Before we get into the subject of today's press conference, there are a couple of issues I'd like to address.
Today, we received more unsettling news about our economy: jobless claims are now the highest they've been in 26 years, with more than 570,000 people filing for unemployment benefits for the first time. And this news comes at a moment when our auto industry is struggling, threatening the jobs, health care and pensions of not just thousands of American auto workers, but dealers, suppliers and others all across America.
I understand people's anger and frustration at the situation our auto companies find themselves in today. I raised concerns about the health of our auto industry a year and a half ago, when I spoke to industry leaders in Detroit. I urged them to act quickly to adopt new technologies and a new business approach that would help them stay competitive in these changing times. And while they've failed to move quickly enough toward these goals, at this moment of great challenge for our economy, we cannot simply stand by and watch this industry collapse. Doing so would lead to a devastating ripple effect throughout our economy.
As I have said repeatedly, I believe our government should provide short-term assistance to the auto industry to avoid a collapse, while holding the companies accountable and protecting taxpayers' interests. The legislation in Congress right now is an important step in that direction, and I am hopeful that a final agreement can be reached this week.
I am also aware of your interest in the matter of the Illinois Senate appointment. Let me say that I was as appalled as anyone by the revelations earlier this week. I have never spoken with the Governor on this subject. And I am quite confident that no representatives of mine would have had any part in any deals related to this seat. I think the materials released by the U.S. Attorney reflect that. I have asked my team to gather the facts of any contacts with the Governor's staff about this vacancy so we can share them with you. And we will do that in the next few days.
Finally, on this matter, let me say that this Senate seat does not belong to any politician to trade - it belongs to the people of Illinois, and they deserve the best possible representation. They also deserve to know that any vacancy will be filled in an appropriate way. I hope and expect that the leaders of the legislature will take steps to ensure that this is so.
I'd now like to turn to the topic of today's press conference. Over the past few weeks, Vice President Biden and I have announced key members of our economic team, who are working as we speak to craft a recovery program that will save and create millions of jobs and grow our struggling economy.
Today, I am pleased to announce two leading members of my health care team whose work will be critical to those efforts: Senator Tom Daschle and Dr. Jeanne Lambrew. I have asked Tom to serve not just as my Secretary of Health and Human Services - but also as Director of my White House Office of Health Reform. As such, he will be responsible not just for implementing our health care plan - he will also be the lead architect of that plan. Jeanne will serve as Deputy Director of this office, working closely with Tom on these efforts.
It is hard to overstate the urgency of their work. Over the past eight years, premiums have nearly doubled - and more families are facing more medical debt than ever before. 45 million of our fellow citizens have no health insurance at all - and day after day, we witness the disgrace of parents unable to take a sick child to the doctor, seniors unable to afford their medicines, people who wind up in the emergency room because they have nowhere else to turn. Year after year, our leaders offer up detailed health care plans with great fanfare and promise, only to see them fail, derailed by Washington politics and influence peddling.
This simply cannot continue. The runaway cost of health care is punishing families and businesses across our country. We are on an unsustainable course, and it has to change. The time has come - this year, in this new Administration - to modernize our health care system for the twenty-first century; to reduce costs for families and businesses; and to finally provide affordable, accessible health care for every American.
Now, some may ask how, at this moment of economic challenge, we can afford to invest in reforming our health care system. Well, I ask a different question - I ask how we can afford not to.
Right now, small businesses across America are laying people off or shutting their doors for good because of rising health care costs. And some of the largest corporations in America - including major American car makers - are struggling to compete with foreign companies unburdened by these costs. Instead of investing in research and development, instead of expanding and creating new jobs, our companies are pouring more and more money into a health care system that is failing too many families.
So let's be clear: if we want to overcome our economic challenges, we must also finally address our health care challenge.
I can think of no one better suited to lead this effort than the man standing beside me today.
Tom Daschle is one of America's foremost health care experts. He and Jeanne have written a groundbreaking book on the subject, filled with fresh ideas and creative solutions. And Tom's thinking on this issue is informed not just by statistics he's studied or policy papers he's read, but by his years representing the people of South Dakota, witnessing firsthand their struggles as hospitals closed, doctors were few and far between, and care was often out of reach.
But Tom brings more than just great expertise to this task, he brings the respect he earned during his years of leadership in Congress. He knows how to reach across the aisle and bridge partisan divides. And he has the trust of folks from every angle of this issue: doctors, nurses and patients; unions and businesses; hospitals and advocacy groups - all of whom will have a seat at the table as we craft our plan.
And once we pass this legislation, I know I can rely on Tom to implement it effectively. A gifted manager, Tom is the original no-drama guy - known for speaking softly, but leading boldly - always treating his staff with respect, while demanding excellence and empowering them to deliver. And I know Tom will bring that same decency, graciousness and pragmatism to this new role.
Tom could not have a better partner in this work than Jeanne Lambrew. Jeanne brings a depth and range of experience on health care that few can match. She's a leading thinker on this issue, nationally recognized for her research on Medicare, Medicaid, long term care and the uninsured. She's a policy and budget expert, having served at a senior level at both the Office of Management and Budget and the National Economic Council. She helped lead the effort in the White House to create the Children's Health Insurance Program, and she helped craft the President's Medicare reform plan and long-term care initiative.
And like Tom, Jeanne has a personality perfectly suited to reaching out and building consensus. She listens. She treats people well. She - like Tom - believes, as Tom put it in his farewell address to the Senate, that "The politics of common ground will not be found on the far right or on the far left. That is not where most Americans live. We will only find it in the firm middle ground of common sense and shared values."
I could not agree more, and I look forward to working with Tom and Jeanne in the months and years ahead.