
up our game as a nation. I was talking to Magic
right before we came out — I was talking about
the Bulls, of course. (laughter) He’s still picking the Lakers,
but he made the point, a young man, Derek Rose
upped his game, worked hard, and is having an MVP season. Well, we have to do
that in classrooms, we have to do that
in the workplaces, we’ve got to do that in our
communities and our neighborhoods. (applause) Our fathers got
to up their games. If we want to attract new jobs
and new opportunities to our shores, we’ve got to make sure
America can out-compete the rest of the world. That’s what we mean when we
say we got to win the future. It means we got to rebuild
our crumbling transportation networks with high-speed rail,
upgrade our communications networks with
high-speed Internet. It means we’re investing in
cutting-edge research and technology like clean
energy — and most of all, making sure we are giving every
one of our children the best possible education. The best possible education is
the single most important factor in determining
whether they succeed. But it’s also what will
determine whether we succeed. It’s the key to opportunity. It is the civil rights
issue of our time. I know education is
important to everybody here, especially Reverend Al. In fact, a while back, he
stopped by the White House to talk about education. He was joined by the great mayor
of this city, Mike Bloomberg. He was also joined
by Newt Gingrich. Newt — hmm. (laughter) Newt said he and Reverend Sharpton
were “the original odd couple.” That’s an understatement. (laughter) But I welcomed them to the White
House because I don’t think there’s anything odd about the
two of them coming together around the importance
of education. When there is an achievement gap
between students of different races and backgrounds, that’s
not a Democratic problem, that’s not a
Republican problem — that is an American problem
that we have to address. (applause) When too many of our schools
are failing our children, too many of our kids are
dropping out of school, that’s not a black or
white or brown problem — that is an American problem. We’re going to have
to solve that problem. We are all responsible for the
education of all of our children. That starts with parents making
sure that we’re doing right at home, staying engaged in
our child’s education, setting high expectation. Without parental responsibility,
nothing else we do will matter. But we also know that each of us
has a responsibility not just as parents, but as civic
leaders, as Americans, to do a better job of
educating our children. And that’s why, two years ago,
we started something called Race for the Top. We’re saying to states, prove
you are serious about improving education not just for some
kids, but for all kids. And if you do, we will
show you the money. And for less than 1% of what
our country as a whole spends on education each year, Race to the
Top has led 40 states to raise their standards for teaching
and learning and student achievement, and developed plans
for some of the schools that are under performing the worst. And all this was done
not in Washington. It was developed by Republican
and Democratic governors across the country. We’re going to have to take same
approach when it comes to fixing No Child Left Behind. Instead of measuring students
based on whether they’re above or below some arbitrary test, we
need to make sure our students are graduating from high
school ready for a career, ready for college. That’s what we need to do. Instead of labeling our
schools a failure one day — instead of labeling our schools
a failure one day and then throwing up our hands
and walking away, we’ve got to refocus on the
schools that need help the most. In the 21st Century, it’s not
enough to just leave no child left behind. We’ve got to help
every child get ahead. That’s our goal — got to
get every child on a path to academic excellence. And we need to make sure that
that path leads to a college degree. That’s why we ended a system
where we were subsidizing banks in the student loan program. They were taking billions of dollars
out of the student loan program. We said, why don’t we give
that to the students directly? That would make sense. (applause) So we made college more affordable
for millions of students. Millions of students across the
country are now getting student loans that they weren’t getting
before and more loans than they were getting before. That’s why we’re making it
easier to repay student loans so kids don’t graduate,
like Michelle and I did, with massive loan
payments each month. It was more than our
mortgage for 10 years. It’s one of the things
I try to remember — I try to remind people when they
say, well, you’re President now. You’re out of touch. I said, listen, it was only a
few years ago I was still paying off my student loans. (laughter and applause) And it’s true, I
don’t pump gas now, but I remember what it
was like pumping gas. (laughter) I remember. I remember the
end of the month. (laughter) I remember that. (applause) We appreciate all of
you buying the book. (laughter and applause) Michelle and I. (laughter) That’s the college
fund right there. (laughter) That was not a given. That’s why we’re reinvesting in
Historically Black Colleges and Universities. (applause) That’s why we are — that’s why
we’re upgrading our community colleges that prepare so many
working families to succeed in this economy. And by taking all these steps,
I’m confident we are going to meet a goal that I set when I
took office that I announced in my first State of the Union:
By the end of this decade, America will once again have the
highest proportion of college graduates in the world. That is something
that we can achieve. That’s something we can achieve. (applause) That’s how we can out-educate
countries around the world. That’s how we will out-compete. That’s how we will win the
future in the 21st century. Now, one thing we won’t
be able to win is — if some of our people
are falling behind, we will not win the future. The only way for America to prosper
is for all Americans to prosper. We’ve seen that in the
census that just came out. The face of America is changing. You can’t get away with having
a third of our children, half of our children,
not doing well. Not today, not in
the 21st century. All of us — black, white,
Latino, Native American, Asian American, men, women,
disabled, non-disabled — in America, we rise
and fall together. An America where the American
Dream is within reach of everybody, that’s what we’ve
been fighting to build over the last two years. That’s what the National Action
Network has been fighting to build over the past two decades. I know that there are times
where the work is frustrating. I know there are times
where it is hard. There are times when change can
seem painfully slow to come by. There are times where
some of you may have said, you know, I don’t know
what Obama’s doing there. There are times
where you lose hope, times when folks in Washington
focus on scoring points instead of solving problems. And some of you may just
put up your hands and say, politics is too tough. But in those moments when we
start asking ourselves if change is possible, you’ve got to
remember what we’ve done together over the
past few years. Remember all the children who
will graduate from high school ready for college and beyond. Remember all the Americans who
will no longer have to worry about going bankrupt
because they got sick. Remember all the families who
will no longer be exploited by insurance companies or a credit
card company or a mortgage lender. I’m not asking you to think
about what we’ve already done so you can be satisfied
with our progress. I know this isn’t the National
Satisfaction Network. This is the National
Action Network. But I am asking you to draw
inspiration from the fact that we know change is possible. I am living testament
that change is possible. (applause) We know we have the ability to
put our shoulders to the wheel of history and steer America
towards the promise of a better day. We know that we stand on other
shoulders and step by step, inch by inch, we make progress. That’s what we’ve been doing. And if you’re as committed as I
am to continuing to change this country for the better, if you
feel the same determination that I do to tackle the problems
that haven’t yet met, if you’re still willing to
believe in what we can do together, I am absolutely
confident we will do what you’ve been doing for
the last 20 years. We will build an America where
the ideals of justice and equality and opportunity
are alive and well, and we will reclaim the
American Dream in our time. So thank you. God bless you. God bless the United
States of America. Thank you. (applause)

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