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Obama Kicks Off Economic Speaking Tour In Illinois


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

President Obama went on the road today to reboot his economic agenda with a message that he called a better bargain for the middle class. He returned to Knox College in the small town of Galesburg, Illinois, to launch an economic speaking tour. Galesburg is where, eight years ago, the newly elected Senator Obama delivered his first big economic speech. And as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, many of the themes haven't changed since then.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: When President Obama visited Knox College in 2005, he joked that he was ranked 99th in seniority out of 100 senators. This time, he made the trip to rural Illinois on Air Force One. The president began by looking back on that speech he delivered just eight years ago.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I just spent a year traveling the state and listening to your stories of proud Maytag workers losing their jobs when the plant moved down to Mexico - a lot of folks here remember that - of teachers whose salaries weren't keeping up with the rising cost of groceries.

SHAPIRO: That was before the Great Recession hit. And Obama acknowledged that in some ways, things are better today: 7.2 million new jobs, a shrinking deficit and other recovery statistics that the White House loves to trumpet. But the focus of this speech was the deep-seated economic problems the country still struggles with and Obama's ideas for solving them.

OBAMA: So in many ways, the trends that I spoke about here in 2005, eight years ago, the trend of a winner-take-all economy where a few are doing better and better and better, while everybody else just treads water, those trends have been made worse by the recession.

SHAPIRO: Rachel Cabrera(ph) knows these challenges well. She's a 16-year-old high school senior hoping to attend college, and her mother is struggling to find work.

RACHEL CABRERA: I just worry a lot about, like, how many grants or loans or scholarships I'll be able to receive because I know I won't be able to pay for college on my own.

SHAPIRO: I know you're trying to work and save up.

CABRERA: Yeah, I'm trying to find myself a job right now too.

SHAPIRO: But I guess it's just as hard for you to find a job as it is for your mom.

CABRERA: Yeah, it is.

SHAPIRO: Many of the themes in this speech were classic Obama. He talked about investing in education and infrastructure, clean energy and advanced manufacturing. And there were clear echoes of last year's presidential campaign as well, such as this line.

OBAMA: When the rungs on the ladder of opportunity grow farther and farther apart, it undermines the very essence of America.

SHAPIRO: With cheering crowds filling the bleachers at this college gymnasium, the event also had the strong partisan flavor of a campaign rally. Obama said Republicans acted like obstructionists. He called out the GOP on deficits, health care, immigration, the farm bill and more.

OBAMA: We've seen a sizable group of Republican lawmakers suggest that they wouldn't vote to pay the very bills that Congress rang up. And that fiasco harmed a fragile recovery in 2011, and we can't afford to repeat that.

SHAPIRO: That threat of a repeat is very real. This fall, there will be showdowns over the debt ceiling and funding for the federal government. In a way, this speech was an opening salvo in those partisan fights. Before the president gave the address, the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, dismissed Obama's ideas as old news.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: With all the buildup, you'd think the president was unveiling the next Bond film or something. But in all likelihood, it will be more like a midday rerun of some '70s B-movie because we've heard it all before. It's really quite old.

SHAPIRO: In fact, this hour-long speech did not have a lot of specific new proposals. Obama said those are coming.

OBAMA: And that's why, over the next several weeks, in towns across this country, I will be engaging the American people in this debate.

SHAPIRO: He said his ideas will include short- and long-term projects, and they'll fall under three headings: things he can do with Congress, executive actions he can take on his own and projects he can recruit outside companies and philanthropists to take on. Tomorrow, the president visits Jacksonville, Florida, for the next stop on this economic road tour. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Galesburg, Illinois. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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