President Barack Obama was given the 2017 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award on Sunday, and he used his speech to urge members of Congress to exhibit courage in the current battle over health care. The John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation honors political leaders each May who have exhibited “the qualities of politically courageous leadership” President Kennedy outlined in his 1957 book. In the book, Kennedy profiled eight senators who took unpopular but ultimately good positions despite the political risk. In his 30-minute speech, President Obama invoked the fight over the Affordable Care Act and called on members of Congress to protect those who are sick and vulnerable. Read the full transcript here:
Hello, everybody. Thank you so much. Thank you very much. Thank you. Please, everybody have a seat. Thank you. Thank you very much.
Well, first of all, thank you so much, Jack, for that really kind introduction. And I like the socks.
I also want to thank you and Rose and Tatiana and your dad for sharing Caroline with us the past few years as America’s ambassador to Japan.
Caroline, you, true to form, did your country proud, and I’m sure your father and mom would have been proudest of all. I sure was proud, and I’m grateful for your friendship.
I want to thank Ken Feinberg for his service as chairman of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation these past 12 years. He also rendered outstanding service to my administration when we were dealing with the BP oil spill, 9/11. He has rendered public service again and again and again. We’re very grateful for him.
It is wonderful — it is wonderful to see Senators Markey and Senator Warren; my dear friend and former governor, Deval Patrick, and his lovely wife Diane; governors and members of Congress; Cardinal O’Malley; one of the finest secretary of states ever to represent America around the world, John Kerry, and Theresa; and the best vice president this country has ever known, Mr. Joe Biden.
I also want to thank Michelle Obama for after the presidency sticking with me because I think she felt an obligation to the country to stay on. But once her official duties were over, it wasn’t clear. I love my wife. And I’m grateful for her. And I do believe that it was America’s great good fortune to have her as first lady.
So I am humbled by this evening and to be honored by a family that has given this country so much, a family that’s challenged us to ask what we can do for our country, to dream and say why not, a secret cause that endures and to sail against the wind in its pursuit.
That’s what this family has done for America. And to all the members of the Kennedy family that are here tonight, thank you.
I could not be more grateful to the Profile in Courage Award Committee for this honor. I’m also grateful that, unlike the Nobel Prize Committee, you waited until I was out of office.
How fitting that we gather here this month, the 100th anniversary of President Kennedy’s birth. I was born the year he took office, which makes me 55 years old. Had he lived to finish two terms, he would have been just 51. And he remarked on that possibility once. “It has been suggested,” he said, “that whether I serve one or two terms in the presidency, I will find myself at the end of that period at what might be called the awkward age, too old to begin a career and too young to write my memoirs.”
Now, I hadn’t seen this quote when I wrote my first memoir at 33. I’m now in the middle of my second. Moreover, I expect to be busy if not with a second career then at least a second act. But it is true that I’m at the age, at that turn in the road, where one looks back as well as forward to remember one — where one has been, so it’s better to chart where one is going.
And one thing I’m certain is that I was lucky to be born into that new frontier, a new world, and a new generation of Americans. My life in many ways would not have been possible without the vision that John F. Kennedy etched into the character and hearts of America.
To those of us of a certain age, the Kennedys symbolized a set of values and attitudes about civic life that made it such an attractive calling. The idea that politics in fact could be a noble and worthwhile pursuit. The notion that our problems, while significant, are never insurmountable.
The belief that America’s promise might embrace those who had once been locked out or left behind and that opportunity and dignity would no longer be restricted to the few but extended to the many.
The responsibility that each of us have to play a part in our nation’s destiny, and by virtue of being Americans, play a part in the destiny of the world. I can see truthfully that the example of Jack and Bobby Kennedy helped guide me into politics and that the guidance of Teddy Kennedy made me a better public servant once I arrived in Washington.
I have to imagine it would give them great pride to see a new generation of Kennedys, like Joe, carving their own proud paths in public service.
For whatever reasons I receive this award, whatever the scale, the challenges that we overcame, and the scope of progress we made over my presidency, it is worth pointing out that in many ways the times that President Kennedy confronted were far more perilous than the ones that we confront today.
He entered the Oval Office at just 43, only a few years after Khrushchev had threatened to bury America. Wars raged around the world. Large swaths of the country knew poverty far deeper and more widespread than we see today. A young preacher’s cause was just gaining traction against a land segregated not only by custom but by law.
And yet in that volatile tinderbox of a time, President Kennedy led with a steady hand, diffusing the most perilous moment of the cold war without firing a single shot and forcing the rights of young black men and women to study at the university of their choice. Unleashing a corps of young volunteers as ambassadors for peace in distant corners of the globe. Setting America’s sights on the moon precisely because it was hard, unwilling to consider the possibility that we might not win the space race because he had an unwavering faith in the character of the people that he led: resilient, optimistic, innovative, and courageous.
It’s worth remembering this, the times in which President Kennedy led us, because for many Americans I know that this feels like an uncertain and even perilous time. The forces of globalization and technology have upended many of our established assumptions about the economy. It provided a great opportunity and also a great inequality and uncertainty for far too many. Our politics remains filled with division and discord, and everywhere we see the risk of falling into the refuge of tribe and clan and anger at those who don’t look like us or have the same surnames or pray the way we do.
And at such moments, courage is necessary. At such moments, we need courage to stand up to hate not just in others but in ourselves. At such moments, we need the courage to stand up to dogma not just in others but in ourselves. At such moments, we need courage to believe that together we can tackle big challenges like inequality and climate change. At such moments, it’s necessary for us to show courage in challenging the status quo and in fighting the good fight but also show the courage to listen to one another and seek common ground and embrace principled compromise
Courage, President Kennedy knew, requires something more than just the absence of fear. Any fool can be fearless. Courage, true courage, derives from that sense of who we are, what are our best selves, what are our most important commitments, and the belief that we can dig deep and do hard things for the enduring benefit of others.
And that’s why JFK’s first inaugural still rings true. That’s why Bobby’s campaign still means so much. That’s why Teddy’s cause endures and we still love him so much.
Because of the tragedies that befell each of them, sometimes we forget how fundamentally the story they told us about ourselves changed the trajectory of America. And that’s often where courage begins, with the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what’s important and about our own capacity to make a difference.
We live in a time of great cynicism about our institutions. That’s one of the few things that Democrats and Republicans can agree on. It’s a cynicism that’s most corrosive when it comes to our system of self-government, that clouds our history of jagged, sometimes tentative but ultimately forward progress, that impedes our children’s ability to see in the noisy and often too trivial pursuits of politics the possibility of our democracy doing big things.
Of course, disdain for elected officials is not new, as many of you in the room can tell others. 60 years ago President Kennedy quoted a columnist in “Profiles in Courage” who had written, “People don’t give a damn what the average senator or congressman says. The reason they don’t care is that they know what you hear in Congress is 99 percent tripe, ignorance, and demagoguery and not to be relied upon.”
Which is perhaps a little harsh. 99 percent seems high. 85?
But President Kennedy also wrote that “the complication of public business and the competition for the public’s attention have obscured innumerable acts of political courage, large and small, performed almost daily.”
Innumerable acts of political courage large and small performed almost daily. And that is true. I’ve seen it. I’ve witnessed it.
I’ve been thinking on this notion of political courage this weekend, in particular about some of the men and women who were elected to Congress the same year I was elected to the White House. Many of them were new to Washington, their entire careers ahead of them. And in that very first term, they had to take tough vote after tough vote because we were in crisis.
They took votes to save the financial system and the economy, even when it was highly unpopular. They took votes to save the auto industry when even in Michigan people didn’t want to see bailouts. They took votes to crack down on abuses on Wall Street, despite pressure from lobbyists and sometimes their donors.
And they found themselves in the midst of a great debate, a debate that had been going on for decades, a debate that the Kennedy family had participated in and helped lead: a debate about whether a nation as wealthy as the United States of America would finally make healthcare not a privilege but a right for all Americans.
And there was a reason why healthcare reform had not been accomplished before. It was hard. It involved a sixth of the economy and all manner of stakeholders and interests. It was easily subject to misinformation and fearmongering.
And so by the time the vote came up to pass the Affordable Care Act, these freshmen congressmen and women knew that they had to make a choice. That they had a chance to insure millions and prevent untold worry and suffering and bankruptcy, and even death, but that this same vote would likely cost them their new seats, perhaps end their political careers.
And these men and women did the right thing. They did the hard thing. Theirs was a profile in courage. Because of that vote, 20 million people got health insurance who didn’t have it before.
And most of them — and most of them did lose their seats, but they were true to what President Kennedy defined in his book as a congressional profile in courage: the desire to maintain a reputation for integrity that is stronger than the desire to maintain office, the desire to maintain a reputation for integrity that is stronger than a desire to maintain office, a conscience, personal standard of ethics, integrity, morality that is stronger than the pressures of public disapproval or party disapproval, a faith that the right course would ultimately be vindicated, a faith that overcame fear of public reprisal.
It was a personal sacrifice. But I know, because I’ve spoken to many of them, that they thought and still think it was worth it.
As everyone here now knows, this great debate is not settled but continues. And it is my fervent hope and the hope of millions that regardless of party, such courage is still possible, that today’s members of Congress, regardless of party, are willing to look at the facts and speak the truth even when it contradicts party positions.
I hope that current members of Congress recall that it actually doesn’t take a lot of courage to aid those who are already powerful, already comfortable, already influential. But it does require some courage to champion the vulnerable and the sick and the infirm, those who often have no access to the corridors of power.
I hope they understand that courage means not simply doing what is politically expedient but doing what they believe deep in their hearts is right. And this kind of courage is required from all of us. Those of us who consider ourselves progressives, those of us who are Democrats, we’ve got some soul-searching to do to see what kind of coverage we show. We have our own dogmas. Those of us not in elected office have to show some courage. And we’re prone to bestow the mantel of courage too easily on the prominent and the powerful and then too eager to wrap ourselves in cynicism when they let us down because they weren’t perfect.
We lose sight sometimes of our own obligations, each of ours, all the quiet acts of courage that unfold around us every single day, ordinary Americans who give something of themselves not for personal gain but for the enduring benefit of another. The courage of a single mom who is working two jobs to make sure her kid can go to college. The courage of a small business owner who’s keeping folks on the payroll because he knows the family relies on it, even if it’s not always the right thing to do bottom line. The courage of somebody who volunteers to help some kids who need help.
When we recognize these acts of courage, we then necessarily recognize our own responsibility as citizens and as part of the human family to get involved and to get engaged and to take a stand, to vote, to pay attention.
I’m reminded of a story that Teddy once told me about his experiences many years ago when Teddy, Junior, now state Senator Ted Kennedy, Junior, was sleeping after one of his cancer treatments.
And Ted would wander the halls of the hospital and talk with other parents, keeping vigil over their own children. These parents lived in constant fear of what might happen if they couldn’t afford the next treatment. Some calculating in their own minds what they might have to sell or borrow just to make it for a few more months, some bargaining with God for whatever they could get.
And right there in the quiet of night, working people of modest means and one of the most powerful men in America shared the same intimate and immediate sense of helplessness.
And Ted could, of course, afford his son’s treatment. But it was that quiet dignified courage of others to endure the most frightening thing imaginable and to do what it takes on behalf of their loved ones that compelled Teddy to make those parents his cause, not out of self-interest but out of a selfless concern for those who suffer.
That’s what the ordinary courage of everyday people can inspire when you’re paying attention, the quiet sturdy courage of ordinary people doing the right thing day in and day out. They don’t get attention for it. They don’t seek it. They don’t get awards for it. But that’s what’s defined America.
I think of women like my grandmother and so many like her who worked their way up from a secretarial pool to management and in the process pushed the glass ceiling just a little bit higher.
I think about people like Michelle’s dad who, despite MS, got up every single morning. Had to wake up an hour early to button his shirt up and put on his clothes and take those two canes he used and go to work every single day to make sure that he was supporting his family, not missing a dance recital or a basketball game.
I think of the troops and the cops and the first responders that I’ve met who have put themselves at risk for strangers they will never know. And business owners who make every kind of sacrifice they can to make sure that their workers have a shot. And workers who take the risk of starting a new career, retraining at my age. Kids in the Peace Corps working to build bridges of understanding in other nations and spread the same values that helped bring down an iron curtain, banish the scourge of apartheid, expand the boundaries of human freedom.
I think of dreamers who suppress their fears to keep working and striving in the only country they’ve ever called home. And every American who stands up for immigrants because they know that their parents or grandparents or great grandparents were immigrants too, and they know that America is an idea that only grows stronger with each new person who adopts our common creed.
I think of every young activist who answers the injustices still embedded in our criminal justice system not with violence, not with despair, but with peaceful protests and analysis and constructive recommendations for change.
I think of the powerless who crossed a bridge in Selma and discovered they had power. Those who gathered at Stonewall and discovered they had a voice. Those who marched on Washington because they believed that they, without an army, without great wealth, could somehow change the very fabric of the greatest power on earth and kept on until they stretched the lofty ideals of our founding to encircle everyone.
Every citizen inspired by that history who dips their toes in the water of active democracy for the first time and musters up the determination to try and fail and try again, and sometimes fail again and still try again, knowing their efforts aren’t always rewarded right away, because they believe in that upward trajectory of the American story, a story that nobody told better than John F. Kennedy.
That very Kennedyesque idea that America is not the project of any one person and that each of us can make a difference and all of us ought to try. That quiet sturdy citizenship that I see all across the country and that I especially see in young people like Jack and Rose and Tatiana, Malia and Sasha, and your kids.
I don’t know whether President Kennedy’s aide and friend, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was right when he wrote that history unfolds in cycles, but I do know that it doesn’t move in a straight line.
I know that the values and the progress that we cherish are not inevitable, that they are fragile, in need of constant renewal.
I’ve said before that I believe what Dr. King said, that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” but I’ve also said it does not bend on its own. It bends because we bend it, because we put our hand on that arch, and we move it in the direction of justice and freedom and equality and kindness and generosity. It doesn’t happen on its own.
And so we are constantly having to make a choice because progress is fragile. And it’s precisely that fragility, that impermanence, that is a precondition of the quality of character that we celebrate tonight.
If the vitality of our democracy, if the gains of our long journey to freedom were assured, none of us would ever have to be courageous. None of us would have to risk anything to protect them. But it’s in its very precariousness that courage becomes possible and absolutely necessary.
John F. Kennedy knew that our best hope and our most powerful answer to our doubts and to our fears lies inside each of us, in our willingness to joyfully embrace our responsibility as citizens, to stay true to our allegiance, to our highest and best ideals, to maintain our regard and concern for the poor and the aging and the marginalized, to put our personal or party interest aside when duty to our country calls or when conscience demands.
That’s the spirit that has brought America so far and that’s the spirit that will always carry us to better days.
And I take this honor that you have bestowed on me here tonight as a reminder that, even out of office, I must do all that I can to advance the spirit of service that John F. Kennedy represents.
Thank you all very much. May God bless you. May he bless these United States of America.