Obama Makes His Pitch for the Middle Class

This afternoon, President Obama gave a speech on the middle class and the economy from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He outlined six cornerstones of bolstering the middle class — and insisted Congress wouldn't stand in his way.

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This afternoon, President Obama gave a speech on the middle class and the economy from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He outlined six cornerstones of bolstering the middle class — and insisted Congress wouldn't stand in his way. You can read the whole speech here.

As expected, the speech focused on the middle class. The president noted the traditional role it has played in economic growth and how economic growth during the past decade has primarily benefited the most wealthy Americans. In order to reverse that, the cornerstones: job growth in expanding industries, affordable education, home ownership, secure retirement, healthcare reform, and community — in that order.

In the words of the Washington Post's Ezra Klein, it was "a lot of hype for very little policy." Most of the cornerstones weren't accompanied with policy proposals. Perhaps because of the other focus of the speech: how Obama could get anything done without going through a hostile Congress. He called Republicans out for failing to offer ideas. He called them out for their Obamacare repeal votes. He called them out for failing to advance immigration reform. The president didn't deviate much from his script, but when he did it was usually to bash his opponents.

At the end of the speech, Obama declared that improving the middle class was his top priority for "every minute of the 1,276 days remaining in my term." And then he bashed Congress again.

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2:18 p.m.: Obama finishes, heading off-stage as the crowd stands, cameraphones held high.

2:15 p.m.: Again off-script; again, to bash Congress. "We're not a mean people, we're not a selfish people. So why should our politics reflect that," Obama asked. "Yes, Congress is tough right now, but that's not going to stop me."

2:12 p.m.: The president starts to wrap up. We could do nothing and we'd probably be OK, he suggests, but "an essential part of our character will be lost."

The position of the middle class will erode further. Inequality will continue to increase, and money’s power will distort our politics even more. Social tensions will rise, as various groups fight to hold on to what they have, and the fundamental optimism that has always propelled us forward will give way to cynicism or nostalgia.

That’s not the vision I have for this country.

"I care about one thing and one thing only," he said — "how to use every minute of the 1,276 days remaining in my term to make this country work for working Americans again."

2:08 p.m.: Obama goes a little off-script. "I say to these members of Congress: I am laying out my ideas to give the middle class a better shot. Now it’s time for you to lay out yours." He continued: "You can't just be against something — you've got to be for something. … If you think you have a better plan for making sure every American has the security of quality, affordable health care, stop taking meaningless repeal votes and share your concrete ideas with the country."

2:03 p.m.: Obama wants "an economy that grows from the middle out." The Atlantic looked at that idea on Tuesday.

Also yesterday, Yahoo spoke with Obama's speechwriter, who offered some insight into why the president highlighted college costs today: it "is something he’s obsessed with."

2:01 p.m.: Huge applause line as Obama calls for an increase in the minimum wage. It's "lower than it was when Ronald Reagan took office," once you adjust for the value of the dollar.

This is part of the sixth cornerstone: community.

2:00 p.m.: The president subtly counters any socialism charges.

Here in America, we’ve never guaranteed success. More than some other countries, we expect people to be self-reliant, and we’ve tolerated a little more inequality for the sake of a more dynamic, more adaptable economy.


Unfortunately, opportunities for upward mobility in America have gotten harder to find over the past 30 years. That’s a betrayal of the American idea.

1:55 p.m.: Cornerstone five: healthcare. This is less a policy proposal than a chance to bash his opponents, who are conducting "a politically-motivated misinformation campaign" about Obamacare. Many of his arguments echoed those made last week, when the president announced a push on the issue.

1:53 p.m.: Cornerstone four: secure retirement. "We still live with an upside-down system where those at the top get generous tax incentives to save," Obama said, "while tens of millions of hardworking Americans get none at all." One way to address it: immigration reform, which would ensure new income to Social Security.

1:51 p.m.: Cornerstone three: home ownership. The key, Obama says, "is to encourage homeownership that isn’t based on bubbles, but is instead based on a solid foundation." He pitches an idea proposed by a Mitt Romney advisor: let owners refinance their homes to get lower rates.

1:45 p.m.: Cornerstone two: education. As always, education is a winner with the audience. As for cost? "If you think education is expensive, wait until you see how much ignorance costs in the 21st century."

The plan: job training at community colleges, preschool for all, faster internet in schools. And a crowd-pleaser: lower costs for higher education.

1:40 p.m.: Obama unveils the first of his six "cornerstones" to a growing middle class: "more good jobs in durable, growing industries."

"Let’s tell the world that America is open for business." And — yet again — Obama pitches new infrastructure spending. "We’ve got more than 100,000 bridges that are old enough to qualify for Medicare!" The crowd laughs.

1:36 p.m.: Again to applause, Obama insists he can get the job done.

I will not allow gridlock, inaction, or willful indifference to get in our way. 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.

Again, our Elle Reeve thinks that's unlikely to happen.

1:33 p.m.: Obama receives extensive applause when he declares his intention to travel the country arguing for his economic cornerstones: "Job security, with good wages and durable industries. A good education. A home to call your own. Affordable health care when you get sick. A secure retirement even if you’re not rich. Reducing poverty and inequality. Growing prosperity and opportunity."

This isn't a three-month or three-year plan, he says, but a long-term project.

1:30 p.m.: The president can't resist getting in a dig about the Republicans' obsession with Obamacare. "They’ll bring up Obamacare, despite the fact that our businesses have created nearly twice as many jobs in this recovery as they had at the same point in the last recovery, when there was no Obamacare."

1:25 p.m.: Obama suggests that reversing the trend of new wealth going to the most wealthy "must be Washington’s highest priority" and then indicates who's to blame for that not happening: "a sizable group of Republican lawmakers." He lamented the House's failure to pass the immigration reform bill and a revamped Farm Bill.

With an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball. And I am here to say this needs to stop.

1:20 p.m.: After outlining his administration's successes, Obama began his focus on the middle class.

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%. 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. And companies continue to hold back on hiring those who have been out of work for some time.

1:18 p.m.: "Today, five years after the start of that Great Recession, America has fought its way back."

1:10 p.m.: Standing in front of a diverse group of about 100 people and three American flags, Obama begins his remarks.

In the period after World War II, a growing middle class was the engine of our prosperity. Whether you owned a company, 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 benefits, the chance to buy a home, to save for retirement, and, above all, to hand down a better life for your kids.

But over time, that engine began to stall. That bargain began to fray.

12:50 p.m.: The speech is expected to begin shortly.


Politico describes what to expect.

Administration officials and Democrats close to the White House say they hope the speech will achieve three goals: reset the political conversation on a still-recovering economy, warn Republicans not to create a fresh crisis in the fall and help cement the president’s legacy as economic steward through turbulent and hyperpartisan times.

According to a copy of the speech released to reporters under embargo, Obama will delineate the cornerstones of a strong and growing middle class. Those cornerstones also appear at a new website launched today by the administration, titled, "A Better Bargain for the Middle Class."

At Slate, Matt Yglesias explains what's really going on. When the president first began running for office, he outlined an economic plan. When the economy tanked in 2008, that was put on hold. Today's speech, Yglesias argues, is an attempt to "elevate the dialogue and talk about that longer-term agenda." As our Elle Reeve pointed out on Monday, the power of a speech isn't much when compared to a hostile House majority.

An interesting side note. Time explains why Obama chose Knox College for his address.

Knox has a special place in the President’s heart and in American history. “It’s the place where I gave my first big speech after I had been elected to the U.S. Senate,” Obama said at a recent event in Washington. Wednesday marks his third visit–once as a Senate candidate, once as a Senator and now as commander-in-chief–adding to a long history of presidents and political figures who have left a mark on the college.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.