In defense of freedom, we will remain the anchor of strong alliances from the Americas to Africa; from Europe to Asia. In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy. The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can – and will – insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people. We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian. And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace. These are the messages I will deliver when I travel to the Middle East next month.
All this work depends on the courage and sacrifice of those who serve in dangerous places at great personal risk – our diplomats, our intelligence officers, and the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. As long as I’m Commander-in-Chief, we will do whatever we must to protect those who serve their country abroad, and we will maintain the best military in the world. We will invest in new capabilities, even as we reduce waste and wartime spending. We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families – gay and straight. We will draw upon the courage and skills of our sisters and daughters, because women have proven under fire that they are ready for combat. We will keep faith with our veterans – investing in world-class care, including mental health care, for our wounded warriors; supporting our military families; and giving our veterans the benefits, education, and job opportunities they have earned. And I want to thank my wife Michelle and Dr. Jill Biden for their continued dedication to serving our military families as well as they serve us.
But defending our freedom is not the job of our military alone. We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote. When any Americans – no matter where they live or what their party – are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals. That’s why, tonight, I’m announcing a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America. And I’m asking two long-time experts in the field, who’ve recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney’s campaign, to lead it. We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy.
Of course, what I’ve said tonight matters little if we don’t come together to protect our most precious resource – our children.
It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans – Americans who believe in the 2nd Amendment – have come together around commonsense reform – like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because they are tired of being outgunned.
Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.
One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.
Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.
Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.
The families of Newtown deserve a vote.
The families of Aurora deserve a vote.
The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.
Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country. Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight. But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.
We were sent here to look out for our fellow Americans the same way they look out for one another, every single day, usually without fanfare, all across this country. We should follow their example.
We should follow the example of a New York City nurse named Menchu Sanchez. When Hurricane Sandy plunged her hospital into darkness, her thoughts were not with how her own home was faring – they were with the twenty precious newborns in her care and the rescue plan she devised that kept them all safe.
We should follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor. When she arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours. And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her. Because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read “I Voted.”
We should follow the example of a police officer named Brian Murphy. When a gunman opened fire on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and Brian was the first to arrive, he did not consider his own safety. He fought back until help arrived, and ordered his fellow officers to protect the safety of the Americans worshiping inside – even as he lay bleeding from twelve bullet wounds.
When asked how he did that, Brian said, “That’s just the way we’re made.”
That’s just the way we’re made.
We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title:
We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.