America needs to implement a universal health care system, support its union workers and amend its free trade agreements, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., told an Ottawa audience Saturday morning.
But before those things can be accomplished, America needs to end its involvement in the war in Iraq, he said.
Speaking before a gathering of about 600 United Auto Workers Union members outside the UAW Hall, the Democratic presidential candidate hopeful made several references to his pre-campaign ties to organized labor, including his work as a community organizer in Chicago helping set up afterschool and job-training programs for steelworkers who were laid off after their plant closed.
"If the Democratic Party means anything, then it has to mean we value labor," Obama said. "If the Democratic Party stands for anything, then it has to stand up for your rights and your future."
Hundreds of union workers from Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota filled the front lawn of the UAW Hall as part of the union's regional conference. Obama arrived at 10 a.m. and began speaking 20 minutes later after being greeted by a standing ovation and a boisterous round of applause as Aretha Franklin's "Think" played over the sound system.
Dressed in khaki pants and a white dress shirt with an unfastened top button and the sleeves rolled up, Obama promised to look out for the interests of the working class.
"The UAW built the auto industry in this country, secured good-paying jobs for generations of workers, and helped create the middle class -- the backbone of the American economy," Obama said. "You deserve a president who's got your back when the going gets tough, and I want to be that president."
Obama also promised that, if elected president, he will sign a universal health care plan into law before the end of his first term.
"My plan will cut the typical family's premiums by up to $2,500 a year and ensure that if you lose your job, you can take your health care with you," Obama said.
That's exactly what Mike Roth, a union worker from Rockford, wanted to hear when he traveled to Ottawa specifically to hear Obama speak.
"Health care and job security are good stuff for the UAW," said Roth, who supports Obama.
A few homemade signs were seen in the audience, though one woman held up a posterboard with messages on both sides. One side urged voters to choose Obama over rival U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., while the other side proclaimed, "This is Obamaland."
Obama also spoke about the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, which he said is standing in the way of progress on other issues important to Americans. He called for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
"When this war is over, we can finally get back to meeting the challenges we face here at home," Obama said. "The challenges you're grappling with every day: Wages that can raise a family. Health care when you get sick. A college education that's affordable even if you're not rich. A retirement that's dignified. A day off once in awhile."
Those comments rang true to John Fitzgerald of Dwight.
"I think he's the most honest politician who's come along in a long time," Fitzgerald said. "I think he can bring this country together. He supports hardworking Americans and he'll be smart enough to sit down with world leaders."