By Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY
GALESBURG, Ill. - President Obama on Wednesday blasted Republicans for an "endless parade of distractions" and called on Congress to to work with him to buck up the country's lackluster economy.
The speech was billed by the White House as a major economic address that the president intended to use as part of a sustained campaign to shift Washington's focus to the economy.
Obama declared that the U.S. economy has "made it through the worst of yesterday's winds" but he lamented that average Americans are being left behind.
The president decided to take to the bully pulpit after several months in which his administration has been forced to deal with the fallout of natural disasters, a failed push to tighten gun laws and a barrage of criticism from Republicans over the targeting of political non-profit groups by the Internal Revenue Service and the aftermath of the deadly attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, last year.
"Short-term thinking and stale debates are not what this moment requires," Obama said. "Our focus must be on the basic economic issues that matter most to you - the people we represent."
Before Obama even delivered his remarks, House Speaker John Boehner called the president's effort "a hollow shell, it's an Easter egg with no candy in it."
"All right, so exactly what will change?" Boehner said in remarks on the House floor Wednesday morning. " What's the point? What's it going to accomplish? You've probably got the answer: nothing."
While the economy has significantly improved over the course of his presidency, nationally unemployment stands at 7.6%, and poll numbers suggest that relative economic stability has not translated into a feeling of security about the president's policies.
Forty-five percent of Americans approve of Obama's handling of economic issues, while 49% disapprove, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll published earlier this month.
The White House has downplayed the importance of the polls, but aides ahead of the speech acknowledged that Obama has become frustrated with Republicans in Washington focused on scandals and overturning the president's health care law.
"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 - despite the fact that we have cut the deficit by nearly half as a share of the economy since I took office," Obama said.
Obama said that Washington isn't doing enough to address the struggles of the middle class. He also noted that while businesses have emerged from the Great Recessionsome even breaking profit records-- nearly all the income gains of the past 10 years have continued to flow to the top 1% of earners.
"The average CEO has gotten a raise of nearly 40% since 2009, but the average American earns less than he or she did in 1999," Obama said. "And companies continue to hold back on hiring those who have been out of work for some time."
Obama chose the campus of Knox College here in Galesburg as the site of the speech because of his own personal connection to the area, which hosted the Lincoln-Douglass debate and is the birthplace of the writer Carl Sandburg.
He delivered his first major economic speech as a freshman senator at Knox and he has spoken repeatedly of Galesburg which has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs over the last decade as a community whose struggles exemplify the economic pressure on the Middle Class throughout the country.
Obama spoke in broad brushstrokes and didn't offer any new proposals. But he will amplify the remarks with speeches in Warrensburg, Mo., later on Wednesday, and the port of Jacksonville, Fla., on Thursday, where he'll focus on the nation's infrastructure difficulties.
"We've got ports that aren't ready for the new supertankers that will begin passing through the new Panama Canal in two years' time," Obama said. "We've got more than 100,000 bridges that are old enough to qualify for Medicare.
Later in the day, Obama will speak at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, and White House spokesman Jay Carney said he is expected to talk in some detail about the Missouri Innovation Campus, a program at the university that integrates on-the-job training into its curriculum.
In the coming weeks, Obama will deliver more narrowly tailored speeches in Washington and throughout the country spelling out proposals -- some old, some new -- on issues such as college affordability, jobs, housing, health care and retirement that he believes can help bolster the economy.
The effort to refocus the national conversation also comes with key budget deadlines looming. A new fiscal year begins in October, and the government will soon hit its borrowing limit. Obama wants to end the federal budget cuts that kicked in earlier this year known as the sequester.
"Over the last six months, this gridlock has gotten worse," Obama said. "I didn't think that was possible."
Boehner repeated on Tuesday that more cuts in federal spending must come in exchange for Congress approving an increase in the debt ceiling. That's a deal Obama says he will not make.