GALESBURG, Ill. – President Obama tried to steer the nation’s attention back to his stewardship of an improving economy with a high-profile speech that took credit for a comeback but warned against persistent “inequality of opportunity” and fights over the federal budget that could undo progress.
Speaking from a college gymnasium in this beleaguered town in western Illinois, Obama issued his sunniest description yet of the state of the economy and praised Americans’ “resilience” in the face of diminished income, a sluggish job market and a widening gap between rich and poor.
After years of being careful not to prematurely celebrate a recovery, Obama seemed ready to mark a moment.
“Now, five years after the start of that Great Recession, America has fought its way back,” Obama said. “As a country, we’ve recovered faster and gone further than most other advanced nations in the world.”
Economists agree the U.S. is gaining ground with resilient job growth and growing investor confidence. But a large share of the new jobs this year have come in lower-paying businesses, and analysts question whether the economy can sustain the rate of growth as the year wears on.
The speech, to be followed by another later Wednesday, offered broad, familiar themes, only hinting at specific policy actions to come. Obama said he would outline details in future remarks this week and vowed to use his executive authority whenever possible to override the Republican opposition that has thwarted much of his economic agenda for the last two years.
“But with an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball. And I am here to say this needs to stop," Obama said. “This moment does not require short-term thinking. It does not require having the same old stale debates.”
The speech was an attempt to revive a populist economic message that helped propel Obama to reelection but has recently faded from view, crowded out by months of unexpected and unwelcome news on other fronts. Controversial leak investigations, wariness about the economy, a stalled immigration bill and general public surliness directed at Washington have taken a toll on the president’s approval rating and blunted his brief postelection momentum.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday put Obama’s approval rating at 45%. The figure was Obama’s lowest in the survey since the dog days of August 2011, when Congress and Obama flirted with default in a showdown over raising the debt ceiling.
A replay of that fight may be on the horizon and Obama’s two-day economy tour is, in part, aimed at positioning the White House for the next go-round with Republicans on Capitol Hill. Congress will have to raise the debt limit this fall to allow the nation to pay its bills, and funding will need to be approved to keep the government running after Sept. 30. Obama is pushing lawmakers to restore money automatically cut from the budget after he and lawmakers could not agree on a deficit-reduction deal.
The White House says Obama will not negotiate with lawmakers over the debt ceiling again. And Obama’s remarks were laden with harsh attacks on a “faction” of Republicans in the House, while praising some Republican senators, his most likely first targets for outreach.
On the House floor Wednesday morning, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Obama should move the economic conversation along in part by agreeing to delay implementation of the 2010 healthcare law.
“If the president wants to help, he ought to approve the Keystone pipeline that has bipartisan support here in the House,” Boehner said. “He also ought to work with us in the bipartisan majority to delay the healthcare bill, to give the American people and their families and individuals the same break that he wants to give big businesses.”
“It’s a hollow shell,” he said of the Obama plan. “It’s an Easter egg with no candy in it.”
Obama, however, tried to keep his speech in Galesburg out of the political fray, aiming for the sweeping rhetoric he prefers to appeal to his liberal political base. The White House tried to distinguish the speech from other similar and failed attempts to refocus on the economy by staging it at Knox College, where Obama delivered his first major economic address as a new senator. The 2005 commencement address laid out themes and phrases Obama speechwriters recycled repeatedly, and the White House says the speech captures the first articulation of Obama’s economic views.
That speech, delivered during relatively good economic times, when the national unemployment rate was roughly 5%, discussed the plight of workers at a Maytag refrigerator plant in town whose jobs were moved to Mexico and the pressures of globalization. Obama offered an optimistic view of a new economy driven by green technologies, medical research and innovation.
“Ten or twenty years down the road, that old Maytag plant could reopen its doors as an ethanol refinery that turned corn into fuel. Down the street, a biotechnology research lab could open up on the cusp of discovering a cure for cancer," Obama said then.
Galesburg has not seen that projection come to life in the intervening years. The town’s unemployment rate of nearly 8% masks persistent underemployment and hardships. In the city of 32,000 people, nearly 23% of residents live below the poverty level, nearly 40% of those are under the age of 18. Nine years after the last 1,600 people were laid off from the Maytag plant, only 1,000 people in Galesburg work in manufacturing. The main street leading to the private liberal arts school is lined with weather-beaten homes, fast-food restaurants and dollar stores.
On Wednesday, Obama acknowledged the continued struggle of places like Galesburg.
“So in many ways, the trends that I spoke about here in 2005 – eight years ago – the trend of a winner-take-all economy where a few are doing better and better and better, while everybody else just treads water – those trends have been made worse by the recession,” he said. “This growing inequality is not just morally wrong, it’s bad economics.
The Maytag plant and its laid-off workers became regular characters in Obama’s 2008 campaign speeches, drawing criticism from some labor leaders who noted that Obama did little to intervene to save the plant and did not put pressure on a campaign donor who sat on the company’s board. At the time, the campaign said it was unaware of the donor’s connection to the company.
Obama declared the Maytag site an economic opportunity in waiting.
“So let’s tell the world that America is open for business,” he said, gesturing into the distance as if toward the shuttered plant. “I know there’s an old site right here in Galesburg, over on Monmouth Boulevard – let’s put some folks to work.”
“If Washington will just shake off its complacency and set aside the kind of slash-and-burn partisanship that we’ve just seen for way too long – if we just make some common-sense decisions, our economy will be stronger a year from now,” he said. “It will be stronger five years from now. It will be stronger 10 years from now.”
[For the Record, 1:57 p.m. PST July 24: An earlier version of this post quoted Obama from his planned remarks. Since the president deviated from those at several points in his speech, those quotes have been updated.]
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