President Barack Obama on Wednesday repackaged his economic message, a six-point plan for putting a floor under the country's diminishing middle class, and lashed out at opponents for creating "an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals."
The president, returning to Knox College where he gave his first big speech on the economy as a newly elected U.S. senator, vowed "to use every minute of the 1,276 days remaining in my term make this country work for working Americans again."
While proposing nothing new, the president was obviously setting the table for what will likely be a bitter fight with congressional Republicans over the need this fall to again raise the U.S. government's borrowing limit to pay its bills and to fend off deep spending cuts being written into an upcoming Republican budget proposal.
Obama played heavily on the need to put the brakes on growing income inequality, a repeated theme in all his remarks on the economy.
"Even though our businesses are creating new jobs and have broken record profits, nearly all the income gains of the past ten years have continued to flow to the top 1%," Obama said to heavy applause. "The average CEO (chief executive officer) has gotten a raise of nearly 40% since 2009, but the average American earns less than he or she did in 1999. And companies continue to hold back on hiring those who have been out of work for some time."
Top Republicans in Washington, even before Obama spoke, issued withering criticism of the president's return to the economy and foreshadowed continuing and relentless partisan opposition to programs Obama needs support for in Congress.
"Welcome to the conversation, Mr. President. We've never left it," said House Speaker John Boehner. He suggested that approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast and delaying Obama's health care law would do more to create jobs than delivering speeches would.
"If Washington Democrats were really serious about turning the economy around, they'd be working collaboratively with Republicans to do just that, instead of just sitting on the sidelines and waiting to take their cues from the endless political road-shows the president cooks up whenever he feels like changing the topic," added Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
In his speech, Obama shot back that he had tools that could work against a recalcitrant Congress and said its opposition "must stop."
"I will not allow gridlock, inaction, or willful indifference to get in our way," Obama said. "Whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I'll use it. Where I can't act on my own, I'll pick up the phone and call CEOs, and philanthropists, and college presidents - anybody who can help - and enlist them in our efforts. Because the choices that we, the people, make now will determine whether or not every American will have a fighting chance in the 21st century."
Obama ticked off his plan to tackle needed infrastructure upgrades — new roads, bridges, airports; better education, including government -funded pre-school for children at 4-years-old; an overhaul of the home mortgage system; tax reform; continued implementation of his health care overhaul; and programs to rebuild deteriorating American cities while raising the minimum wage.
To his political opponents, Obama issued a challenge:
"I am laying out my ideas to give the middle class a better shot. Now it's time for you to lay out yours. If you're willing to work with me to strengthen American manufacturing and rebuild this country's infrastructure, let's go. ... If you are serious about a balanced, long-term fiscal plan that replaces the mindless cuts currently in place, or tax reform that closes corporate loopholes and gives working families a better deal, I'm ready to work - but know that I will not accept deals that do not meet the test of strengthening the prospects of hard-working families."
In returning to Knox College and Galesburg he chose an example of the nation's economic struggles. One year before Obama's first speech at Knox, a Maytag appliance plant in town shuttered its doors, leaving hundreds of people unemployed. The old factory still sits vacant, and Galesburg's unemployment rate sits just under 8 percent. About 23 percent of the town's population lives in poverty — 10 percent more than the state as a whole.
Later Wednesday, The president speaks at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. A third speech is set for Thursday at the Jacksonville Port Authority in Florida.
The economy largely has been overshadowed in the first six months of Obama's second term, partly driven by a White House that chose to invest time and political capital on other parts of his agenda, such as the failed effort to enact stricter gun laws after December's school massacre in Connecticut and the push for an immigration bill.
Circumstances outside of the White House's control also played a role, including the civil war in Syria, the coup in Egypt and renewed attention by Congress to the deadly attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Closer to home, the targeting of political groups by the Internal Revenue Service and the seizure of journalists' telephone records by the Justice Department also required large investments of White House time.
The economy has showed slow improvement throughout, registering gains in the housing and stock markets and consumer confidence. The national unemployment rate, though it remains high, is down to 7.6 percent.
But the coming fiscal deadlines threaten to undo that progress, adding a sense of urgency to the push Washington and the public at large to focus on the economy.