Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Obama focuses Illinois speech
on helping middle class recover

By Jamey Dunn

GALESBURG  —  President Barack Obama kicked off a speaking tour today meant to shift focus to economic issues in Galesburg, which has had its own economic ups and downs in recent years.

Obama delivered his speech at Knox College, a private school that he visited eight years ago as a U.S. senator. The White House played up the history as the president coming full circle on his push to strengthen the middle class. And the middle class was clearly the target for the president’s speech.

“So eight years ago, I came here to deliver the commencement address for the class of 2005. Now, things were a little different back then. For example, I had no gray hair or a motorcade. Didn't even have a (tele)prompter. In fact, there was a problem in terms of printing out the speech because the printer didn't work here, and we had to drive it in from somewhere. But it was my first big speech as your newest senator,” Obama recalled. “And I came here to talk about what a changing economy was doing to the middle class and what we as a country needed to do to give every American a chance to get ahead in the 21st century.”

Today, Obama focused on the insecurity that many in the middle class feel as jobs have disappeared in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. “In the period after World War II, a growing middle class was the engine of our prosperity. Whether you owned a company or swept its floors or worked anywhere in between, this country offered you a basic bargain, a sense that your hard work would be rewarded with fair wages and decent benefits, the chance to buy a home, to save for retirement, and most of all, a chance to hand down a better life for your kids,” Obama said. “But over time, that engine began to stall, and a lot of folks here saw it. That bargain began to fray.”

He also painted a picture of what he described as growing inequity and a declining opportunity for Americans to improve their economic standing. “So the income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, but the typical family's incomes barely budged. And towards the end of those three decades, a housing bubble, credit cards, a churning financial sector was keeping the economy artificially juiced up, so sometimes it papered over some of these long-term trends,” he said. “But by the time I took office in 2009 as your president, we all know the bubble had burst. And it cost millions of Americans their jobs and their homes and their savings. And I know a lot of folks in this area were hurt pretty bad. And the decades-long erosion that had been taking place, the erosion of middle-class security, was suddenly laid bare for everybody to see.”

While the economy in Illinois has slowly improved since that bubble burst, at 9.2 percent, the state’s unemployment rate is higher than the national rate of 7.6 percent. The Flash Index, an economic indicator produced by the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, reached its highest level in May since 2007. “While the economy continues its long, slow recovery, there appears to be considerable optimism that growth will continue and accelerate during the last half of 2013 and into 2014,” said economist J. Fred Giertz of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs. Knox County’s unemployment rate is lower than it has been in recent years. In May the county rate was 7.7 percent. Even before the recession, the county’s unemployment rate was higher than much of the rest of the state. In January 2004, it was 9.4 percent. It peaked in January 2010 at 12.1 percent.

Children play in the street as they wait for the president's motorcade to pass.
The declining unemployment rate implies that things may be improving in the Galesburg area, but  people who live here say many are underemployed. “There’s a lot of people working two different jobs and that. They’re just surviving on those jobs. They’re menial jobs. We heard young people that say, well, they were probably fortunate that they got a job at McDonald's. ... There’s a lot of them that can’t find work,” said Donovan Tucker, a retired Galesburg resident. Tucker worked as a senior design draftsman in the product engineering department at the Maytag plant, which was closed in 2004. The work went to a new plant in Mexico. Before the closure, Maytag was the biggest employer in Galesburg. More than 1,000 jobs were lost, but a study from Western Illinois University estimated that the economic impact of the closure cost the area more than four times that many jobs. Tucker remembers when then-state Sen. Obama addressed plant workers in Galesburg. Obama went on to tell the stories of Maytag workers in his stump speech while running for the U.S. Senate. However, the workers’ union was critical of his fundraising ties to top Maytag investors and ended up backing Hilary Clinton in the 2008 presidential primary. 

Tucker, thinking back to his time at the plant, said, “I saw a lot of changes out there over the years.” He said he was shocked when Maytag moved the jobs to Mexico. “I woke up a lot of mornings thinking. ‘Was that a nightmare or what?’”

Local politicians say Galesburg was the appropriate stage for Obama to start his economic tour. “Galesburg was the right place to deliver this. His whole message is that we need to do something to really stabilize the middle class because that’s the future of America. He laid out an aggressive program,” said Peoria Democratic state Sen. David Koehler. “I think what’s new and different is his sense of urgency. He knows that he has no more elections; he’s got a little more than 1,200 days left in his presidency. Certain things he’s going to do as president that he can do, but he also has to reach out and work with Congress. So I think this is really an appeal to the Republican moderates as well as his own party, the Democrats, to roll up their sleeves and really get something done.”

Obama focused on four things that he said are cornerstones of a solid middle class: job growth, access to education, home ownership and secure retirement. While the president appears to be positioning the economy squarely in the center of his agenda, he said that other issues are still on his to-do list. “Now, of course, we'll keep pressing on other key priorities. I want to get this immigration bill done. We still need to work on reducing gun violence. We've got to continue to end the war in Afghanistan, rebalance our fight against al-Qaida. We need to combat climate change. We've got to stand up for civil rights. We've got to stand up for women's rights,” he said. “So all those issues are important, and we'll be fighting on every one of those issues. But if we don't have a growing, thriving middle class, then we won't have the resources to solve a lot of these problems. We don't have the resolve, the optimism, sense of unity that we need to solve many of these other issues.”

Ryan Hickey, who is from Galesburg and will start his sophomore year at Millikin University in Decatur in the fall, said he was glad that the president addressed the growing cost of higher education. Hickey, who sang the national anthem before the president’s speech, is studying acting. He said that Obama’s call to raise the minimum wage could help him if he ends up waiting tables before he gets his big break. “The points that he hit were, I think, what our country needs right now.”

Obama called for an end to the partisan gridlock in Congress and said he planned to use his executive powers to do what he could to put his agenda in place. “Now, in this effort, I will look to work with Republicans as well as Democrats wherever I can. And I sincerely believe that there are members of both parties who understand this moment, understand what's at stake, and I will welcome ideas from anybody across the political spectrum. But 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. I'll call CEOs. I'll call philanthropists. I'll call college presidents. I'll call labor leaders, I'll call anybody who can help and enlist them in our efforts because the choices that we, the people, make right now will determine whether or not every American has a fighting chance in the 21st century.”

 U.S. House Republicans from Illinois, however, were not moved by the speech. “Today, President Obama made his 19th pivot back to what has always been most important to Americans, jobs and the economy. With its 9.2 percent unemployment rate, full-blown budget crisis and sky-high taxes, our shared home state of Illinois is an example of government making all the wrong economic choices. However, no amount of presidential pivots and speech making will change the fact that too many Illinoisans are out of work. It doesn’t have to be this way,” said a written statement from Rep. Peter Roskam, Rep. Rodney Davis, Rep. Randy Hultgren, Rep. John Shimkus, Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Rep. Aaron Schock. “House Republicans have never strayed from our focus on creating jobs and strengthening our economy. We are developing a tax reform package for individuals and businesses that would increase American competitiveness in the global economy. We have passed a jobs and skills training package, approved the Keystone XL Pipeline, acted to protect families and individuals from a costly health care law and put forth a plan to permanently fix our student loan crisis. These proposals would immediately and demonstrably boost the economy and set the foundation for long-term growth. We agree with the president: Too many Americans are struggling in today’s economy, and we stand ready to work.”

Tucker said he felt optimistic after hearing the president’s speech. “He’s very positive all the time. I wish he could be able to convince the others to work with him to get things done.”

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