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Bill Clinton talks about common good, challenging GOP

Published: Wednesday October 18, 2006

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Bill Clinton spoke deftly and often with humor today on the topic of "the common good," in a speech delivered at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., marking the 15th anniversary of speeches he delivered there while running for president in 1991.

"Given the nature of the political debate today," said the former president, "I think it's important to point out that... we are not perfect, we never will be perfect, no one has the whole truth, but we can always do better. That's what a more perfect union meant. It is a permanent mission for America designed to make America a permanent work in progress."

Clinton decried divisive politics and the apathy it engenders, quoting a book whose thesis was that "Americans hate politics because it seems irrelevant to them, and they feel like they're being manipulated because they're always being asked to make false choices. ... [T]he truth is, most of us don't think that way... [M]ost of us long for a politics where we have genuine arguments, vigorous disagreements, but we don't claim to have the whole truth and we don't demonize our opponents..."

The full transcript of the speech follows the video.



Thank you. Thank you very much.

Mr. President, thank you for that wonderful introduction and for your leadership at Georgetown and for your commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative. I'm grateful that you made it for more than one reason. I -- when people come to the CGI, we tell them that they have to make a commitment of time or money. And it doesn't matter how much, but they have to promise to do something, and if they don't, they can't come back next year. So I hope you'll come back next year now. (Chuckles.) (Laughter.)

I want to thank John Podesta for inviting me to speak today. He held any number of very important posts in the White House during my eight years and finished as my chief of staff. I never had a better one. He's an extraordinarily able person.

And nothing much has changed. He told me exactly what he wanted me to talk about today, just like he did when I was president. (Laughter.)

There are many people in this audience today who were active in my administration, and I hesitate to mention them, because I just glanced out at the crowd, and I know I missed half of them. But it's worth noting because of their continuing commitment to public service.

Bruce Reed, who was my domestic policy adviser, just wrote a very important book with Congressman Rahm Emanuel, called "The Plan." Gayle Smith, who worked with me on Africa, still works for the Clinton Global Initiative. P.J. Crowley. Ambassador Elizabeth Bagley. Nancy Soderberg, who was very important in our Irish peace initiative and many other national security matters. Peter Rundlet, a White House fellow. And Bruce Lindsey, who's probably been my friend longer than anybody else here, who is still the chairman of my foundation. I thank them all for being here.

And Mr. President, I thank you for being here. I'm glad you've come across the water to teach at Georgetown. I'm glad to see you.

I have been asked to talk today about the common good in terms of how it affected my presidency. Therefore, I will not, unless the questions arise at -- spend an enormous amount of time talking about the way forward, although I have views on all that. (Laughter.)

You have heard that I came here nearly 15 years ago to deliver a series of speeches outlining my philosophy of government and the ideas that I've proposed to pursue if I got elected. When I gave the first speech, I believe I was still running fifth in the polls in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire, so it was probably an act of hubris, but I felt good here. I first came to this hall 42 years ago -- (soft laughter) -- and I have come many times since. I love it very much.

In the context of late 1991, I defined the common good as a new covenant for equal opportunity, shared responsibility, an inclusive community and an aggressive approach to try to create those values throughout the world at the end of the Cold War. It was what I thought America should do to advance the common good, really just a restatement of what our Founders pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor to, to form a more perfect union.

Given the nature of the political debate today, I think it's important to point out that that 18th-century construct in 21st- century language meant the following: we are not perfect, we never will be perfect, no one has the whole truth, but we can always do better. That's what a more perfect union meant. It is a permanent mission for America designed to make America a permanent work in progress.

Now, as Jack and John have said, I try to do that work as a private citizen through the foundation's work here in America and around the world on AIDS, on climate change, on economic development and through the Clinton Global Initiative. But I know politics still matters, and I believe ideas matter.

I loved the four years I spent here at Georgetown. When I wrote my memoirs, my editor made me take out several pages that I believe are not as long as it was -- (laughter) -- several pages I had written about Georgetown. He says, "No one will believe that you remember every professor and all these lectures, and that you saved all your papers. No one will believe this. (Laughter.) You got to take some of this out." I say that for all of you who are students here, to say that this was a seminal experience in my life coming here. The professors that I had then affected me in ways that continue in my life today. And the most important point I can make about that for the purposes of my remarks today is that I really believed more strongly when I left here than when I came that ideas matter, that evidence matters, that thinking and reasoning matter, that ideas have consequences and that in politics that means ideas lead to policies which have positive or negative effects in people's lives.

I believed that then, I believe that now.

I believed then, based on the experiences I had here, that not everyone who disagreed with me was my enemy, that I might be wrong; that as forcefully as I pursued anything I believed in and any argument that I embraced, I had to always be willing to listen to others; and that in the interplay, the dialectic, between my position and another, the searching for more facts, the searching for better argument and, frankly, just facing the evidence of what did and didn't work and what the consequences of various courses were, that I would come to a better place as a public official. I believed that then, I believe that now.

You heard in President DeGioia's remarks -- I wonder how many college presidents even quote Latin anymore; I loved it. (Laughter.) -- the same conviction. When I gave these Georgetown speeches, they allowed me to set out this construct of equal opportunity, shared responsibilities, inclusive community, an aggressive approach to engagement with the rest of the world. I thought that they were consistent with the traditional American values of work and family, freedom and responsibility, faith and tolerance; that as a Democrat, that I was being faithful to Andrew Jackson's credo of opportunity for all and special privileges for none, to President Kennedy's call for mutual responsibility and citizen service, and to Franklin Roosevelt's commitment to continuous innovation, to bold persistent experimentation.

I also asked there and throughout the `92 campaign for a political debate that engaged these themes, that moved away from what I then thought was an unacceptable level of partisanship and rancor, and a tendency to let elections turn on issues that had nothing to do with the decisions that leaders would make after the election was over or the consequences on ordinary people's lives, politics of division and personal destruction.

I frequently cited in that year a book that was written that I think has special relevance today, even though for all you 15 years in a lifetime ago, and I swear this was in my notes before I saw him in the audience. But E.J. Dionne, this distinguished columnist for The Washington Post, wrote a book called "Why Americans Hate Politics." And the central thesis was that Americans hate politics because it seems irrelevant to them, and they feel like they're being manipulated because they're always being asked to make false choices: You're either pro-labor or pro-business, you're pro-growth or pro- environment, you're for a strong national defense or for trying to make an agreement with everybody no matter how crazy they are -- that there's always an either/or choice.

And the truth is, most of us don't think that way, most of us don't live our lives that way and most of us long for a politics where we have genuine arguments, vigorous disagreements, but we don't claim to have the whole truth and we don't demonize our opponents and we're really trying to work on what works best for the American people.

Everybody knows this kind of down deep in their gut. That's why -- I think that's why I've gotten such a strong response to the work I've done with former President Bush since I left office on the tsunami and on Katrina and with former Senator Dole, who was my opponent in '96, when we raised $200 million to guarantee a college education to the spouses and children of all the people killed or disabled on 9/11.

It's not that we want a bland, mushy, meaningless politics. We like our debates. The country has been well-served by its progressive and by its conservative traditions. We understand that campaigns will be heated and only one side can win. But we want it to be connected somehow to the real lives of real people to the aspirations of ordinary Americans to the future of our children and grandchildren.

Now, this sort of politics -- striving for the common good -- for me, stands in stark contrast to both the political and governing philosophy of the leadership in Washington today and for the last six years. The more ideological, right-wing element of the Republican party has been building strength partly in reaction to things that happened 40 years ago, Barry Goldwater's defeat to what they saw as the excesses of the '60s. It got a lot of legs when President Reagan was elected. But this is the first time when on a consistent basis the most conservative, most ideological wing of the Republican party has had both the executive and the legislative branch with a very distinct governing philosophy and a very distinct political philosophy, where us common good folks favor equal opportunity and empowerment, they believe the country is best served by the maximum concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the right people -- "right" in both senses. (Laughter.)

We believe in mutual responsibility. They believe that in large measure people make or break their own lives, and you're on your own.

We believe in striving, at least, to cooperate with others, because we think that there are very few problems in the world we can solve on our own. They favor unilateralism whenever possible and cooperation -- (chuckles) -- when it's unavoidable.

And you may think that's laughable, but even today in the press there's a story that -- about the administration's new policy on national security in space, which points out that 160 nations were asked to vote to begin negotiations -- not to prejudge the outcome, just to begin negotiations -- on making outer space weapons-free, and the vote was 159 to 1 to do it. We were the only country that didn't do it.

I'll give you another example, which has caused us a lot of problems, which I almost never read about in the press. There is legitimate concern about the North Korean nuclear test, about what Iran's nuclear ambitions are. Neither of these problems have easy solutions now. But our position has been weakened because for at least half -- I have -- I'm sorry I don't know how many, but at least half of the last six years, the administration has asked for funds to research the development of two new nuclear weapons: one, a nuclear bunker buster, even though we have a conventional bunker buster that's quite powerful, and two, a so-called tactical battlefield nuclear weapon, which, the administration admits, had it been deployed -- they say it's small -- but, had it been deployed in the Iraq conflict, would have taken out 25 percent of Baghdad.

So there is this sense that the world is divided between the good guys and the bad guys, and the good guys should have their nuclear weapons, and the bad guys shouldn't.

We might all feel that way, but it's a very hard argument to make. I had an eighth-grade science teacher who was one of the most physically unattractive people I ever met in my life. (Laughter.) He had thick Coke-bottle glasses, and he smoked cheap cigars in a cigar holder that caused his mouth to pinch. And he had been a football coach before he became a science teacher, and he gained a little weight after he turned to science, and he still wore the same clothes. (Laughter.)

And I'm telling -- let me tell you why I said this. (Laughter.) One day in class he said to us -- I was 13 at the time, 47 years ago -- he said, "You won't remember anything about science in a few years. So if you don't remember anything else in class that I teach you, remember this: every day I get up, and I go to my bathroom, and I wash my face, throw water in my eyes. I shave, I wipe the shaving cream off, I look into the mirror and say, 'Vernon, you're beautiful.'" (Laughter.)

And by the end of the year, he was beautiful to me. I say that to remind you it is very hard to succeed in politics when you're telling people they're ugly all the time.

And I'm -- let me tell you why I said this. (Laughter.) One day in class he said to us -- I was 13 at the time, 47 years ago -- he said, "You won't remember anything about science in a few years, so if you don't remember anything else in class that I teach you, remember this: Every day I get up and I go to my bathroom, and I wash my face, throw water in my eyes, and I shave. I wipe the shaving cream off. I look in the mirror and say, `Vernon, you're beautiful.'" (Laughter.) And by the end of the year, he was beautiful to me.

I say to that to remind you it is very hard to succeed in politics when you're telling people they're ugly all the time.

You have to oppose people who do things that are wrong, but it is very hard to say there's going to be one set of rules for me and another set for everyone else.

I think the "common good" approach on national security worked. It was a combination of carrots and sticks. We did have military encounters. We didn't succeed at everything we tried to do, but I think on balance, the world was safer when we stopped than when we started.

Now, the same thing works in politics. I think the central challenge to American politics today is that what I would call the "uncommon good" approach has been so successful. May not be in three weeks, but it has been. We believe in a politics -- us "common good" folks -- dominated by evidence and argument. There is a big difference between a philosophy and an ideology on the right or the left. If you have a philosophy, it generally pushes you in a certain direction or another. But like all philosophers, you want to engage in discussion and argument. You are open to evidence, to new learning. And you are certainly open to debate the practical applications of your philosophy. There are, you might wind up making a principled agreement with someone with a different philosophy.

If you look at the welfare reform legislation which passed, for example, when I was president, I vetoed the first two bills because they took away the guarantee of food and medicine for poor people. When those things were put back in, I signed it.

Some people who shared my philosophy disagreed with my decision because they said that we shouldn't have a hard and fast requirement for people on welfare who are able-bodied to work. I disagreed. I thought work was the best social program, and I thought it would help to overcome a lot of the pathologies in the families of poor people. And I also think you should never patronize the poor; they're basically as smart as the rest of us without the same breaks. So I thought that.

So we had a conservative idea on welfare reform: If you can work, you got to go to work. But in addition to that, one of the reasons that it worked is that there was a huge increase in support for people to go to work. A huge increase in child care. A huge increase in transportation assistance; a lot of these people didn't have cars. A huge increase in worker training and support. And other things that were essential. In other words, because we had a philosophical debate, with plenty of politics and two vetoes, we had a creative tension which led us to a dynamic center -- not a mooshy center, a dynamic center -- that worked.

The problem with ideology is if you got an ideology, you already got your mind made up, you know all the answers, and that makes evidence irrelevant and argument a waste of time, so you tend to govern by assertion and attack. The problem with that is that discourages thinking and gives you bad results. This new Bob Woodward book, "State of Denial," is well named, but I think it's important to point out that if you are an ideologue, denial is an essential part of your political being, whichever side. Listen to me. You've got to -- because if you're an ideologue, you've got your mind made up. So when an inconvenient pops up, you have to be in denial. It has to be a less significant fact.

Ron Suskind wrote a book -- a related book called "The One Percent Solution (sic/Doctrine)." I don't know if any of you have read that. He also co-wrote former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill memoirs. But the most interesting thing to me in this 1 percent solution is not the part that people have talked about, about 9/11, that -- I don't know whether that's true or not. But Mr. Suskind says in the 1 percent solution that the ideologues within the current government defer -- refer to people not just like me, although I'm included, but even moderate Republicans like Colin Powell and Admiral Scowcroft, as somehow lesser political mortals because we are trapped in, quote, "the reality-based world." (Laughter.)

And what they mean by that, in fairness to them, what they mean by that is that we are an empire, we're the world's only military superpower, and that you can use power to change reality. And if you don't see that, then you will always be condemning your country to a lesser status.

I -- when I was a kid, I grew up in an alcoholic home. I spent half my childhood trying to get into the reality-based world, and I like it here. (Laughter, applause.)

People ask me all the time, "What great new idea did you and Bob Rubin bring to economic policymaking in Washington?" (Chuckles.) I say, you know, Rubin came down and he put all that sort of fancy Goldman, Sachs-type spin on what we were doing, but the truth is, all we brought to Washington was arithmetic. (Laughter.) I had this dumb idea that if two and two was four in Little Rock, it probably was in Washington. (Laughter.) And sure enough, it turned out to be right.

Now, we're all laughing here, but I'm laughing to make -- I want you to laugh so I can make a point. This is not about conservative or liberal philosophies. You can argue whether on problem X or Y or Z you need more or less government. You can argue whether you get more growth from stimulating the business side of things or training workers better. You can have an argument about trade, about whether you should be more protectionist or more free trade or you need -- what I think -- trade plus labor and environmental standards to lift everybody around the world.

You can have these arguments, but in every case, the evidence is relevant. In every case, the act of entering into a conversation with someone else and listening to what they have to say means that you know you might not be right about everything. You might have something to learn. There might be an ongoing process in which, when you put all these perspectives together, you come out with something that will actually move the ball forward toward a more perfect union, that will actually make lives better for ordinary Americans.

I believe while much has changed in the last 15 years -- the acceleration to an interdependent global economy based on information technology is more apparent, it's clearer than it was then that we're all vulnerable to terror, to weapons of mass destruction, to climate change -- much has changed, but that has not changed.

The relentless search for the common good, to devise policies that promote equal opportunity, shared responsibility and inclusive community, is still relevant to the present day. And to have a politics that celebrates our partisan differences, loves our brawling debates, but has just enough humility to know that we all might be wrong and that we have something to learn from one another -- I believe that is still relevant. And I believe that you can make a compelling case that it works.

For me, the ultimate test is -- (chuckles) -- not whether the intellectual architecture of my view, as opposed to the view of those that are running things now, is more pristine and less messy, but whether people are going to be better off when you quit than when you started.

So these common good philosophies -- when I was president we had 22.9 or (22.)8 million new jobs, 50 percent more in our eight years than in the previous 12 years, and the ratio will be better compared to the subsequent eight years. More important to me, based on what President DiGioia said about the percentage of low-income people getting four-year college degrees, a hundred times as many people moved out of poverty in our eight years as in the previous 12 years -- a hundred times. That was policy for the common good.

What were these policies? Well, we changed the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires federally insured banks to invest in their communities. Eight hundred billion dollars was invested under those provisions in those eight years. That was 95 percent of all the money ever invested under the Community Reinvestment Act, which was passed in the 1970s.

Just one example, something people don't even know about, something we did by executive order, but it was a common good philosophy, and it turned out to be good for the banks, too: the empowerment zones, the enterprise communities, all the urban development initiatives. The welfare reform initiatives I talked to you about. When we passed the budget in 1993 -- which passed by one vote, in a strict party-line vote, one vote in both houses -- it raised taxes on upper-income people, raised the gas tax 4.3 percent, as I remember, and cut taxes on lower-income working families.

Fifteen times as many people got a tax cut as a tax increase. We doubled the earned income tax credit. That alone took over two million children out of poverty. When we raised the minimum wage, it lifted the earnings of 10 million people. And I tried to do it twice, and we haven't done it since. We've provided more health care options for low-income families. We had the biggest expansion in health care coverage since Medicaid in the '60s with the Children's Health Insurance Program. We had the biggest increase in college aid since the G.I. Bill at the end of World War II -- 10 million more people were getting college assistance through tax credits or Pell Grants or work-study programs than when we started. There was -- average hourly wages actually went up in my second term as against inflation for the first time since 1973. Now, the number of people without health insurance went down.

I want -- I could keep you here all day talking about other statistics, but the point is this works, a focus on the common good. It turns out to be good. We had more millionaires and billionaires than ever before. But the biggest income gains percentagewise were in the bottom percentile. It works. It's good for everybody. And it's more important now than ever, because whenever an economic paradigm changes, there is anyway a concentration of wealth in the beginning. When we moved from factory to farm and people had to come into the cities to make a living and we had this huge raise of immigrants around the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, people coming here looking for these jobs, there was a yawning increase in inequality. It always happens when you change the economic paradigm.

If you have a government committed to the common good, a politics committed to the common good, you try to sand the rough edges off of that so you can keep the economy growing, but you can lift everybody up and they can all be part of it.

As far as I can determine, these last five years have been the first time since economists have been keeping the figures when we've had five years of economic growth, five years of productivity increase in the workforce, a 40-year high in corporate profits, CEO executive pay averaging 369 times the pay of people in the companies and average wages are flat or declining. Last year, 2005, for the top 1 percent of Americans, income increased 12 1/2 percent; for the bottom 99 percent, 1 1/2 percent, which means for the bottom half, it was flat or negative. Now, I don't think that's very good.

I don't think that's a common-good policy. And I believe that we can do better than that, and we should. To achieve the common good, you have to believe in equal opportunity.

I also believe it was inconsistent with the common good to give me -- and I love saying this. I never had any money till I left the White House, and now I'm one of those really important people, I'm a millionaire; I get more help from the federal government than anybody. (Laughter.)

But I think it was inconsistent with the common good to give me five tax cuts and cut college aid at a time when the cost of college education is going through the roof. Go figure. I'd rather them -- because I'm a common-good sort of guy and because I don't need another home or another car or another vacation, they should have kept my money and put it into making it possible for more people like you to go to college. That's what I believe.

I think it was a mistake to give me a tax cut and cut funding for after-school programs for poor kids. We know this works to increase academic achievement and to reduce the drop-out rate. We know it does. We were giving no support to that, the federal government, till my second term, but when we left, we were supporting 1.3 million people.

With evidence that the crime rate's going up in some places, and tensions, I think it was a mistake to give me five tax cuts and get rid of the COPS program, which put over 100,000 police officers on the street. I don't think it's consistent with the common good.

We keep being told we can't afford to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, but last year the number-one priority in Congress, or in this Congress that just finished, was giving further estate tax relief to about 8,000 families at a cost of $250 billion over 10 years. At $25 billion a year, that's several times what it would cost to restore the cuts in college aid, the cuts in after-school programs, and implement the 9/11 commission's recommendations.

Now, if you believe in the concentration of wealth and power and you believe that money in the hands of the right people will spark an economic renaissance in America, you embrace that. If you believe in the common good, you think we all ought to kick in a little.

I'll give you a tougher example. I was often criticized by people in my own party, by liberals, for being so tight-fisted and insisting on running a balanced budget and trying to get a surplus, because, they said, you know, it only matters -- if the deficit's a small percentage of the GDP, who cares, and if you'd spend this money, we could send even more kids to college, we could provide even more health care, we could do even better. So I was criticized, if you will, to my left.

My reasoning was two-fold. One is, if you get the deficit down and keep it down, interest rates will be so low you'll be giving another couple of thousand dollars a year to working middle-class families.

And two, the baby boomers are fixing to retire and they will impose a great burden on society when they quit working, so if we were running a surplus for several years and paying down our debt, we would stabilize Social Security by putting the interest savings into the Social Security trust fund and have the funds necessary to meet whatever health care challenge was there.

But that's a common good theory. And again, people can argue whether I was right or wrong, but I believe it was right.

Now we have added about $3 trillion to the national debt. We have a trade deficit annually that's more than twice as big as the budget deficit.

And I think there's another common good question. Is it in the interest of the common good for the United States to borrow money every day from China, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom to finance my tax cut and our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan? That's what we do. We basically knock on the door of these banks every day and say -- this is a weekday -- we'll say, "Can you give us a little more money to pay for Bill Clinton's tax cut and our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq?" We don't use those words, but that's what it is. And we say, "Our kids will pay you back."

Now, to me, that's not consistent with the common good. Our 10th-biggest creditor -- you know who our 10th-biggest creditor is? Mexico.

So we're having all these big debates now about immigration, but we know, whatever you think should be done there -- and I have my own views -- but we know one thing. The overwhelming majority of these poor Mexicans that pour across the Rio Grande River, wherever they can get across every day, are coming to this country because they can make more money here, and they send a bunch of their money home to their mothers and fathers and their children. Whatever you think about it, no one disputes that, right?

So it seems to me like it would be better deal if the Mexicans kept their money, invested it in their own people, gave them a good education and gave them a good chance to have a decent job.

Even the Chinese have enormous problems in rural areas, where I work with AIDS problems, in trying to stabilize the economy of rural areas, keep everybody from moving to the cities, and manage their growth.

There was a story in the paper yesterday said they're about to get a trillion dollars in cash money -- the Chinese. Forty-five percent of our debt is now held by people who are non-Americans. One country alone could trade with the currency.

So I was a big free trader, and a lot of people thought that was inconsistent with the common good, but I did believe in enforcing our agreements. There are only 20 percent as many trade enforcement actions taken today as there was -- were when I was president. Part of the reason is that a lot of our trade disputes are with the Chinese, and they're our banker. When's the last time you got tough on your banker? (Laughter.)

The point I want to make is, you don't have to agree with me about any of this, but we should solve this problem based on what we think is the common good.

I do not think it makes any sense to borrow money to pay my tax cuts and ask my daughter's generation to pay it off. I don't think it's good economics today or good economics tomorrow. And I think it is a big gamble to say that everybody will always have to pay our debt.

But we don't talk about it in these terms. I haven't heard anybody say -- actually get up and explain to the American people how we finance our deficits. From whom do we get the money? What are the consequences? What are the alternatives?

So as you think about not only this election year, but you -- all of you who are students or you think about your future -- whether you're a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent, whether you consider yourself a traditional liberal or conservative, I ask you to remember the tradition that you learned here. This is a religious institution that believes in the life of the mind. This is a Jesuit institution representing an order which for hundreds of years now has been legendary for developing people's intellectual capacities.

The man who taught me comparative religions when I was at Georgetown, popularly known as Buddhism for Baptists -- (laughter) -- Father Joseph Siebez (sp), gave -- we had 204 people in the class -- he gave oral examinations to the non-American students who didn't feel comfortable writing their exam questions in nine languages. We had a Hungarian economics professor when I was here named Joseph Serrini (sp) that made everybody sit in an assigned seat till Thanksgiving. Took roll every day, then you could sit wherever you wanted. And at the end of the second semester, not the first, the second semester, a friend of mine and I were walking up to him, and he said, "Father, I think I'm going to have trouble on the final." And he looked at him, he said, "What do you expect? You missed three classes." (Laughter.) He kept roll in his head from people not sitting in assigned seats for a whole semester, and he had 200 kids in five classes. In other words, what does this mean? It means these deeply religious people believed, as all religious people do of whatever faith, that there is a truth. But they believe life was a journey toward it. And they believed in the most humbling possible way in the relentless search to develop the mind that God had given them to the maximum possible degree to aid in the search.

But they knew no matter how smart they were, no matter how many students they remember, no matter how many languages they spoke, they would never be in full possession of the truth much less be able to turn it in to a political program that was absolutely true that you were somehow less human if you did not embrace. And so they created this university and so many like it to help people in their journey in life. And they, like the Founders, from a much more secular point of view, did so because they realized that what we have in common is more important than our interesting differences.

I try always to mention in every speech I give now that when the human genome was sequenced, the most interesting finding to me was that all human beings are genetically more than 99.9 percent the same. Yet all of us spend over 90 percent of our lives -- I know less than anyone else -- thinking about that one-tenth of 1 percent. I'm older, I'm younger, I'm taller, I'm shorter, I'm smarter, I'm richer, I'm poorer, I'm this, I'm that or the other thing. You think about the way we organize our lives, it's all about that one-tenth of 1 percent. All the common good is is a reaffirmation of the fact that in the end, in order for your one-tenth of 1 percent to flower, to amount to a hill of beans, you have to give others the same chance, that the 99.9 percent is ultimately more important. And without tending to that, you can't possibly unleash the one-tenth of 1 percent.

Does this answer everything we should do in Iran or what we should do now in Iraq or exactly how we should move to universal coverage and stop spending 50 percent than any other country in insuring 16 percent fewer people? No. In health care. It doesn't answer all those things, but it will put you on the right road. I know it will because it worked for us. Did we make mistakes when I was president? Sure. Did everything we try work? No. But on balance, people were way better off when we stopped than when we started. Why? Because of the commitment to equal opportunity, shared responsibility and an inclusive community -- the basic building blocks of the common good.

I long for the day when my party does not represent both the progressive and the conservative strains in the search for the common good, but we do today.

We are the conservative party on the budget, on natural resources, on military resources; and the progressive party on the minimum wage, on health care, on education.

I long for the day when we will return to a debate that is not about who's a good person and who's a slug, not about who represents the religious truth and who is basically running for office on his or her way to Hell. (Laughter.) We're laugh -- you laugh, but you know I'm telling you the truth. (Laughter.)

I long for the day when Republicans and Democrats will sit around and have these raucous, exciting arguments and actually love learning from one another, and when we create the common good out of a dynamic center.

It works. You can just look at the evidence and compare it to what went before and what happened after. Ideological, divisive, demonizing, distracting politics, they may be very good for an election, particularly when people feel unsettled and insecure, but they don't do much to advance the common good.

So whatever your politics are, I hope that throughout your life, you will try to advance it, because that's what our Founders told us to do, and they turned out to be pretty smart. They figured it out more than two centuries before the scientists discovered that we are 99.9 percent the same.

Thank you very much. (Sustained applause.) Thank you. (Applause continues.) Thank you very much.