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“In America it is patriotic to help the weak and vulnerable, to stand up for those in need.” That message was delivered by North Carolina democratic Gov. Mike Easley during Wednesday’s Debt Matters conference, hosted by the Center for American Progress.

Easley was the keynote speaker of a day-long event featuring numerous experts and panel discussions. The event, designed to raise the profile of household debt as a national political issue, was highlighted by the release of a new public opinion report on the problem of debt.

John Podesta, president and CEO of the Center, opened the conference by pointing to record levels of debt, a negative savings rate, and the far-reaching implications of a heavily indebted society. Americans, he said, need “a fair shot at a financial future,” a shot they are not currently getting.

Those sentiments were supported by Easley. “Debt,” he said, “is a symptom of a larger problem.” Individuals and families are carrying a greater financial burden, forcing people to borrow increasingly larger amounts of money to pay for important fundamental services, such as education and health care. “Today, the middle class is getting deeper and deeper into debt,” Easley said, “not because they’re over-consuming, but just because they’re trying to maintain their standard of living.”

As a result, the American dream of social mobility is harder to achieve. “The foundation is now getting kicked out,” Easley said, because people have to go deeply into debt just to maintain their current position. That has serious implications for the entire nation. Our large debt burden, the governor said, is preventing America from reaching its economic potential. “This is not just about economic prosperity, but about economic security… we need an extraordinarily efficient economy,” he said, to meet today’s global challenges.

Heavy debt disrupts core American values, such as economic growth and access to education. “We know the correlation between wealth and education is indisputable,” Easley said. But “it is difficult to build talent, knowledge, and skill when our people are swimming in a sea of debt.”

The new survey, co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress and conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Public Opinion Strategies, showed that Americans think debt is a problem but don’t necessarily think of it as a political issue. “We’re looking at some very serious numbers,” said Anna Greenberg, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Eight in 10 Americans, from across the ideological spectrum, believe the debt problem is getting worse.

Debt is seen as a very personal problem, which is partly why it has not become much of a political issue. Bill McInturff, co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, said “we want to help people in need, but we want to see people helping themselves.” Even still, the survey showed broad public support for better consumer protections and government education programs. McInturff, citing results that cut across party affiliation, believes that the right political leader can turn debt into an important issue. “There’s something we can do,” he said. “Our political system could address it,” but people aren’t aware of that.

Other experts throughout the day looked more specifically at a poorly understood but important issue. The hope is that through events, such as today’s conference, growing debt will not just be a social problem, but be a problem with solutions. “People need to know,” said Easley, “that if they work hard and play by the rules, they’ll have a chance to succeed.”

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Biographies

Governor Mike Easley was born in Nash County, North Carolina in 1950. The second of seven children, he was raised on a tobacco farm. Easley received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of North Carolina in 1972 with honors. In 1975, he earned his law degree from North Carolina Central University School of Law. He graduated cum laude from law school and also served as managing editor of the law review. Easley spent nearly two decades of public service fighting crime, protecting children and the elderly, and standing up for working families. In 1982, he was elected district attorney for the 13th prosecutorial district in Brunswick, Bladen and Columbus counties. One of the state’s youngest district attorneys ever, he was named among USAToday’s top “drug busters.” He was elected North Carolina’s attorney general in 1992 and was re-elected to a second term in 1996. In both elections, Easley set records for the most votes of any statewide candidate. As attorney general, he launched an aggressive consumer protection agenda combining legal action and education and outreach efforts to fight fraud on issues such as telemarketing and predatory lending. Easley worked to remove the state’s prison cap and keep violent criminals behind bars, created an environmental crimes task force to keep our natural resources protected and established a citizens’ rights division to combat hate crimes, child abuse and elder abuse. He spearheaded efforts to reach the historic national tobacco settlement securing more than $200 billion for states. Easley was the first attorney general to be elected governor in North Carolina in November 2000. He received 53 percent of the vote in 2000 and was re-elected to a second term in 2004 by a margin of 13 points. Again in 2004, Easley set a record for the most votes of any statewide elected candidate–while Bush also won the state by a margin of 13 points. Under Easley’s leadership, North Carolina’s top-ranked business climate prospers while the state leads the nation in education progress. Easley has restored fiscal discipline to the state’s finances while also increasing investments in education and infrastructure, key components to recruiting and retaining high quality jobs and industry for the state. Since 2001, Easley’s use of smart, targeted, performance-based initiatives has generated more than 25,000 new jobs and $4 billion in investment for the state, earning North Carolina the title “State of the Year” and No. 1 “Comeback Kid” from Southern Business and Development Magazine in 2005. Easley’s initiatives also earned the state recognition as one of the best places to start and grow a business from the Small Business Administration and a No. 3 national ranking for its biotechnology industry from Ernst & Young. A top priority in Easley’s economic development strategy is continued investments in education. Despite facing a $2.5 billion shortfall his first year in office, Easley reduced class size in grades K-3 and implemented the first statewide pre-kindergarten program for at-risk four-year-olds, which now serves more than 15,000 children across the state. Under Easley’s leadership, 81 percent of North Carolina’s students are performing at or above grade level on ABC style=’color:red’> tests while fourth graders are among the top in the nation in reading, writing and math scores on the National Assessment Exams. Easley also launched an effort to reform the state’s high schools. Through Learn and Earn, students now have the chance to complete an associate’s degree in conjunction with their high school curriculum and ensure that they are better prepared to enter the workforce upon graduation style=’color:red’>. As a part of the his New Schools Project, he has also opened small, economic development-themed high schools across the state focusing on growing economies, health care, life sciences and biotechnology. Easley also created the nation’s first Center for 21st Century Skills to redesign high school curriculum to meet the demands of the global economy. To generate funds for future investments in education, Easley secured the passage of an education lottery in 2005. The lottery will generate more than $400 million annually for pre-kindergarten programs and class size reduction, school construction and need-based scholarships. He and his wife Mary have one child, Michael, Jr. Mary is an attorney and teaches public policy law and intellectual property law at N.c= State University. She also heads the university’s new Millennium Speakers’ Series on International Public Policy. Michael is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Despite serving as a page for Congressman Bob Etheridge, Michael is doing reasonably well in school.

Anna Greenberg has been called “one of the smartest of the younger Democratic consultants” and is a leading polling expert. She advises campaigns, advocacy organizations and foundations in the United States. In the 2004 election cycle, she worked closely with organizations involved in the presidential campaign including MoveOn.Org, The Media Fund, the Human Rights Campaign, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Women’s Voices. Women Vote, and the League of Conservation Voters, helping them develop message, advertising and targeting strategies. This year, she is advising Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar in her Senate race in Minnesota and former State Senator Gabrielle Giffords in her bid for a Congressional seat (AZ-8). Greenberg has extensive experience polling for non-profits and charitable foundations focusing on religion, women’s health, rural issues and education. She conducted ground breaking research on religion and values in public life and in-depth research on women’s health for the National Women’s Health Resource Center and the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals. She directs the firm’s work with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Center for Rural Strategies and has helped shape and advance their research program on perceptions of rural America. Greenberg directs the firm’s evolving work with web-based research and ad testing and its innovations in micro-targeting, leading a joint project with Stratalys Research called SmarTargeting. In 2000, Greenberg led iVillage.com’s Women’s Electorate polling project, a joint online venture between iVillage and Ladies Home Journal. Greenberg worked extensively with Knowledge Networks, a leader in the evolving world of web based survey research, as they developed their web-based panel. Prior to joining Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, Greenberg taught at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. In the spring of 2000, Greenberg received an invitation from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press where she worked as a visiting scholar. She serves on the advisory board of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and is a research fellow at American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. A frequently quoted source on the topic of American politics, Greenberg has appeared on MSNBC, CNN, NBC, CNBC, NPR and the BBC. Her work has been published in a variety of publications, including Political Science Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Women and Politics, The American Prospect, The Nation, Blueprint, The Public Perspective and The Responsive Community. Greenberg earned a Bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago.

Bill McInturff is a partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, a national political and public affairs survey research firm. Since its founding in 1991, the firm has completed more than 3 million interviews with voters and consumers in all fifty states and over a dozen foreign countries, and conducted more than 2,400 focus groups. Called by The New York Times, “the leading Republican polling company,” Public Opinion Strategies currently represents seventeen U.S. Senators, ten governors, and over 50 Members of Congress. Bill conducted the polling for Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign and continues to be actively engaged in American politics, conducting national survey research on behalf of the Republican Governors Association. Working with Democratic pollster Peter Hart, Bill is the Co-Director of the NBC News/Wall Street Journal National Poll. Much of his work has been devoted to what he describes as “combat message development,” not simply monitoring public opinion, but developing messages to defend and promote client interests on complex public policy issues. Bill has conducted groundbreaking research on Medicare reform, creating Social Security private retirement accounts, juvenile justice reform, genetic testing, school choice, tort reform, health care policy, and a host of other policy issues. The focus of much of Bill’s work has been health care, having completed more than 250 focus groups and more than 60 national surveys on this topic alone. Bill’s health care clients include the American Hospital Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, the Kaiser Family Foundation, Pfizer, Inc., and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation His work on behalf of Health Insurance Association of America included conducting the message and advertising testing for their series of ‘Harry and Louise’ television commercials, called by Advertising Age “among the best conceived and executed public affairs advertising programs in history.” His prior experiences include ‘hands on’ campaign management experience at the local, congressional, and the presidential level. He also held senior positions with the Republican national party committees prior to entering the field of survey research. Bill is a frequently quoted source on the topic of American politics. He has appeared on Meet the Press, Face the Nation, Nightline, and CNN’s Inside Politics and national new magazines and a variety of major newspapers frequently quote him. Married, Bill lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children and coaches his sons in baseball and basketball.

John Podesta is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for American Progress. Podesta served as Chief of Staff to President William J. Clinton from October 1998 until January 2001, where he was responsible for directing, managing, and overseeing all policy development, daily operations, Congressional relations, and staff activities of the White House. He coordinated the work of cabinet agencies with a particular emphasis on the development of federal budget and tax policy, and served in the President’s Cabinet and as a Principal on the National Security Council. A frequent guest of Sunday morning news programs, Podesta is known for his straight talk, acerbic wit, and fierce defense of the Clinton Administration – which he also served from 1997 to 1998 as both an Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff. Earlier, from January 1993 to 1995, he was Assistant to the President, Staff Secretary and a senior policy adviser on government information, privacy, telecommunications security and regulatory policy. Podesta is currently a Visiting Professor of Law on the faculty of the Georgetown University Law Center, a position he also held from January 1995 to 1997. He has taught courses on technology policy, congressional investigations, legislation, copyright and public interest law. Podesta is considered one of Washington’s leading experts in technology policy, and has written a book, several articles and lectured extensively in these areas. Podesta has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill including: Counselor to Democratic Leader Senator Thomas A. Daschle (1995-1996); Chief Counsel for the Senate Agriculture Committee (1987-1988); Chief Minority Counsel for the Senate Judiciary Subcommittees on Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks; Security and Terrorism; and Regulatory Reform; and Counsel on the Majority Staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee (1979-1981). In addition, in 1988, Podesta founded with his brother Tony, Podesta Associates, Inc., a Washington, D.C. government relations and public affairs firm. A Chicago native, Podesta worked as a trial attorney in the Department of Justice’s Honors Program in the Land and Natural Resources Division (1976-1977), and as a Special Assistant to the Director of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency, (1978-1979). He has served as a member of the Council of the Administrative Conference of the United States, and the United States Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. Podesta is a 1976 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, and a 1971 graduate of Knox College.

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