Bill Clinton photo

Remarks at the Executive Leadership Council Dinner

October 21, 1993

Thank you very much, Earl, and thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I actually wanted to hear him talk. I thought I've heard the speech the guy behind him has to make.

I am delighted to be here with the ELC, with Earl Washington and Buddy James and with all the rest of you. I thank you for your achievements in life, and I thank you for the work you have done. The board of this organization met at the White House, I know, last spring, and we have developed a very special relationship.

I was honored to be invited to come by the reception for a moment. I wish I could stay for dinner, but before you asked me to eat I got invited somewhere else, and it's not polite to cancel. At least that's what my mama always taught me.

I want to congratulate your honorees tonight, Suzanne de Passe and Corning Corporation and my friend Dr. Leon Sullivan. And I want to thank all of you for the efforts you're making to make America a better place.

I'd like to also say a special word of appreciation to two very important members of my team who are here tonight, a former board member and officer of this organization and your evening speaker, Hazel O'Leary, the distinguished Energy Secretary—when I saw Hazel tonight I thought nobody would be disappointed that I'm not speaking—and also the Special Assistant to the President for Public Liaison and the highest ranking African-American ever to serve in the White House, Ms. Alexis Herman. I thank her for being here.

Ladies and gentlemen, I ran for President in 1991 and 1992 because I was convinced that our country needed to change its direction and because I thought we were coming apart when we ought to be coming together.

I have always believed that the obligation of a public servant is to try to give every person he or she represents a chance to live up to their God-given capacity and the challenge to do what is necessary to give others that chance as well. That responsibility takes on different turns and textures, depending on the moment in history when you're fortunate enough to serve. Right now, I think all of you know as well or better than I that in order for every person in this country to have a chance to live up to the fullest of their capacity, all of us have to be committed to making some pretty fundamental changes in the way we operate our economy and the way we work together as a people and the way we relate to the rest of the world.

Whenever people are called upon to change profoundly, we all know that's difficult. I mean, I have a hard time losing 10 pounds. [Laughter] Change is not easy. You think about the dimensions of the changes we need to make; we know it is hard. We also know that great democracies normally only make profound changes when it is apparent to all that there is a lot of trouble. The problem with that is, when it's apparent to all that there's a lot of trouble, there are normally a lot of people who are too insecure to want to hear about much change.

If you think about your own life, every one of us has a little balance scale inside, sort of between hope and fear, between being optimistic and averse to today's changes. I know if I get less than 5 hours sleep, I'm less optimistic than I am if I get more than 6, you know. We have that. Every family has it. Every business organization has it. And every nation has it.

I am plagued by the thought of how many Americans are too insecure to feel confident in the future and to grasp the opportunities that are there before us. And so I have this duty to the country, I believe, as President to try to lay down the markers of security that our people need as well as urge them to change. And that's why we're working so hard to provide families more security with things like the Family and Medical Leave Act, to provide people more employment security in a time when you can't have a job security any more—the average person will change jobs seven times in a lifetime—we need a dramatic, radically different way of training and educating our workers; to providing health care security, without which families can't be told if they may have to be willing to change jobs, if they think they're going to have to put their kids in the poor house because they don't have any health insurance; and to try to deal with issues of personal security—ninety thousand people killed in America in the last 4 years alone, in any year more than we ever lost in any given year in the war in Vietnam. This is the only advanced country in the world where teenagers are better armed than police officers. We talk about how terrible it is and refuse to do anything about it.

But just because we are insecure, many of us, doesn't mean we can put off until tomorrow the changes we need to make. You know, whenever you're confronted with a new and challenging set of circumstances that requires you to change, you can do one of two things: You can sort of hunker down and turn away and hope it will go away, or you can face it. Now, hunkering down works about once in 100. Most of the time, it's a real loser. And what I'm trying to do as President is to also tell the American people, "Look, this Government's on your side. We're trying to lay down these elements of security for families, for safe streets, for health care, for workers. But we have to change."

The most important fight we're going to have between now and the end of the year on the change front is the fight to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement. And most of the opposition to the agreement comes from people who have deep-seated hurts, resentments, and reservation that are legitimate based on their own experience, because the working families of this country are by and large working longer work weeks than they were 20 years ago for the same or lower wages than they were making 10 years ago—we all know that—and because many people have been in work units where they think they have been treated like so much disposable material, where they didn't feel that they were put first or even considered. And so they look at more change in the global economy and think, "Oh, what a headache."

But rationally, NAFTA will make everything that they resent better. And the failure to pass it will make everything worse. Wages in Mexico will go up faster if we adopt NAFTA than if we don't. And the Mexican Government will make a commitment to honor their own labor code in ways that are not there now. Environmental investments in Mexico will go up more if we adopt NAFTA than if we don't. Requirements in Mexico that keep us out of the Mexican market—requirements to produce products there if we want to sell them there—will go down if we adopt it. They won't if we don't. Trade barriers, tariffs will go down if we adopt it. They won't if we don't. We have trade problems in America: $50 billion deficit with Japan; a $19 billion deficit with China; a $9 billion deficit with Taiwan. We have a $6 billion trade surplus with Mexico. And even though it's not a very wealthy country, 70 cents of every dollar they spend on products from overseas beyond their borders they spend on American products.

So I say to you, I very much hope that we'll have a wonderful open world trading system. I'm working hard to get one by the end of the year. But neither you nor I know with any certainty what the trading philosophy of Asia or Europe will be 5 or 10 years from now. We do know democracy is on the move in Latin America. We do know free markets are on the move in Latin America. And we do know that they prefer to deal with us, not just in Mexico but in other countries.

And the benefits of NAFTA come not just from new jobs being created out of the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, although we are convinced 200,000 new jobs will be created. And on average, they'll be better paying jobs just in the next 2 years. The real benefits will come in new jobs when that agreement is the standard by which we set new agreements with Chile, with Venezuela, with Argentina, with all the other countries that want very much to be part of our family.

Every one of you here in some way or another is a profound success. All of you have had to deal with these kinds of conflicts in your own lives. Many of you have overcome enormous obstacles to get where you were, and not a single one of you is at the top of any heap today because you hunkered down or ran away from an opportunity to embrace change and embrace the future.

And so I ask you as Americans to help us in this next month convince the United States Congress that the people who are pleading with them to vote against this treaty have legitimate fears, legitimate hurt, legitimate worries. But they are imposing on NAFTA the accumulated resentment for the last 15 years, and it doesn't deserve to have it. If you look at the facts, it will make those problems better, not worse.

You have credibility with a lot of people in the Congress, in both parties, of different races and backgrounds. And if you can convince them that together we're not only going to lay down these security markers that we have to lay down, but we must have the courage to change, then we can go into 1994 having brought the deficit down, with the lowest interest rates in 30 years, with business investment going up, with housing going up, with unemployment going down, and with a view toward the future that gives us the confidence we need to make the future what it has to be for our people.

Thank you very much and God bless you all.

NOTE: The President spoke at 6:20 p.m. in the Sheraton North Ballroom at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. In his remarks, he referred to Earl S. Washington, president, and Clarence James, Jr., executive director, Executive Leadership Council.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at the Executive Leadership Council Dinner Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under



Washington, DC

Simple Search of Our Archives