GALESBURG, Ill. – Seeking to build momentum for looming fiscal fights, President Obama on Wednesday cast himself as the champion for middle-class Americans struggling to make ends meet. He chided Washington for having “taken its eye off the ball” and declared that the economy would be the “highest priority” of his second term.
Obama, in an hourlong address that was at times deeply partisan, also accused Republican lawmakers of succumbing to “an endless parade of distractions and political posturing and phony scandals.” He said gridlock had only gotten worse since his re-election.
“I am here to say this needs to stop,” Obama said in a speech at Knox College. “This moment does not require short-term thinking. It does not require having the same old stale debates.”
Obama, as he often does when criticizing Washington, glossed over his own status as the inhabitant of the city’s most powerful office.
Republican leaders quickly panned the president’s remarks as a series of repackaged ideas and empty promises.
“It’s a hollow shell, it’s an Easter egg with no candy in it,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.
Indeed, the president’s remarks were void of new policy proposals or fresh solutions for breaking Washington stalemates. And there were no new approaches presented for resolving potential showdowns with Republicans this fall over raising the nation’s borrowing limit and curtailing across-the-board federal budget cuts known as the sequester.
For the president’s advisers, a central goal of the speech was simply to refocus Obama’s agenda squarely on the economy ahead of the fall deadlines. The first six months of his second term largely have been consumed by priorities like gun control and immigration, as well as an array of foreign policy crises and domestic controversies, including the National Security Agency’s domestic spying programs and IRS scrutiny of political groups.
While official Washington’s attention was elsewhere, the economy was slowly but steadily improving. The housing market is recovering, the stock market is soaring, and unemployment, while still high at 7.6 percent, is falling.
But the White House fears that standoffs this fall over the debt ceiling and the sequester could upend that progress. The president has declared that he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling and expects Republicans to lift the borrowing limit without concessions. He’s also pushing to end the federal budget cuts before they extend into the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
The president panned the sequester as a “meat cleaver” that has “cost jobs, hurt our military and gutted investments in American education.”
Obama will seek to keep up his renewed economic focus in the coming weeks with a series of speeches on manufacturing, education, housing, retirement security and health care. Advisers say some of those speeches will contain more specific policy proposals, both for congressional legislation and executive action.
The president said he welcomed ideas from lawmakers of both parties, but wouldn’t stand for reflexive opposition to his own initiatives.
“I’m laying out my ideas to give the middle class a better shot,” he said. “Now it’s time for you to lay out your ideas.”