CHICAGO - Launching a series of speeches on the economy at Knox College in Gatesburg, Ill. yesterday, President Obama - whether by calling for raising the minimum wage or by describing an America where universal pre-school would be taken for granted - laid out his vision for the future, exposing Republicans as near-sighted and small-minded by comparison.
The president was returning to the college yesterday, the place where he had come to deliver the commencement address for the class of 2005. It was his first major speech back then after having been newly elected as a U.S. senator from Illinois.
The president framed the economic tasks ahead of the country as one of fixing structural problems that go well beyond the current financial crisis which, he said, was only exacerbating fundamental problems that have been going on for decades. He framed the battle ahead as one that would have to "reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle-class for decades - that has to be our project.
"Even though our businesses are creating new jobs and have broken record profits, nearly all the income gains of the past 10 years have continued to flow to the top one percent," Obama declared. "The average CEO has gotten a raise of nearly 40 percent since 2009, but the average American earns less than he or she did in 1999. And companies continue to hold back on hiring those who have been out of work for some time."
Obama made a strong case for his belief that such inequality is more than just "morally wrong," but that it is also, on a practical level, "bad economics."
"When middleclass families have less to spend," the president explained, "businesses have fewer customers. 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 further apart, it undermines the very essence of the country."
The president argued that strengthening the middle class would require many things, not the least of which was a higher minimum wage and higher wages generally. His list included affordable education for all, government created jobs to fix infrastructure, massive worker training programs, universal broadband, and mortgage refinancing, among other things.
The speech drew a sharp contrast with Republican policies, centered as they are around trumped-up political scandals, spending cuts and phony debt ceiling crises.
"If you ask some of these Republicans about their economic agenda, or how they'd strengthen the middle class, they'll shift the topic to 'out of control' government spending. Short term thinking and stale debates are not what this moment requires," Obama said. "I say to these members of Congress: I am laying out my ideas to give the middle class a better shot. Now it's time for you to lay out yours."
Obama is seen, because of yesterday's speech, as rising above the fray as Republicans continue their insistence on more budget cuts in advance of the fall, the time for the next budget and debt-ceiling battle. Economists have already said that Republican threats to shut down the government in several months pose an immediate threat to the economy.
"They want to shut government down, I want to make it work for you," the president said to sustained applause yesterday.
"Repealing Obamacare and cutting food stamps is not an economic program," the president said at another point, again to sustained applause.
The Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, tried to brush off Obama's speech yesterday. "Americans aren't looking for more speeches," he said. "They're looking for jobs."
"Don't believe any Republican when he tells you he is concerned about jobs," said Sara Williams, a cashier at a Bridgeport supermarket here. "When they got in all over the country in 2010, after campaigning for jobs, they showed that all they really cared about was attacking a woman's right to choose."
Photo: President Obama speaks at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois on July 24. Susan Walsh/AP