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Remarks at U.S. Conference of Mayors, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

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AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY

Monday, June 14, 2010

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Commerce Secretary Gary Locke
Remarks at U.S. Conference of Mayors Annual Meeting, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Thank you, Mayor Kautz, for the kind introduction.  It’s great to be here.

Before I get started I’d just like to say thank you for the tremendous help many of you provided the 2010 Census.  

I know that Bob Groves, our Census director, spoke to the Conference over the weekend; but I just wanted to emphasize that without America's mayors reaching out to their communities and hammering home the importance of the Census, we could not have been as successful as we were. 

This year, we matched the 2000 mail participation rate despite many predictions that it couldn’t be done.

The 2010 Census was a textbook example of collaboration between local, state and federal governments. 

It’s the type of collaboration we will need to see a lot more of. 

Because the economic troubles we’re seeing in communities across America are testing government at all levels like never before.

I’m familiar with the concerns you and your constituents are dealing with, having served as the governor of Washington for eight years and for 11 years in the Washington state house.  

Each of your towns or cities is facing its own unique set of challenges, and I know you're working every day to fashion local solutions.

But we also know that problems like:

  • high unemployment and home foreclosures;
  • skittish investors and business owners. . .

. . .these problems extend well beyond the city limits.  These are national problems.

And today, I want to talk about how the Obama administration and the U.S. Commerce Department are working to right the American economy and empower leaders like all of you to expand opportunity in your communities

But first, I'd like to begin with a big picture look at where the American economy stands today. 

Despite a jobs report last week that didn’t see as much business hiring as we’d like, total private sector employment is now nearly a half million higher than it was in December 2009. 

While these numbers are promising, we will not be able to reverse overnight two devastating years of recession – a period during where we lost 8 million jobs. 

As the president said, “It’s not going to be a real recovery until people can feel it in their own lives.”

But this is a start.  We are moving in the right direction.

And this recovery hasn't happened by chance.  In the early months of his presidency, Barack Obama took aggressive steps:

  • To stabilize the financial system,
  • To keep people in their homes; and,
  • To pass a Recovery Act that created demand in our economy when local governments, consumers and businesses couldn’t or wouldn’t spend.

These steps were not always popular, and they weren’t always easy. But without them, make no mistake, we wouldn’t be debating when to wind down stimulus spending. We’d be debating what to do about 20 percent unemployment and an army of hungry and homeless Americans. 

As President Obama has said before, he didn’t come into office ginned up to pass a Recovery Act. 

But it was necessary to stave off what could have been a second Great Depression.  And it was the right thing to do. 

An economy that was shrinking by six percent a year ago is finally growing again.

Now, as we emerge from this recession, we need to chart a different path. 

We must build a new, stronger foundation for growth and prosperity.  And it must be built with investments in

  • the skills and education we need to compete 
  • a 21st century infrastructure; and   
  • the research and technology, like clean energy, that can lead to new jobs and new exports and new industries.

That is exactly what this president has done.  It is what he will continue to do.  And it will be good for American businesses and American workers.

I know the administration has been active on many fronts, but there is a common theme here. 

We’re trying to rebuild the physical and the regulatory infrastructure that private sector businesses need to thrive and to create jobs. 

Consider the recently passed health care law.

Along with extending access to health insurance to the millions who don't have it and providing more security to those who do, this law will reduce the fast-rising health care costs that have forced many businesses to drop coverage, reduce wages or sacrifice profitability.

The cost savings in this law are real. They will grow over time. And they will make U.S. businesses more competitive.

Don't just take my word for it.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the various reforms in this law:

  • from moving to a system where we pay doctors for the value, not the volume of their care,
  • to tough new performance measures for hospitals. . .

. . . are going to reduce health-care premiums by over $200 billion in the next three decades.

When you consider that the law also has $40 billion in tax credits that will be available to about four million small businesses over the next decade to cover the cost of employee health coverage, what you have is a law that is unquestionably pro-business and pro-jobs.

The same goes for our efforts to reform the financial sector that precipitated the recession.

The bill being debated in the House-Senate conference will put in place the strongest consumer protections in history to empower every consumer with the clear and concise information they need to make the financial decisions that are best for them.

And it will bring new transparency and accountability to the kinds of complex, backroom deals that helped trigger the financial crisis, providing American investors and businesses access to crucial information.

The reforms in the legislation will ensure fairness and stability – imperatives that recognize that behind every dollar traded or leveraged on Wall Street, there is a family looking to buy a house, pay for an education, open a business or save for retirement.

And then there's energy.  As the president recently said, “For decades we've talked about how our dependence on foreign oil threatens our economy – yet our will to act rises and falls with the price of a barrel of oil.”

The crisis unfolding in the gulf is yet one more reminder that there can be real and severe costs to our dependence on fossil fuels.

As a country, we need to face up to a simple mathematical reality: We consume more than 20 percent of the world’s oil, but have less than two percent of the world’s oil reserves.

And unless we make fundamental shift in our energy policy, we will continue to send billions of dollars every month to other countries for fuel.

And we will continue to lose ground to the Chinese, the Europeans and all the other countries that are making immense investments in clean energy – not just to meet their own energy needs, but to become global destinations for the capital, the businesses and the new jobs that come with these emerging energy industries. 

Now, the president has already made unprecedented investments in clean energy and efficiency.  There’s $80 billion in the Recovery Act alone, which is designed to double our renewable energy capacity in three years.

But the only way the transition to clean energy will succeed is if the private sector is fully invested in this future – if capital comes off the sidelines and the ingenuity of our entrepreneurs is unleashed.  And the only way to do that is by finally putting a price on carbon pollution. 

That is why the president will be pushing in the months ahead for comprehensive energy legislation that will send a surefire market signal to every inventor and investor in America that clean energy can be the profitable kind of energy.

Healthcare, energy, financial reform: the progress we make on these issues is going to have a huge impact on the ability of American businesses to grow and innovate.

And being from the Commerce Department, that is my number one concern.

For all our different duties, the primary purpose of the Department of Commerce can accurately be described very simply.

We exist to make American businesses more innovative at home and more competitive abroad, so they can create jobs.

Let's start with innovation, which the Department is seeking to kick-start in a variety of ways.

Today, Commerce is in charge of about $5 billion of the administration's $7.2 billion effort to expand high-speed Internet access throughout the country. 

It is simply unacceptable for 36 percent of Americans to be without the educational, business and employment opportunities that high-speed, reliable Internet service provides.

This program is going to help fix that glaring problem.

And it's going to help catalyze billions of dollars more in broadband investment from the private sector and local communities.

Just as the government might fund construction of a highway across a state, and then have private or local interests build the streets that branch off of it, most of our grants are funding basic broadband infrastructure that allows local providers to bring high-speed Internet directly to homes or businesses.

We’ve already provided more than $1.2 billion to fund over 25,000 miles of networked, high-speed Internet lines in underserved communities throughout America. 

Aside from providing badly needed Internet access to spur future economic opportunities, these investments are going to create thousands of construction jobs in the near term: digging trenches, laying fiber-optic cables and stringing up utility poles.

We’re now reviewing applications for the second round of BTOP funding and will begin announcing awards this summer.

Another step Commerce is taking to drive innovation in local communities is being run through our Economic Development Administration or EDA, which is led by Assistant Secretary John Fernandez, who spoke here on Saturday. 

As John detailed this weekend, EDA will be helping towns and cities identify their own unique economic strengths to develop regional innovation clusters.

As we take these important steps to spur American innovation at home, Commerce is also ramping up our efforts to help U.S. companies sell more of their products to the 95 percent of the world’s consumers who live outside our borders.

The Commerce Department is playing a lead role in implementing President Obama’s recently announced National Export Initiative (NEI), which aims to double American exports over the next five years and support two million jobs here at home.

This initiative is going to provide:

  • more export financing;
  • more trade promotion assistance; and
  • more focus on knocking down the trade barriers that prevent U.S. companies from getting free and open access to foreign markets.

We’re putting small- and medium-size businesses at the center of our outreach; and some of the most important emissaries for this initiative can be found in your cities and towns at the Commerce Department's regional export assistance centers.

These people know their stuff and they can be a huge help to the businesses in your communities.

Even as we at the Commerce Department and throughout the Obama administration take exceptional steps to grow our economy, we know that, ultimately, government can only play a complementary role.

America has always looked to the private sector to develop the innovations and breakthrough technologies we depend on for economic growth and job creation.

That’s not going to change.

But just as it is foolish to look to government for all of our answers, it is equally foolish to imagine that government has no productive role to play. 

Because the reality is that any government – regardless of its ideology – must shape the framework in which businesses operate.  And that matters.

Think for a moment about the federal government building the interstate highway system, which for over half a century has sped the movement of goods across this country and delivered us immeasurable economic benefits.  You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone today who didn’t think that was a good investment.

But back in the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt first proposed building it, one of his prominent opponents said:

“It would be the first major step toward state socialism under which the federal government would take over private industry and the United States would become a totalitarian nation.” 

This language sounds pretty familiar doesn't it?

I mention this not to score political points, but to illustrate that to deny government’s important complementary role in growing our economy is to deny American history.

It's not a coincidence that America was the leading economic power in the 20th century. 

Yes, it was entrepreneurs and inventors who led the way.  But government also made smart investments in our people, in our infrastructure.  We invested in basic research that we knew might not have an immediate payoff, but would spur further economic growth five or 10 years down the road.

We’ve got to get back to that.

It’s time for us to reinvest and refocus on the fundamentals that have always made this country great: Research, innovation and a culture of entrepreneurship that values risk-taking and discovery.

That's what this administration is focused on, and I'm confident that the direction we are taking is going to empower our businesses and create more opportunities in towns and cities across America 

Thank you.