CHICAGO — President Obama highlighted the plight of America’s urban working class at a raucous high school gymnasium in his home town Friday, telling an audience dominated by students and teachers that “we need to build ladders of opportunity for anybody willing to climb them.”
Speaking at Hyde Park Academy on the city’s South Side, Obama reiterated themes of economic opportunity laid out earlier in the week in his annual State of the Union address, calling for the creation of what aides called “promise zones” to encourage investment and education in the rougher parts of the nation’s communities.
Obama also spoke in personal terms about his experience as the son of a single mother in stressing the importance of family and community.
“We’ve got single moms out here; they’re heroic in what they’re doing and we are so proud of them,” Obama told students at the public high school, which dates to 1863. “But at the same time, I wish I had had a father who was around and involved.”
The remarks, delivered to an ebullient, mostly African American audience, also included a sharp warning that gun violence must decline for students to survive in neighborhoods such as the one surrounding the academy of about 1,800 students.
Last weekend, first lady Michelle Obama traveled to Chicago for the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton, 15, a baton twirler who marched as part of her school’s majorette corps in Obama’s inaugural activities last month.
She was killed in a shooting little more than a week later, and her parents joined the first lady Tuesday night as her guests for the State of the Union address. They also attended Friday’s Chicago event.
“Unfortunately, what happened to Hadiya is not unique — it’s not unique to Chicago; it’s not unique to the country,” Obama said. “Too many of our children are being taken from us.”
Since the December mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School were killed, Obama has pushed a gun-control agenda that includes renewing a ban on assault weapons, banning high-capacity magazines and requiring a background check on anyone purchasing a firearm, including at gun shows.
While he began his address with a discussion of gun control, the broader goal of Obama’s visit was to pitch the economic proposals that form the core of the agenda he laid out to Congress earlier in the week. He urged lawmakers to raise the minimum wage to $9 over the next three years and to increase spending on education, improve inner-city housing and better protect neighborhoods from violence.
Obama said that rebuilding economies in neighborhoods such as the South Side — where Obama once worked as a community organizer — requires more than just gun control.
One example, he said, was spending more on pre-kindergarten education for all children, which he said pays back “huge dividends” in better jobs and less government dependence. He also made clear that promoting marriage, community youth programs and protecting students from violence are inseparable from his broader strategy of promoting economic growth.
Obama’s trip to his home town, his first since a jubilant election night last year, concluded a three-day outside-the-Beltway tour that he has used to sell various elements of his agenda. It was both a celebratory and a sober homecoming.
“This is my old neighborhood, this is where Michelle and I met, where we fell in love,” Obama said to a chorus of “ahhs” from the audience.
“And,” he continued in a more somber tone, “that’s really what I’ve come here to talk about today, raising our kids.”
Obama departed after his appearance here for a weekend golf vacation with friends — but not family — at an exclusive compound near Palm Beach, Fla. Michelle Obama and the couple’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, will take their annual ski vacation in Aspen, Colo.
The president’s getaway served to mark the end of an important early phase of his second term, beginning with a deadline over automatic tax hikes and spending cuts and continuing through his State of the Union speech.
Obama concluded his speech here by talking about Hadiya Pendleton’s recent visit to Washington, where she and her classmates visited the monuments, including the one commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He said King’s memorial is “a testament not to work that is completed, but to the work that remains unfinished.”
“His goal was not only to free us from the shackles of discrimination, but from the shadow of poverty that plagues too much of our country,” Obama said. He called for common cause in promoting his proposals, saying, “I cannot do it by myself.”
“We are going to have to do it together,” he said.
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