GALESBURG, Ill. — President Obama tried to move past months of debate over guns, surveillance, and scandal Wednesday and reorient his administration behind a program to lift a middling economy and help middle-class Americans who are stuck with stagnant incomes and shrinking horizons.
Returning to the site of his first major economic speech as a young senator eight years ago, Obama lamented that typical Americans had been left behind by globalization, Wall Street irresponsibility, and Washington policies, while the richest Americans had accumulated more wealth.
He declared it “my highest priority” to reverse those trends, while accusing other politicians of not only ignoring the problem but of making it worse.
“With this endless parade of distractions and political posturing and phony scandals, Washington’s taken its eye off the ball,” Obama told an audience at Knox College. “And I am here to say this needs to stop. This needs to stop. This moment does not require short-term thinking, and it does not require having the same old stale debates. Our focus must be on the basic economic issues that matter most to you — the people we represent.”
The president mainly offered revived elements of his largely stalled economic program, including developing new energy, rebuilding manufacturing, spending more on roads, bridges and ports, expanding preschool to every 4-year-old, and raising the minimum wage.
But he and his aides hoped to use the speech both to claim credit for the progress made since the recession of 2008-09 and to position himself as the champion of a disaffected middle class that has yet to recover fully.
He chastised Republicans in Congress for not focusing on economic priorities and obstructing his initiatives.
“Over the last six months, this gridlock has gotten worse,” he said.
And he challenged them to come up with their own plans.
“I am laying out my ideas to give the middle class a better shot,” he said, addressing himself to Republican leaders. “Now it’s time for you to lay out yours.”
Republican leaders were not impressed. Speaker John A. Boehner said before the speech that it would not make a difference.
“What’s it going to accomplish?” he asked on the floor in Washington. “You’ve probably got the answer: nothing. It’s a hollow shell. It’s an Easter egg with no candy in it.”
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, said Obama’s speech would just be partisan rhetoric.
“With all the buildup, you’d think the president was unveiling the next Bond film or something,” he said before the speech. “But in all likelihood it will be more like a midday rerun of some ’70s B movie. Because we’ve heard it all before. It’s old.”
Obama acknowledged before the speech that it would not “change any minds,” nor would it outline new proposals. Any new ideas will come in a series of other speeches in the weeks to come.
But Obama and his aides have billed his second Knox College speech as an important milestone in the president’s tenure on the national political stage.
They said they hope it will reset a national economic debate that had become too mired in the bitter clashes between the parties in Congress.
The Knox College speech was the president’s first stop Wednesday. He also traveled to the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg for a second speech before returning to the White House in the evening.
On Thursday, Obama is scheduled to travel to Jacksonville, Fla., where he will continue to discuss his economic vision at the Port Authority there.
The president has long pushed for renewed federal investment in infrastructure, including ports, as a way of helping to kickstart the economy.
Senior advisers to the president said he frequently refers back to his first speech at Knox College in 2005, long before the economic crisis that seized the country three years later. They said Obama was eager to discuss how much has changed in the nation’s economy since that first speech.
“Now, today, five years after the start of that Great Recession, America has fought its way back,” he said, citing the recovery of the auto industry, growth in energy sectors, higher taxes on the wealthy, new regulation on banks and 7.2 million more private sector jobs. “Thanks to the grit and resilience and determination of the American people, of folks like you, we’ve been able to clear away the rubble from the financial crisis. We’ve started to lay a new foundation for stronger, more durable economic growth.”
But he said too many Americans had been left behind.
Obama said nearly all of the income gains of the past 10 years have gone to the richest 1 percent of Americans and said the average chief executive has seen raises totaling 40 percent since 2009 while the average American earns less than in 1999.
“This growing inequality, it’s not just morally wrong; it’s bad economics,” he said. “Because when middle-class families have less to spend, guess what? Businesses have fewer consumers. When wealth concentrates at the very top, it can inflate unstable bubbles that threaten the economy. When the rungs on the ladder of opportunity grow farther and farther apart, it undermines the very essence of America, that idea that if you work hard, you can make it here.”
But Obama gave little sense of how he would change that beyond giving more speeches in the next few weeks if he cannot win more cooperation from Congress.
“I will not allow gridlock or 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. Where I can’t act on my own, and Congress isn’t cooperating, I’ll pick up the phone and call CEOs, I’ll call philanthropists, I’ll call college presidents, I’ll call anybody who can help.”