The Washington Post

Obama seeks to put economy, middle class back in spotlight

President Obama will deliver a series of speeches this week designed to push the economy, and his proposals to ensure its long-term growth, toward the center of the national political debate after months of focus on other issues.

White House officials described the effort Sunday as a way for the president to revisit some of the economic themes he has spoken about since his early days in the U.S. Senate and to outline how he intends to appeal to Congress and the public to secure his goals in the months ahead.

Obama will seek to remind the country, beginning with this week’s three scheduled speeches over two days, that the middle class remains imperiled by the lack of progress in Congress on his proposed job-creating measures and by Republican fiscal priorities. The push is meant to frame the debate around his economic agenda in the remaining summer months before Congress takes up some of his budget proposals this fall.

“The president thinks Washington has largely taken its eye off the ball on the most important issue facing the country,” senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer wrote in a mass e-mail Sunday that described the White House’s focus on the economy in the weeks ahead.

“Instead of talking about how to help the middle class, too many in Congress are trying to score political points, refight old battles, and trump up phony scandals,” he continued. “And in a couple of months, we will face some more critical budget deadlines that require Congressional action, not showdowns that only serve to harm families and businesses — and the President wants to talk about the issues that should be at the core of that debate.”

Since the start of his second term, Obama has spent much of his political energy working to avert a new fiscal crisis with Republicans and attempting, but failing, to win tighter gun-control measures in Congress.

Improving the economy — one of the chief reasons for his election and among the most difficult challenges he has faced in office — has faded as an issue in Washington amid steady if unspectacular job gains and modest economic growth. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in May found that 56 percent of Americans think the economy is improving, the highest number to say so since early 2009.

Obama won reelection in large part on a message of economic populism — a promise to protect the middle class from what he described as potentially harmful tax and budget policies promoted by Republicans.

He devoted much of the first State of the Union address of his second term to the same theme, describing the importance of the government’s role in training the next generation of workers for a new economy; building and improving airports, roads and trading hubs; and making college affordable for more Americans. But his agenda has faced stiff opposition in Congress, particularly in the Republican-controlled House.

During his travel this week to Illinois, Missouri and Florida, Obama will try to elevate the issue at a time when immigration legislation and foreign policy challenges in the Middle East are defining Washington’s political debate.

White House officials said the three speeches will not offer new proposals or approaches, including the use of executive actions to sidestep congressional opposition. Instead, officials said, Obama will outline in broad terms his view of the economic debate ahead.

More-specific speeches — on college affordability, federal spending on education and road-building, efforts to promote manufacturing, and health care — will follow in the coming weeks.

“We welcome the president’s focus on the economy,” Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said Sunday. “But given that so many are still struggling after nearly five years it’s clear his agenda of higher taxes and higher spending isn’t the answer.”

Obama plans to begin with a speech Wednesday at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., a campus he visited as a new U.S. senator in June 2005 to deliver its commencement address.

The White House posted video excerpts from that speech on YouTube on Sunday evening, and administration officials said the president is likely to echo the warnings he issued eight years ago about how economic changes were threatening the middle class.

Some of those shifts, he said at the time, were inevitable results of globalization and technological changes that made it easier to move jobs in factories and service industries overseas.

But Obama also used the speech to sharply criticize the tax-cutting policies of the George W. Bush administration, saying that the Republicans’ “best idea is to give everyone one big refund on their government — divvy it up by individual portions, in the form of tax breaks, hand it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their own health care, their own retirement plan, their own child care, their own education, and so on.”

“In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society,” Obama said. “But in our past there has been another term for it — ‘social Darwinism’ — every man or woman for him or herself.”

Obama used the same term in the middle of his reelection campaign last year, calling the Republican budget proposal “social Darwinism” for the cuts it proposed to Medicare and other government programs to address the yawning budget deficit.

Obama’s plan to revisit Knox College to inaugurate his latest economic push suggests there may be a populist edge to his approach, echoing the tone and substance of his speech in December 2011 in Osawatomie, Kan., which previewed his middle-class message during the campaign.

After his Knox College speech, the president will travel to Warrensburg, Mo., to deliver largely the same remarks at the University of Central Missouri. On Thursday, he heads to Jacksonville, Fla., to speak at the port there.

Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.

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