The hour-long speech broke little policy ground but introduced a less-restrained Obama ahead of a major economic debate this fall over the federal budget and the best way to ensure sustained growth.
“The stakes for our middle class could not be higher,” Obama told an audience of several hundred at Knox College, a small liberal arts school here that he visited in 2005 as a new U.S. senator.
“The countries that are passive in the face of a global economy will lose the competition for good jobs and high living standards,” he continued. “That’s why America has to make the investments necessary to promote long-term growth and shared prosperity.”
The event here Wednesday was the first in a series of speeches that Obama plans to deliver over the next two months on the economic challenges facing the country, advisers said. The president is seeking to shape the debate over budget priorities — his own and the Republican opposition’s — before a divided Congress takes up spending bills this fall.
White House advisers see the budget debate as Obama’s last chance to end the deep, across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration before Democrats try to recapture full control of Congress next year — a long shot by most estimates. The government will shut down on Sept. 30 without passage of a new measure to fund operations, while Congress will need to raise the federal limit on borrowing by early November or risk default on the national debt.
Obama and the Republicans remain far apart on what they want to happen in the fall. The debate promises to once again pit Obama’s vision of government investment in the economy, funded by higher taxes on the wealthy, against the Republican view that sharp reductions in federal spending and the elimination of programs like the health-care overhaul will boost jobs and growth.
The president attempted to begin framing that debate Wednesday, echoing the central message of his reelection campaign against Republican Mitt Romney, a former governor and wealthy businessman whom Obama had portrayed as out of touch with the middle class. Obama is now casting House Republicans in a similar role — an approach that may do more to anger than persuade them.
“I will not allow gridlock, inaction or willful indifference to get in our way,” he said at Knox College, to rousing applause. “Whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I’ll use it.”
Republicans immediately mocked Obama’s remarks as a tired partisan attack from a president whose previous speeches have achieved little.