25 February 2010
Birmingham University
United Kingdom


I’d like to thank Vice-Chancellor Eastwood and Professor Ellis, chair of the Department of American and Canadian Studies. And I’d like to give my warmest welcome to all you students. I can’t think of a better audience to spend time with than Americans and students of American Studies. You make me feel right at home.

And let me say how pleased I am to have my own rooting section, my wife Marjorie.

Before I go too much further, I think I need to address a pressing local matter. Yes, it involves the Carling Cup Final.

The fact is, I can’t take sides. As American Ambassador, I’ve got to be neutral.  But whether you support Villa, United, or Birmingham City – this is a great town.

I have to confess, I feel a special attachment to this city because Chicago – where I come from – is Birmingham’s sister city. Mayor Daley has personally told me how much he values this partnership.

And this is one great university, with eight Nobel laureates. The cavity magnetron was an invention made here. It helped the allies develop radar far superior to the German and Japanese versions in World War II. Holocaust survivor Paul Oppenheimer attended here. So did zoologist Desmond Morris.  And many more.

And they all believed change was necessary.  A new way of looking at things.  When I read the university’s motto – “Through efforts to high things” – it resonates. It perfectly illustrates how we are trying to implement President Obama’s message of change.

I was one of many who believed that Barack Obama’s call for change was the right idea at the right time.

I found that out on my first visit to his campaign headquarters.

It was in one of those tall Chicago office buildings – but on one of the lower levels, because the rent was cheaper. There was nothing unusual about the office per se. It had the usual low ceilings.  The fluorescent light panels. Computers and desks.  The institutional carpeting.

It was what I saw in there that got my attention: The campaign workers and volunteers. Not the kind of people you’d normally expect to see in a political campaign.

There were no jacket and ties.  These people were young. In their early twenties.  Many even younger.   High school students, university dropouts, grad students.  Leaning over desks. Hunched over computers.  Sitting on the floor. Spilling out of every cubicle.  You couldn’t walk anywhere without tripping over someone.

I noticed how quiet it was. Everyone was so busy concentrating on the job, I guess, there wasn’t time to talk. But in this silence, there was a great sense of excitement.  Of common purpose.  And belief.

I’d never seen anything like it on a campaign. I realized what a generational movement this campaign had become.  The torch was being passed before my eyes – from my generation to yours.

But it wasn’t just young people that were electrified by President Obama’s campaign and his election but – I think it’s fair to say – the world at large.

His election, overnight, gave the world renewed hope for an America they used to admire, respect and look up to. For millions of people, he proved that hope doesn’t have to be an abstraction. It can lead to real change.

As President Obama learned right away, the country’s dilemmas were immense and complex enough.  The global ones even more so.

Two wars. Global recession.  A financial system about to collapse. A changing climate.  Old conflicts.  New conflicts. Extremism.  The danger of nuclear weapons. And a lot of people angry at America.

That was one intimidating inbox. How could he make change into something real?

He started by fixing something vitally important. Something that many said was the right idea at the wrong time. But he did it anyway. He prohibited the use of torture. And he pledged to close the prison at Guantanamo.

He realized, too, that change doesn’t come from one man. Or even one country. The problems of the world were too big and complex and far reaching for us to go it alone. It was time to build – and in some cases rebuild – our relationships with our friends and start new ones with our foes.

Remember, it was candidate Obama who said he’d open a dialogue with Iran with no pre-conditions.  He took major political heat from other candidates for that. But he had the courage to talk about something he believed was the right idea, and the right time.

Then he became president, and the world had to listen.

Here’s what he told a crowd of cheering Europeans in Prague: None of the world’s problems can be solved until we start listening to one another. Working together. Focusing on common interests – not occasional differences. Reaffirming our shared values.

He went to the United Nations and spoke about change. It was time, he said for “a new era of American engagement with the world, in word and deed.”

Simple ideas. Small ideas. But big in the long run. And little by little, they are taking hold.

The United States is opening a new relationship with Russia. We’ve started to negotiate the farthest-reaching arms control treaty in two decades. We worked with allies and partners like China and Russia – to get  Iran to stop building nuclear weapons.

Right idea. Right time. .

In Copenhagen, President Obama and Prime Minister Brown worked with the world’s leading nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – so we could make this planet a livable one for our children. And yours.

Right idea. Right time.

He helped turn around the global financial crisis around. Stopped the U.S. sliding into a depression, and helped coordinate a global response to the crisis.

Right idea – and definitely right time. Because when you graduate from here, you need to have a positive future ahead of you.

He’s deeply committed to peace in the Mideast. That means engaging Israel, Palestine and their Arab neighbors to work towards a two state solution, so that both nations can live side by side, without enmity and well protected.

That’s one right idea that’s been waiting for a long time.

The President has been the first to admit, progress hasn’t always been as dramatic as we dreamed.

Resolving problems takes patience, persistence, and hard work.  We’ve got to appreciate the incremental successes. To recognize progress, no matter how small.

The fact is, change is not easy. There is resistance everywhere. Some tell us our goals are the right idea at the wrong time. Others tell us they are the wrong ideas at any time.

We have to believe our goals are the right ideas – right now.

A very important partnership is our special relationship with the United Kingdom. We have a connection forged in trust, goals and appreciation. We share a belief in democracy, rule of law, and tolerance. And that’s not just important for us. It’s important for the world.

A vital part of that special relationship is education. Academic programs like the Fulbright Program.  Now in its 60th year.

The U.K. is among the top 15 counties sending students to U.S. colleges and universities – more than 8,000 per year and growing.  And for American students, the UK is the number one destination for studying abroad.

More than 33,000 come here every year to study, all over England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are more than 27,000 U.S. and UK Fulbright alumni.

Programs like that – and exchanges between students – are important because the future of the world is built in the souls of the young. People like you.

The essence of the Fulbright program is empathy. That’s what the founder, Senator Fulbright said. “It’s the ability to see the world as others see it, he said. He called it an “avenue of hope.”

Funny how the great pioneers and thinkers and leaders like that word.  Hope.

That hope begins and continues with you. I know, because I’ve seen it. I was so affected by that scene in Chicago – where so many people believed in hope. And they somehow knew that, if you they believed in hope and kept working, change would happen. If they took the small steps, big things would follow.

Don’t listen to anyone telling you: You don’t do it this way, or: This is the right idea but it’s the wrong time.  Just believe in yourselves and what you have to do.  Your efforts are so important.

Don’t listen to the ones who tell you: Right idea, wrong time. There are always those who are wedded to the status quo. Who tell you it can’t be done that way. That you’re a fool to try.

Robert Kennedy used to say “One man with courage makes a majority.”

Looking at this audience, I believe you have the potential. The ability to bring change before it’s convenient to do so. Just because you believe it’s right.

Soon after his election, President Obama told everyone what young people had done for him.

“What started out as an improbable journey,” he said, “when nobody gave us a chance, was carried forward, was inspired by, was energized by young people all across America.”

The reason was simple, he said.

Young people can imagine “something different than what comes before us.   Where there is war, they imagine peace. Where there is hunger they imagine people being able to feed themselves. Where they imagine bigotry they imagine togetherness.”

I’d like to think that message is being heard around the world, and right here in Birmingham, where you stand poised with so much ahead of you.

It’s up to each and every one of you to define that change as you see fit.

President Obama put it so simply: “Be the change. If you do, you will have the world’s admiration – for they will see change become real.”

The world is waiting for you. It needs you.

Thank you.  And I look forward to your questions.