WARRENSBURG, Mo. — President Barack Obama vowed Wednesday to use “every minute, every second” of the rest of his second term to boost the middle class, even as he took Republicans to task, arguing that an “endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals” has taken Washington’s eye off the economy.
In a pair of back-to-back speeches in Warrensburg and in Illinois that the White House hopes will turn the page to the economy, Obama sought to lay out his vision for restoring the middle class to prosperity, saying Washington needs to reverse trends that have been decades in the making.
“If we don’t make the investments, we will be waving the white flag,” Obama told an audience of 1,700 crammed into a stuffy gymnasium on the campus of the University of Central Missouri. “If we just stand by and do nothing, we’re saying it’s OK for middle-class folks to keep taking it on the chin.”
Obama said the economy has begun to recover under his watch, and he called for working with lawmakers, even as he warned against political bickering, saying Republican opposition has hurt the fragile recovery.
“It may seem hard today, but if we are willing to take a few bold steps – if Washington will just shake off its complacency and set aside the kind of slash-and-burn partisanship we’ve seen these past few years – our economy will be stronger a year from now,” Obama said.
Compromise seemed unlikely. Republicans assailed the speech as a waste of time and effort before the president delivered his remarks, with House Speaker John Boehner questioning its purpose.
“Americans aren’t asking the question, ‘Where are the speeches?’” Boehner said. “They’re asking ‘Where are the jobs?’”
The speeches come as the White House hopes to push the reset button on Obama’s second term, which six months in has been marked by a series of domestic and foreign policy crises.
His job approval ratings have fallen amid a tepid recovery, rising gasoline prices and revelations about domestic spying and the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservatives. En route to Illinois, the first question to Press Secretary Jay Carney was the status of National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Obama’s agenda has also had a rough time: Its push for tougher gun laws failed in the Senate and an effort to overhaul the immigration system is languishing in the House.
“Hello Warrensburg!” shouted the president, coatless and with his shirtsleeves rolled up, when he arrived in Missouri late in the day. Few protesters were visible around the campus, about 60 miles east of Kansas City. Signs and posters along the streets welcomed Obama, as did spectators who lined the motorcade route into the city.
Homer Fullove of Excelsior Springs, Mo., said he traveled more than an hour to hear the president speak, in part because of his historic importance.
“He was a breakthrough for minorities,” Fullove said.
Obama said he would not repeat all of what he said earlier in Galesburg, Ill., but then restated his concerns about the decline of the middle class, which he blamed on technology and too many benefits for upper income earners.
He argued for a long-term look at the economy, arguing that growing inequality is making it tougher for the middle class. He noted some threats began before the fiscal crisis, with technology rendering some jobs obsolete and competition sending many overseas. And in Washington, he said, lawmakers “doled out bigger tax cuts to the rich and smaller minimum wage increases for the working poor.”
Reversing the trends, Obama said, was his “highest priority. “
He touted his record, saying five years after the start of the recession, “America has fought its way back.” But, that although businesses are creating jobs and reporting record profits, nearly all the income gains in the past decade have gone to the richest 1 percent of the population.
“Unfortunately, over the past couple of years in particular, Washington hasn’t just ignored the problem; too often, it’s made things worse,” Obama said.
He offered no specifics but said it’s time to think beyond the next budget cycle.
“The key is to break through the tendency in Washington to careen from crisis to crisis,” the president said. “What we need isn’t a three-month plan or even a three-year plan, but a long-term American strategy based on a steady, persistent effort to reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades.”
The speech came months before Obama and congressional leaders are likely to tangle over raising the debt ceiling. Obama offered few olive branches to congressional Republicans, who want to use an increase in the debt limit as a vehicle for more spending cuts.
He warned against a repeat of the 2011 debt ceiling debacle – when Republicans pushed for spending cuts – saying “that fiasco harmed a fragile recovery in 2011 and we can’t afford to repeat that.”
Republicans accused Obama of using the speech to make a pitch for more spending, and Obama made it clear he’ll continue to push for some ideas he championed on the campaign trail last year and during his State of the Union address earlier this year, including preschool for every 4-year old, as well as building new roads and bridges.
“As Washington prepares to enter another budget debate, the stakes for our middle class could not be higher,” he said. “The countries that are passive in the face of a global economy will lose the competition for good jobs and high living standards.”
He lambasted Republicans for the automatic series of federal spending cuts known as the sequester, saying they’ve “insisted on leaving in place a meat cleaver” that he said has cost jobs, hampered growth and gutted investment in education and research.
Obama offered few new specifics but said he’d do so in the next several weeks, including a stop Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla. He said some of the ideas will require congressional approval, others he said he can do on his own.
Obama said he’d work with Republicans “wherever I can,” though his legislative efforts have gotten little traction with House Republicans, in particular.
He pledged to work around them by enlisting outsiders, citing business leaders, philanthropists, college presidents – “anybody who can help.”
“I will not allow gridlock, inaction, or willful indifference to get in our way,” he said to applause.
Clark reported from Washington. Helling reports for the Kansas City Star. Email:email@example.com;firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter@lesleyclark