Remarks by the President and the First Lady at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting
4:10 P.M. EDT
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Please have a seat. Well, I am thrilled to be here. I want to thank President Clinton for the kind, although protocol-busting, introduction. (Laughter.) And I want to thank him for inviting me back to join you at this year’s meeting.
It was an extraordinary pleasure to be here at CGI last year. It’s a pleasure to be back today not only because of my highest regard for President Clinton personally, not just because of my gratitude to him for putting up with long hours away from our Secretary of State -- (laughter) --
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Thank you for being grateful, though.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I am grateful. (Laughter and applause.) But also because of the tremendous work he’s doing through GCI [sic].
For the past five years, President Clinton has applied the full force of his energy and his influence -- and it is formidable -- to the work of this initiative. And with that passion and with that determination and that charm of his that makes it so darn hard to say no, he has marshaled $57 billion worth of commitments from folks like you -- (applause) -- and that’s bringing hope and opportunity to more than 200 million people around the world. It’s a remarkable record of achievement.
But I’m not just here today to sing President Clinton’s praises, or to commend all of you for the terrific work that each of you have done -- although I am grateful for that. I am here to play an even more important role, and that is to introduce my better half: my extraordinary wife, and America’s extraordinary First Lady, Michelle Obama. (Applause.)
Now, Bill Clinton understands where I’m coming from here. (Laughter.) He knows what it’s like to be married to somebody who’s smarter -- (laughter) -- somebody who’s better looking -- (laughter) -- somebody who’s just all around a little more impressive than you are. (Laughter and applause.) Right? It’s -- this is not news to people. (Laughter.)
Since Michelle and I first started dating 22 years ago, pretty much everybody I know who’s met her at some point comes up to me and says, you know, Barack, you’re great and all, I like you, but your wife, now, she’s really something. (Laughter.) And I, of course, agree. They're right. And I feel grateful that Michelle so far, at least, has not run for any offices I’ve been running for. (Laughter.) She would beat me thoroughly.
Fortunately for me, as much as she cares deeply about public service, she hasn’t shown much interest in the political chatter. She doesn’t think about who’s winning or losing, what the polls say, or who gets the best headline in the papers. No matter what the issue, there’s only one thing that she wants to know, and that’s “who are we helping?” That’s what she asks. "Who is this going to make a difference for? Whose life is this going to improve?"
And while I get plenty of good advice from a lot of people during the course of the day, at the end of each day, it is Michelle -- her moral voice, her moral center -- that cuts through all the noise in Washington and reminds me of why I’m there in the first place.
She reminds me with her work to tackle childhood obesity so our kids can have healthy lives and the futures they deserve. She reminds me by throwing open the doors of our White House to young people from all different backgrounds, letting them know that we believe in their promise, letting them know that the White House is the people’s house, and letting young people know that they're not that far away from all the power and prestige and decisions that are made -- that, in fact, this is something they can aspire to, they can be a part of, because we are a government of and by and for the people.
She reminds me with her work to be a voice for America’s military families and veterans, using her platform as First Lady to make sure they get support and respect and the appreciation that they deserve.
And while I am tremendously proud of the First Lady that she’s been for this country, at the end of the day I’m most grateful that she’s been such a partner to me, and the best mother that I know.
Every moment that I spend with my daughters, I am thankful for all that she’s done to make them who they are. Every day, I see her strength and her kindness and her character reflected in the two of them. And there is no greater gift -- and I know Bill feels the same way about when he looks at Chelsea, he sees this incredible force that a mother can bring.
To this day, I still don’t know how I talked her into marrying me, but I know that I am the luckiest guy in the world that she did. So it is with that that I would like to introduce you to my first lady, America’s First Lady, Michelle Obama. (Applause.)
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you all. Thank you so much. Thank you very much. Well, it’s weird that my husband introduces me, so I don’t even know what to say. But thank you, honey. (Laughter.)
Now, with an introduction like that, you can see why I married the guy, right? Not so bad. (Laughter.) But the truth is, is that I feel pretty lucky myself.
So I want to thank my husband for being a wonderful father and a partner to me as well. I also want to thank President Clinton for inviting us here today and for the example he’s setting not just as a private citizen making a difference in the world as only he can, but also, as Barack said, as a father who, along with his brilliant wife, has raised such a wonderful daughter in the White House. And living there, now I know that that’s a feat, and it is one my husband and I are doing our best to try to match. We’re trying to follow their example every day.
And, finally, I want to thank all of you for combining your compassion and idealism with a relentless commitment to getting results. In coming together this week, you’re forming new partnerships, making new commitments, challenging each other to do even more.
And at this year’s meeting, President Clinton has asked you to address a challenge that I’d like to talk a little bit about today. And it’s one of your key action areas for this week, and that is harnessing human potential.
In other words, as you endeavor to do more -- to serve more communities, lift up more families, save more lives -- how can you find new ways to tap the skills and talents of more people? How can you create and train new leaders not just here in America but around the world? How can you, as President Clinton put it earlier this week, get people involved in our common endeavors?
So in pondering these questions, I’m here today to ask you to consider an issue that is near and dear to my heart as First Lady and one that I believe is vitally important for just about everything you’re working to accomplish, and that is the challenges faced by America’s veterans and military families and all they have to offer, particularly as they transition to civilian life.
Now, at first glance, I know this issue may seem too uniquely American in scope for such a global audience here at CGI. But right now, the human potential of America’s veterans and military families is both vast and woefully under-utilized, and that’s not just an issue for those individuals or for this country. It also significantly impacts what you and so many others are trying to achieve not just here in America, but around the world.
Now, as First Lady, I’ve had the privilege of meeting America’s men and women in uniform. I’ve met them on bases and hospitals and communities all across this country. And I always come away from these visits not just with a sense of pride and gratitude, but with a sense of awe. Believe me, I’m awed. I’m awed by their courage and their sacrifice. I’m awed by their commitment to this country and the standard of excellence they uphold.
And while most folks share my respect and admiration for their service, a lot of folks have no idea what that service actually entails. Many still don’t know the full power of their human potential. But just consider for a moment the kind of work that they do.
Members of our military master state of the art technologies -- some of the most advanced information and medical and communications systems in the world. They run the world’s most complex operations -- distributing supplies to thousands of locations, moving tons of equipment halfway across the globe. They oversee hundreds of their colleagues -- recruiting the top talent and inspiring folks from diverse backgrounds to succeed as a team. And many of them are barely old enough to vote, yet they shoulder more responsibility than many CEOs, undertaking missions where there’s no margin for error, where the bottom line is often a matter of life or death.
Now these are highly valuable, highly transferable, highly marketable skills -- skills that I know many businesses, including those represented here today, are desperate to find. Yet the fact is that right now, more than 150,000 recent veterans are still struggling to find jobs.
Now, it’s true that we are facing difficult economic times. And we’re working hard to get all Americans back to work after a tough recession. But our veterans face a unique set of challenges as they leave military service.
In one survey, more than three-quarters of veterans reported having difficulty translating the expertise they gained in the military into a resume that makes sense to civilians. And 61 percent of employers admitted that they didn’t fully understand the skills our veterans had to offer. So often, veterans find themselves becoming under-utilized, under-employed -- settling for jobs that pay less than they deserve; jobs that don’t fully harness their talents. Or they find themselves out of work entirely for months on end. And that can take a toll -- a real toll.
Now, America’s servicemen and women are resilient, so you’re not going to hear them complain. And they’re proud, so they're not going to show it. But it’s hard to spend years serving your country, only to find that the value of that service isn’t fully understood. And it’s hard to give so much, for so long, for a cause greater than yourself, only to come home and find that there’s nowhere you quite fit in.
And let’s not forget that when America’s troops are called to serve, their families serve too. That means spouses taking on the work of both parents, running their households and raising their kids all alone, often while trying to get an education or working fulltime themselves.
And they face employment challenges of their own, because it’s hard to build seniority at a job when you have to move every couple of years. It’s hard to sustain a career when you have to keep meeting new state licensing and certification requirements. It’s hard to impress employers who often view a resume with multiple jobs as a red flag rather than as a reality of military life.
But somehow, they still manage to juggle all those responsibilities, often while helping other military families do the same. Many military spouses help lead Family Readiness Groups, or FRGs. Now, these are support organizations that serve hundreds of families at a time. And let me just take a moment to paint a picture for you of what a day in the life of an FRG leader might look like.
So she might spend her morning working on a communications strategy -- coordinating the unit’s website, newsletter, Facebook, so everyone has the latest information about their loved ones. Over lunch, she might review the FRG’s budget and craft a spending plan for the upcoming year.
In the afternoon, she’ll meet with health care representatives to learn about new counseling resources for families. Then she’ll meet with teams of volunteers to coordinate upcoming events. Then the evening comes, bringing news that the deployed unit has sustained a casualty. So she’ll work late into the night rounding up support for the affected family, notifying other families on the base about what happened.
Now, if she were doing the same kind of work at a company, she might be called a CEO, a COO, maybe a senior executive. Perhaps she’d have a nice office, a big salary, a line at the top of her resume that any employer would understand and respect. So why should things be any different just because she’s not drawing a paycheck?
And let’s be clear -- our veterans and military spouses aren’t just well qualified for jobs in the private sector. They’re an asset in the non-profit world as well. Whether it’s an earthquake in Haiti, a tsunami in East Asia, a flood in Pakistan, or a hurricane in New Orleans, America’s men and women in uniform are often some of the first people on the scene.
They go on regular humanitarian missions throughout the world, providing everything from food aid to medical care to help with construction. And their titles -- soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, Coastguardsmen -- those titles don’t begin to describe the full range of the roles that they play. During a typical tour of duty, they’re called to act as diplomats and social workers, mediators and educators. They work with governments and NGOs, with local businesses and with civilians, and with their counterparts from militaries around the world.
And, again, let’s not forget about their spouses and the countless hours of volunteer work they’re doing on top of everything else they’re taking care of back home. At just one Army base in Fort Drum, in upstate New York, military spouses logged more than 85,000 volunteer hours in the course of a single year.
And I’ll never forget the couple that I met outside of Quantico Marine base in Virginia. They were helping to organize the Toys for Tots drive, which is a nationwide effort by the Marines Corps Reserve to distribute Christmas gifts to millions of children in need. And that couple spent so much time volunteering that they had to move their family’s Christmas tree into the volunteer center so they could actually enjoy it.
So the fact is that America’s veterans and military spouses have years of experience and training doing precisely the kind of work that all of you are doing every day across the globe. Are you building roads or schools or shelters? They’ve done that. Are you establishing health clinics in remote parts of the world? They’ve done that too. Are you trying to recruit and manage teams of volunteers? Are you working to get clean water into a village? Are you trying to move people to safety in the wake of a natural disaster? You see, that’s all in a day’s work for these folks.
And that passion for serving, that commitment to helping others, that doesn’t just disappear when they return to civilian life. In a recent survey, 92 percent of veterans reported that they wanted to serve their communities and that it was important to them. And when asked what kind of service they wanted to do, 88 percent said they wanted to do disaster relief; another 86 percent wanted to help at-risk youth; still another 69 percent wanted to preserve our environment.
You see, for these folks, service is the air they breathe. It’s the reason they were put on this Earth. And many of them don’t want to serve for just a certain number of years or a certain number of deployments -- they want to make their whole life a tour of duty.
So given our veterans’ and military spouses’ unmatched experience and passion for service, you’d think they’d be the very first folks that nonprofit organizations would tap when they’re trying to look for the top talent.
But as in the private sector, too often there’s a disconnect. Too often, we mistakenly view the nonprofit sector and the military as two very different worlds, with different missions, with different cultures, different values. We have this notion that folks who serve in the military just aren’t the kind of folks who’d want to work at an NGO and vice versa.
But the truth is that folks in both the military and nonprofit worlds are passionately committed to causes larger than themselves. Folks in both worlds willingly sacrifice their own safety, comfort, and financial well-being to help others. And right now, across America and around the world, there are countless examples of veterans who are using their skills and experience to continue their service as civilians.
They’re working at America’s schools and communities, as teachers and coaches, role models for our kids. They’re training for green jobs retrofitting homes and offices and conserving public lands.
One group of veterans even runs an organization called “Team Rubicon” that responds to natural disasters. They trek into some of the most remote areas of the world to provide medical aid to thousands of people in need. The organization was founded after the earthquake in Haiti, when a former Marine named Jake Wood watched the devastation unfold on TV and he said to himself -- he said, “Jake, you’re not in the Marines any more, but you have a special set of skills. You would be ashamed of yourself if you didn’t try and use them to help people.”
So it’s clear that our veterans and military spouses have the skills and the will to serve and succeed in any environment. So now it’s up to all of us to give them the opportunity.
Now, my husband has been working hard to do that as President. He’s worked to fund a 21st century GI Bill which is helping nearly 300,000 veterans and their families get the education they need to fulfill their dreams. He’s made veterans hiring a top priority in the federal government, hiring nearly 33,000 veterans in the first half of this fiscal year alone -- and that's an 8 percent increase over the last year. (Applause.)
Our Department of Defense has been working with states to streamline licensing requirements so that spouses don’t have to reapply for professional credentials and take new tests every time they move. And we’re working to strengthen support programs and counseling services to help military spouses juggle their responsibilities not just to their employers but to their families.
But as you all know, government can only do so much. And that’s why I’m here today -- to ask for your help. Whatever you’re looking for, whether it’s technical expertise or management ability, whether you’re trying to lift a struggling community, or boost your bottom line, I’m asking you to reach out and engage our veterans and military spouses. I’m asking you to take advantage of their talent, their dedication, their experience.
Now that might mean asking a veterans service organization to help your hiring managers translate military experience into civilian qualifications. It might mean studying best practices in the military to see how you can expand career opportunities for wounded warriors and people with disabilities. It might mean finding ways to make your workplace more military spouse-friendly, whether that’s with more flexible work schedules or more portable jobs. Or it might mean developing challenging, substantive volunteer opportunities, ones that can help vets and spouses build the professional skills and networks they need to compete.
And plenty of organizations and corporations are already taking the lead in this respect. In fact, tonight, the Department of Defense is awarding its 2010 Employer Support Freedom Awards. Now these awards recognize companies that support employees serving in the National Guard and Reserve.
And one of the recipients was a company called Bill Bragg Plumbing, which has just five employees. And at that company when someone is deployed, the company owner steps in to fill that person’s duties. And the company keeps in touch with that employee’s family throughout their deployment, offering whatever kind of assistance and support they can provide.
Now if this little company can do all that, then I know surely that the national and international corporations and NGOs in this room can do even more to recruit and support veterans and military families. Surely companies or nonprofits of any size can do what it takes to benefit from that talent.
After all, hiring America’s vets and military spouses is not just about helping them -- it’s about how they can help you. So I’m not asking you to do this out of the goodness of your heart -- do it because it’s good for your bottom line and the success of your organization.
But I'm not just here today to challenge all of you. In the spirit of CGI, I'm here also to make a commitment of my own. If you’ll do your part to engage and employ our veterans and military spouses, then I’ll commit to do my part to help you in whatever way I can.
As part of my ongoing efforts to encourage people to support our veterans and military families, I will do my part to connect you with advocates, with experts and with resources throughout the government, from the Department of Labor to the Defense Department to the VA. If you have questions about how a veteran’s or spouse’s skills fit with the jobs you have, we will help you find the answers. If your staff wants to better understand the challenges that vets and military spouses face and how to address them we will connect you to the right people.
And today I promise to continue to use my platform as First Lady to bring people together around this issue. I’ll work to spark not just a national conversation, but national action to give our vets and military spouses the opportunities they deserve.
And I am grateful to be joined in these efforts by a truly wonderful partner. She is a Blue Star mom, a champion of our National Guard and Reserve families -- my friend, Dr. Jill Biden. We have both seen firsthand the potential that America’s vets and military spouses have to offer. And what they have to offer goes far beyond their skills, training and experience.
Let me tell you, I have seen that potential. I have seen that potential in the men and women I meet at our military hospitals. And these are folks who are seriously wounded, but they refuse to scale back their dreams. They’re making plans. They’re re-imagining their futures. They tell me they’re not just going to walk again, but they’re going to run and they’re going to run marathons.
I have seen that potential in the spouses who say grace each night with that empty seat at the table, the folks who answer all those questions about when mommy or daddy is coming home, yet never allowing their worry or fear to creep into their voice or shake their resolve. You see, this kind of potential is just too precious and unique to squander. And for these extraordinary individuals, the story of their service doesn’t end when they move off the base or hang up their uniform. Rather, it’s just the beginning of the next chapter of their work to build a better America and a better world.
An Army veteran named Tom Tarantino put it best when he came to the White House just last week to meet with staff. He was talking about his experience transitioning from military to civilian life. And he said -- and this is his quote -- “When I left the service, I was looking for more than a paycheck. I was looking for a mission.”
And ultimately, that is the same reason all of you are here today. That’s the same determination that you bring to your own service, the same conviction that a career is about more than just making a living -- it’s about making a difference.
You’re here today because you’ve found your mission. Now it’s time for us to work together to help America’s veterans and military families find theirs.
So thank you all. Thank you for the time. Thank you for listening. Thank you for the work that you’re doing and will continue to do. And I truly look forward to working with you all in the weeks and months to come. Thank you all, and God bless. (Applause.)
END 4:40 P.M. EDT