Deploying the rhetoric of class warfare against congressional Republicans, President Obama warned Wednesday that "social tensions will rise" if Washington doesn't take steps to reverse the growing gap between wealthy Americans and the middle class.
In a campaign-style speech at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., the president proclaimed that America during his presidency has "fought its way back" from the recession and called on voters to "pressure Congress to invest in our future" by spending more on such items as education, clean energy and infrastructure.
He predicted that if the Republicans resist his plans, the nation's social fabric will begin to fray as resentment builds among lower economic groups.
"The position of the middle class will erode further," Obama said. "Inequality will continue to increase, money's power will distort our politics even more. Social tensions will rise, as various groups fight to hold on to what they have, start blaming somebody else for why their position isn't improving. That's not the America we know."
The president's address was the first in a series of planned speeches on the economy as he sets his terms for looming battles in the fall with House Republicans over spending priorities and raising the country's debt limit. It was also an attempt by Obama to breathe new life into his second term, which has been sidetracked by scandals ranging from NSA surveillance to the abuse of power by the IRS.
Campaign themes again
Obama did not offer many new ideas in the one-hour, six-minute speech; instead he proposed themes from his re-election campaign and State of the Union address to spend more money on job training and education, to raise the federal minimum wage, to create incentives for manufacturers and to "find new ways" to help workers save for retirement.
"I care about one thing and one thing only, and that's how to use every minute of the 1,276 days remaining in my term to make this country work for working Americans again," he said.
The president of the half-million-member Laborers' International Union of North America, Terry O'Sullivan, praised Mr. Obama for "rightly pointing out that Washington doled out tax breaks for the rich while wages have fallen."
Even before Obama took the stage, Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said the president's address would be empty of content, calling it "an Easter egg with no candy in it."
And while the friendly audience in Illinois interrupted the president with applause many times, a critic in Galesburg greeted Obama with a sign asking, "Want jobs? Open Keystone." It was a reference to the oil pipeline project, still awaiting administration approval, that supporters say would create thousands of construction jobs.
The president clearly delivered the speech with an eye toward the 2014 midterm elections, saying that too many Republicans have refused to work with him in his second term, focusing instead on such priorities as trying to repeal Obama's signature health care law.
"Over the last six months, this gridlock has gotten worse," Obama said. "I will not allow gridlock, inaction or willful indifference to get in our way. You can't just be against something; you've got to be for something. Repealing Obamacare and cutting spending is not an economic plan."
'Shift the topic'
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said voters have heard these same themes before from Obama, with paltry results.
"The economic recovery is still stagnant," McConnell said. "He won't talk about the fact that, since he lost control of the House and his ability to just have things his way, he's refused to engage with seemingly anyone in Congress on ways to get the economy moving."
The president on the stump in Galesburg blamed House Republicans, in particular, for blocking many of his economic priorities and for allowing "meat-cleaver" budget cuts through sequestration that have "gutted" spending on research and other social programs.
"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. "Or they'll talk about government assistance for the poor, despite the fact that they've already cut early education for vulnerable kids and insurance for people who've lost their jobs through no fault of their own."
He added, "With an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals, Washington's taken its eye off the ball. And I'm here to say this needs to stop."
The start of Obama's second term has been beset with controversies ranging from the NSA surveillance scandal to charges of abuse of IRS powers, and the speech was an effort to regain control of the agenda in Washington. The president said his economic policies have helped to strengthen the economy after the recession that ended in June 2009.
"Today, five years after the start of that Great Recession, America has fought its way back," he said. "Thanks to the grit and resilience and determination of the American people, folks like you, we've been able to clear away the rubble from the financial crisis and we've started to lay a new foundation for stronger, more durable economic growth."
Mentioning the poor
But he acknowledged that "we're not there yet," and that Congress must help him to reverse the widening gulf between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else.
"This growing inequality ... it's not just morally wrong; it's bad economics," Obama said. "When middle-class families have less to spend, 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 farther and farther apart, it undermines the very essence of America."
Obama mentioned "the poor" and "poverty" several times in his speech as he called for efforts such as raising the minimum wage. A recent study by a group at Georgetown University found that Obama talks about poverty publicly far less than any president since John F. Kennedy.
A spokesman for the Republican National Committee said Obama was offering "more of the same blame and finger-pointing."
"No matter how many times the administration 'pivots' back to jobs as a consequence of falling poll numbers, no jobs will be created from additional speeches," said RNC spokesman Sean Spicer. "We need to stop bad policies like Obamacare and approve things like the Keystone pipeline."