What kind of country are we? A country of isolated individuals fending for themselves or a country with shared values and a shared vision? A country with scant resources, fading glory and no choices? Or a blessed nation with the potential to do right by its people and be a leader in the world?
Those are the questions that confront our nation's leaders, whether they acknowledge it or not. And while they wrestle with the questions, America's working people already know the answer. We are a nation that still has choices. We don't need to settle for stagnation and ever-spiraling inequality. We don't need to hunker down, dial back our expectations and surrender our children's hope for a great education, our parents' right to a comfortable retirement, our own health and economic security, our nation's aspiration to make things again -- or our human right to advance our situation by forming a union if we want one. All these things are within the reach of the great country we live in.
But here in Washington, we live in an Alice-in-Wonderland political climate. We have a jobs crisis that after three years is still raging -- squeezing families, devastating our poorest communities and stunting the futures of young adults. Yet politicians of both parties tell us that we can -- and should -- do nothing. And the Republican leaders in the House are instead using their first days in office to take away health care gains from 30 million families.
In this topsy-turvy world, the same leaders who fought so valiantly to cut taxes for the wealthy turn right around and lecture us about the imminent bankruptcy of Social Security and Medicare. So let me get this straight -- we need to slash retirement and health benefits for the elderly because we are on the brink of fiscal crisis, but we can afford to squander hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts for the super-rich. Only at the Mad Hatter's tea party does this make sense.
When we compete to cut spending instead of deciding how to compete in the world economy and secure our future, then we are having the wrong conversation. We are governing from fear, not from confidence.
And we have let our transnational business titans convince our politicians that our national strength lies in their profits, not our jobs. We are failing to invest in the good-wage growth path that is essential to our survival.
This misguided and shortsighted approach is not just a Washington problem. In state capital after state capital, politicians elected to take on the jobs crisis are instead attacking the very idea of the American middle class, the idea that, in America, economic security -- health care, a real pension, a wage that can pay for college -- is not something for a privileged few, but rather what all of us can earn in exchange for a hard day's work.
We have just been through one lost decade -- when America's standard of living fell, when our wealth shrank, when millions lost their homes, when young people could not find work. America cannot afford another lost decade. China is not having a lost decade. Germany is not having a lost decade. Because those countries have acted decisively on jobs and public investment, their economies are prosperous.
Last year's election was fundamentally about jobs, and I believe the 2012 election will be, too. America wants to work. People who live in Wonderland may not have noticed, but there is a lot of work to be done here. While one in five construction workers is looking for work, we have a $2.2 trillion old-school infrastructure deficit. We need to invest trillions more to build the 21st-century infrastructure necessary for our nation's and our planet's future -- high-speed mass transit, smart utilities and universal high-speed broadband.
We need to start funding a serious and sustained public investment in infrastructure now, as President Obama called for last Labor Day.
Next week the president of the United States will give his State of the Union address. The labor movement is ready for a call to action, a call to invest in our future, to create jobs, to be the country we can and must be.
We are ready for vision, and we believe in President Obama's vision of a nation that is strong because we are just and true to our values, a vision of a national future founded on the profound truth that social justice and material prosperity are not competing values -- but are necessary to each other.
In a globalized, high-tech world, when it often seems that change is the one constant in our lives, the real American dream is that if we work hard and do our part for each other, each of us can enjoy the economic security that allows us to live our lives with dignity and have hope for our future and for our children's future. This dream must be a reality in our time, and in our children's and grandchildren's time.
Adapted from a speech at the National Press Club, Jan. 19, 2011.