Reclaiming the American dream

Most Americans have simple dreams. A job that can support a family. Health care we can count on and afford. A retirement that is dignified and secure. Education and opportunity for our kids.

But today, the price of the American dream is going up.

All across the country, Americans are working harder for less. We’ve never paid more for health care or for college. It’s harder to save, and it’s harder to retire. There are things we need to do right now to give our economy a boost, but a short-term stimulus is not enough. We have to put the American dream on a firmer foundation.

That’s going to take a change in the way Washington works. It’s time to stop giving tax breaks to companies that ship jobs overseas, and to put a tax cut in the pocket of middle-class Americans. That’s why I’ve proposed a “Making Work Pay” tax credit of up to $500 for American workers, and $1,000 for working families, as well as an additional tax credit for struggling homeowners. This will cut taxes for 150 million Americans, give our economy a boost and put fairness back into our tax code.

We also need to protect a secure retirement by easing the burden on America’s seniors. That’s why I’ll eliminate income taxes for any senior making less than $50,000. And I’ll change our bankruptcy laws to protect workers’ pensions instead of protecting banks. Because I believe that if you work hard and pay into the system, you’ve earned the right to a secure retirement.

It’s also time to stop talking about the outrage of 47 million Americans without health care, and to start doing something about it. I expanded health care in Illinois by bringing Democrats and Republicans together. We took on the insurance industry, and provided health care to hundreds of thousands of families. And as president, I’ll cut a typical family’s premiums by up to $2,500, and make health care affordable and accessible for all Americans.

We also have to be clear that the American dream must never come at the expense of the American family. But even as politicians in Washington talk about family values, we haven’t had policies that value families. As the son of a single mother, I don’t accept an America that forces women to choose between their kids and their careers. That’s why I’ll expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover millions of additional Americans. We need to make sure you can take leave to care for elderly parents, and to join school activities with your kids.

We also need to expand paid leave. Today, 78 percent of workers covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act don’t take leave because it isn’t paid. And this has a far greater impact on families with less income and less savings. To make sure our system is fair, I will press states to adopt paid-leave systems, and set aside $1.5 billion to fund the startup costs and help states offset the costs to employers. And I’ll require employers to provide all of their workers with seven paid sick days a year, because you shouldn’t be punished for being sick.

Finally, we have a responsibility to make sure that our young people can reach a little further and rise a little higher than we did. But too many Americans are weighted down by student loans. I know because Michelle and I just finished paying off our loans a few years ago. It’s time to put a college education within reach of every American. That’s why I’ll create a new and fully refundable annual tax credit worth $4,000 for tuition and fees. To receive this credit, we’ll require 100 hours of public service. Because it’s time to call upon our young people to serve our country; in return, we’ll invest in their future.

We’ve recently been reminded that when some folks hurt in our economy, all of us hurt. When things are going bad on Main Street, that catches up with Wall Street. And that’s how it should be. Because what binds us together, what makes us one American family, is that we have to stand up and fight for each other’s dreams. It’s time to reaffirm that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — through our politics, our policies and in our daily lives. It’s time to reclaim the American dream.

(Barack Obama, a Democrat, is the junior U.S. senator from Illinois and a candidate for President.)