Obama in Warrensburg: A pep rally for the middle class?

July 25, 2013

WARRENSBURG, Mo. — President Obama’s first speech Wednesday on the economy and the middle class, delivered at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., got most of the attention of the national media.

Some criticized it for being long on rhetoric and short on specifics, a repeat of his 2012 campaign, but the president offered some interesting details during his second talk later Wednesday when he explained why he’d chosen to visit this college town 60 miles southeast of Kansas City.

President Oback Obama goes over his economic plans for the middle class at a speech at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. (Diana Reese for The Washington Post)
President Barack Obama goes over his economic plans for the middle class at a speech at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. (Diana Reese for The Washington Post)

Cutting college costs is one of the keys to helping the middle class economically, Obama emphasized, and a “visionary” program at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg does that. The Missouri Innovation Campus is an accelerated computer science and engineering program that allows high school students to earn an associate’s degree at the same time they graduate from high school. That leaves just two years at the University of Central Missouri to finish their bachelor’s degrees, reducing their debt and allowing them to start work sooner.

The Missouri Innovation Campus, which Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called “a model for the nation,” involves a partnership between UCM, Lee’s Summit R-7 School District (a suburb of Kansas City) and local computer, engineering and health care firms that provide internships and help underwrite the cost of training.

The program is designed “to equip students with better skills, to graduate faster and with less debt and with the certainty of a good job at the other end,” Obama said.

“Certainty.” That word bothers me, especially after I saw DST listed as one of the corporate partners in the program. DST is the Kansas City-based company which provides information processing and computer software services for the financial services industry — and it’s a company that has outsourced computer jobs overseas while laying off some 7 percent of its workforce. Those layoffs in 2010 affected around 760 people, including one relative of mine and several friends. One computer programmer from DST I know still hasn’t found a job three years later.

Obama said he wanted to prepare “our workers for the global competition you’re going to face.” But I’m not sure the problem lies in training our students but rather in encouraging businesses to keep more jobs in this country. That, of course, can cost more in wages and reduces profits. I’m not an economist; I don’t know the answer. I’ve just seen the human cost in what layoffs do to families.

The president seems to empathize with that human cost when he expounded on the economy’s impact on middle class families. He pointed out in Galesburg that when he delivered the commencement speech at Knox College in 2005, a number of workers had lost their jobs in manufacturing because Maytag had moved its manufacturing operation to Mexico.

I don’t see the same publicity given to white collar jobs, like computer programming, that have been moved overseas. In fact, 16 months ago, when I wrote my first post for She the People, I complained that Washington was more interested in the debate over federal funding for birth control than in job creation.

Obama is determined to move the attention to the economy and the middle class. With 1,276 (now down to 1,275) days left in his administration, he’s launched an eight-week series of speeches to garner grass-roots support for economic policies aimed at growing the economy “from the middle out” rather than the top down.

Many of us in the middle class have experienced that “erosion” he talked about: “The income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, but the typical family’s incomes barely budged,” he said, both in Galesburg and Warrensburg. “And the decades-long erosion that had been taking place, the erosion of middle-class security, was suddenly laid bare for everybody to see.”

He found plenty of support in Warrensburg, where he spoke to a crowd estimated at 2,500 by the local newspaper. They’d waited for hours outside in the July heat; once inside, it was a standing room only crowd, but the sweltering temperature in the gym didn’t stop the crowd’s enthusiasm as they applauded numerous times during the 31-minute long speech.

President Barack Obama spoke with supporters after giving a speech in Warrensburg, Mo. (Diana Reese for The Washington Post)
President Barack Obama spoke with supporters after giving a speech in Warrensburg, Mo. (Diana Reese for The Washington Post)

Can grass-roots support solve the problem of gridlock in Washington? Probably not, unless support for the president’s policies affect the mid-term elections enough to change the membership of the House. Otherwise, it will take bipartisan support to fix the problems plaguing the middle class; both sides need to listen to the other and to have some respect, and I’m not sure that’s possible.

As I was trying to leave the building where Obama spoke, I asked directions from Tami Dahman, a member of the custodial staff. Then I asked if she’d had the opportunity to see any of the president’s speech.

Yes, she’d sneaked in for a minute or two, and a friend had taken some photos for her.

What did she think of Obama visiting Warrensburg? “I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, if you have the chance to see the president, it’s your American duty to do so,” she told me proudly.

Too bad Washington doesn’t share some of her pride and bipartisan feelings.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan.

 

 

 

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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