It is great to be back in the state of Kansas. As many of you know, I’ve got roots here. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Obamas of Osawatomie. Actually, I like to say that I got my name from my father, but I got my accent – and my values – from my mother. She was born in Wichita. Her mother grew up in Augusta. And her father was from El Dorado. So my Kansas roots run deep.
My grandparents served during World War II -- he as a soldier in Patton’s Army, she as a worker on a bomber assembly line. Together, they shared the optimism of a nation that triumphed over a Depression and fascism. They believed in an America where hard work paid off, responsibility was rewarded, and anyone could make it if they tried -- no matter who you were, where you came from, or how you started out.
These values gave rise to the largest middle class and the strongest economy the world has ever known. It was here, in America, that the most productive workers and innovative companies turned out the best products on Earth, and every American shared in that pride and success -- from those in executive suites to middle management to those on the factory floor. If you gave it your all, you’d take enough home to raise your family, send your kids to school, have your health care covered, and put a little away for retirement.
Today, we are still home to the world’s most productive workers and innovative companies. But for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefitted from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and investments than ever before. But everyone else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren’t – and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up.
For many years, credit cards and home equity loans papered over the harsh realities of this new economy. But in 2008, the house of cards collapsed. We all know the story by now: Mortgages sold to people who couldn’t afford them, or sometimes even understand them. Banks and investors allowed to keep packaging the risk and selling it off. Huge bets – and huge bonuses – made with other people’s money on the line. Regulators who were supposed to warn us about the dangers of all this, but looked the other way or didn’t have the authority to look at all.
It was wrong. It combined the breathtaking greed of a few with irresponsibility across the system. And it plunged our economy and the world into a crisis from which we are still fighting to recover. It claimed the jobs, homes, and the basic security of millions – innocent, hard-working Americans who had met their responsibilities, but were still left holding the bag.