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11/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Answer We Needed to Hear

It was the first question of the night: "With the economy on the downturn, and retired and older citizens and workers losing their incomes, what's the fastest, most positive solution to bail these people out of the economic ruin?" Obama's answer was fine -- anodyne, uninspiring, reasonable, and utterly uninspiring. But the answer he could have given, the answer I was hoping to hear, the answer I want to hear somebody, somewhere articulate would go something like this:

"We have taken the first step in enacting legislation to rescue the financial system, legislation that both Senator McCain and I supported despite the fact that we each have reservations about it and despite the fact that the final version contained $150 billion in pork barrel spending. That's the thing about pork barrel spending; no matter how much we might not like it, railing against it ignores the reality that sometimes you have to hold your nose and vote for a measure because it is so important to pass that you are willing to tolerate the pork that goes along as the price of its passage. It's all very well to posture and rant about the evils of earmarks, but at the end of the day you have to decide whether a bill is important enough that it deserves to be supported, just as Senator McCain and I both did with this rescue bill. When Senator McCain tells you that as President he would veto any bill that crosses his desk if it has pork attached to it, remember that the first bill he would have to veto is the same rescue bill he just finished supporting.

So that rescue bill was a necessary first step. But I know that Senator McCain agrees with me that there is much more that the government needs to do. There are three things in particular that I would make priorities in my administration right from the beginning.

First, we have to keep people in their houses. That's not just a matter of doing something good for the families facing foreclosures. The first reason for keeping people in their houses is that an empty house loses its value. And not only that, an empty house drags down the values of the houses around it and threatens the neighborhood in which it is located. A house with a family living in it is an asset that can increase in value; that's what makes it possible for the taxpayers to get our money back in the long run. An empty house is a sinking asset, it is a drag on the values of the homes around it, and most of all it is a blight on our communities. As the Treasury Department buys up mortgages under the rescue plan that Congress just approved, the Secretary has the option of creating a system to refinance those mortgages and keep people in their homes. I'm not talking about using taxpayer money to help people keep their second and third homes, or the condos they invested in hoping to make a killing. What I am talking about is keeping families strong in tough economic times by ensuring that they can stay in their homes. My first act as President will be to issue an executive order that the new Treasury Secretary is going to find a way to do exactly that.

But keeping families in their houses is only one part of what needs to be done to help people through these hard times. The second is jobs. We hear a lot of talk about the bad loans that people took out, but what we don't hear about is why those folks could not afford good loans, at more favorable terms to begin with. The reason is that for twenty years while CEO and executive compensation and the wealth of big shareholders and hedge fund owners have gone through the roof, the salaries of working people have not even kept up with inflation. People have been working harder - more jobs, more hours in their jobs - just trying to keep up, and then all too often they have seen their jobs disappear overseas. Senator McCain likes to talk about how hardworking and how productive and how innovative American workers are, and he's right about that - what he leaves out is that American workers have not been paid for all their hard work and their productivity. There is a limit to how long we can keep asking American workers to produce more while paying them less. And this year we have added a new strain on the system, we have lost hundreds of thousand so jobs, and it's not over yet.

Now let's be clear about something: we are not going to let those folks who have lost their jobs go hungry. So we have a choice. We can give them public housing, and food stamps, and Medicaid, or we can give them real, meaningful work. We can put people who have lost their jobs and can't find another one to work making desperately needed infrastructure repairs. That's a much better investment in a much better asset - the American worker - than anything else I can think of. And it helps people who are having a hard time in a bad economic situation in a way that preserves their dignity. Americans aren't afraid of work. Americans want to work hard and bring home a paycheck that they earned doing work that benefits their nation and their community and use that paycheck to support their families. I would make the government the employer of last resort and get our unemployed workers back to work.

The third thing that will be the immediate focus of my administration is education. We have already seen that among the first casualties of the credit squeeze are student loans. Lenders are cutting back or canceling those programs. Senator McCain has proposed an across the board spending freeze. The effects of that would be catastrophic for higher education in this country. The State of California has just announced a $7 billion shortfall, and that's just one example; states cross the country are facing similar deficits in their budges, and some of them have already started cutting back on public expenditures. Without help from the federal government, that is going to mean more cutbacks in student loans, higher tuition at public colleges, fewer scholarships. And that's not all; soon colleges - small private colleges and public colleges, community colleges and technical training institutes - are going to start to fail, because those schools depend on the ability of their students to get student loans and scholarships.

The consequences of the contraction in our educational system could be terrible. Making education available to more young Americans has been one of the signature achievements of the post-World War II era, and we have done it with public investment - in the GI Bill, in the expansion of the public college system, and in student loans. Investment in education is investment in the future. We cannot allow a generation of young people to see their chance at a future be sacrificed; the cost to them is too great, but more importantly the cost to our nation is too great. I say if we can come up with $700 billion to rescue the financial sector, we can come up with a fraction of that amount to preserve the future opportunities of our young people by keeping colleges open, tuition at public institutions affordable, and student loans available.

So those are the three steps that I would take right away as President: order the Department of the Treasury to keep people in their homes when the government purchases mortgages from the banks that hold them; create a jobs program focusing on repairing our infrastructure so that American workers who cannot find jobs elsewhere can earn a living with dignity and continue to contribute to our nation rather than having to depend on government handouts; and invest the resources that are needed to keep our public system of higher education working to create future opportunities for young Americans today just as it has done for young Americans for the past 50 years."

Now THAT would have been an answer to the question.

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