Returning to the site of his first major economic address as a senator in 2005, President Obama outlined his top economic policy priorities for the remainder of his second term.
The president used his talk at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., dubbed "a better bargain for the middle class," to reflect on how the U.S. economy had deteriorated in the years before he took office, that it has made a partial recovery under his watch and that he intends to promote economic growth in the years to come.
"Thanks to the grit and resilience of the American people, we’ve cleared away the rubble from the financial crisis and begun to lay a new foundation for stronger, more durable economic growth," Obama said. "But — and here’s the but — I’m here today to tell you what you already know; we’re not there yet."
When the housing and credit card bubble burst in 2009, Obama said, "The decades-long erosion of middle-class security was laid bare for all to see and feel. Today, five years after the start of that Great Recession, America has fought its way back. We fought our way back."
During his address, the president identified several key plans of the economy he planned to shore up through an array of policies."Rebuilding our manufacturing base. Educating our workforce," he said. "Upgrading our transportation and information networks."
Even as the president described how he planned to bolster the nation's health-care system, infrastructure, schools and manufacturing sector, however, congressional Republicans attacked his agenda.
In a short floor speech Wednesday morning, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) described the speech as "a hollow shell, it’s an Easter Egg with no candy in it."
“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 health-care bill, to give the American people and their families and individuals the same break that he wants to give big businesses. And he ought to stop threatening to shut down the government unless we raise taxes. Because Americans aren’t asking the question ‘where are the speeches?’ – they’re asking ‘where are the jobs?’ ”
Obama took on Boehner and other House Republicans directly in the course of his remarks. Even as he praised some GOP senators for working with Democrats on issues such as immigration reform, he attacked House Republicans, saying they have been distracted by "phony scandals" and "won’t even give that [immigration] bill a vote."
"But I will not allow gridlock, inaction or willful indifference to get in our way," he said. "That means whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I’ll use it."
The president directly challenged Republicans to offer their own ideas for bolstering the middle class.
"What are your ideas?" he asked. "If you think you have a better plan for making sure every American has the security of quality, affordable health care, stop taking meaningless repeal votes and share your concrete ideas with the country."
Some of the initiatives Obama referenced, like the need to invest in infrastructure — "We’ve got more than 100,000 bridges that are old enough to qualify for Medicare," he said, prompting laughter — may gain some bipartisan support in Congress.
While his comments on education included a memorable line — "If you think education is expensive, wait until you see how much ignorance costs in the 21st century" — his pledge to guarantee a preschool education "to every 4-year-old in America" faces a formidable challenge given current opposition in Congress and the federal government's spending constraints.
The president got a roar of applause when he vowed, "I will keep making the case that we need to raise a minimum wage that in real terms is lower than it was when Ronald Reagan took office," but that initiative, too, is not likely to make it into law before his term ends.
In some instances, Obama said, he could act alone to address some of America's economic challenges, by cutting "red tape for responsible families who want to get a mortgage, but the bank says no."
And he hinted that he would offer some new ideas on issues such as constraining the escalating costs of higher education, saying he would soon outline "an aggressive strategy to shake up the system, tackle rising costs and improve value for middle-class students and their families."
In the end, Obama warned, America faces a choice: "If we just stand by and do nothing in the face of immense change, understand that an essential part of our character will be lost."