President Obama sought out a hometown crowd Thursday for his message that has gotten little traction elsewhere recently — on the nation's slow but steady economic recovery.
Obama reminded his audience of Northwestern University business students and professors that his economic strategy would be on the ballot in the midterm election next month even if he wasn't, then argued that he has proven it creates jobs and boosts wages and has brought the economy back from the brink.
"This is going to be a central challenge of our time," he said. "We have to make our economy work for every working American. And every policy I pursue as president is aimed at answering that challenge."
For many Americans, the economic environment is bleak. Strengthening the economy is still the most important thing the administration can do to improve the country's future, Obama has told advisors and friends.
But the ups and downs of the economy have been overshadowed for weeks by urgent crises overseas. Obama's efforts to sandwich the topic into remarks about Islamic State terrorists and airstrikes in Syria drew notice only for their incongruity.
He tried again to draw attention to the domestic issue at Northwestern, outside his adopted home of Chicago, spooling out his familiar narrative about how far the economy has come since he entered office and where he hopes to take it.
"It's still the core reason he ran for president, to restore economic mobility," said a senior administration official who requested anonymity to speak candidly about White House thinking on the subject. "It's the idea at the heart of who we are."
Obama still wants to raise the minimum wage and promote investment in new energy technology, high-quality preschool, and research and development.
And he wants government stimulus — specifically investments in job-creating infrastructure projects such as new roads and bridges.
"Let's do this," he said repeatedly to the crowd. "Let's do this and make our economy stronger."
The speech was part of the president's effort to build the case that he has been a responsible steward of the American economy. Though that demands treading a fine line between projecting optimism and coming off as out of touch, his self-assessment mostly rings true, according to one analyst.
"We just emerged from the most severe recession in decades, and by every indicator, things are slowly turning around," said Matt Notowidigdo, associate professor of economics at Northwestern and a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research.
Although the economy tends to bounce back some after sharp declines, "part of it is clearly due to the policies that the Obama administration put in place," he said.
The fiscal stimulus packages Obama won early in his presidency probably had the most effect, Notowidigdo said.
But though the economy has made gains and companies are doing better, wage increases for average Americans have been more modest. Republicans point to that stagnation as a sign that Obama's policies aren't up to the challenge.
"Many have labeled this midterm election a referendum on the policies of President Obama," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in his own economic speech Thursday. "We oppose them because we know there's a better way." He called for free-market solutions to get the economy on track.
Some in the president's political base have sought even more discussion of the economy, not less, which would benefit Democrats up for reelection, said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
"Democrats who want to win will sound the trumpet of economic populism as loudly as they can in the final months of this election, despite the failure of national Democrats to do so," Green said.
Obama stood firmly behind the message he has sold for years.
"I'm going to keep making the argument for these policies because they are right for America," he said. "They are supported by the facts. And I'm always willing to work with anyone, Democrat or Republican, to get things done."