In a sweeping speech on the state of the economy in his home state of Illinois, Barack Obama warned that obstructionism in Washington coupled with widening income inequalities and a weakened middle class were threatening the “very essence” of the United States of America and what it stands for.
In the first of a series of speeches across the country, Mr Obama vowed to dedicate the rest of his second term to reinforcing “the cornerstones of middle-class security”.
At Knox College in Galesburg, he said: “What we need isn’t a three-month plan, or even a three-year plan, but a long-term American strategy, based on steady, persistent effort, to reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades.”
“I have now run my last campaign,” President Obama told an audience of faculty and students. “I do not intend to wait until the next one before tackling the issues that matter. 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. Because I believe this is where America needs to go.”
Most of Mr Obama’s prescriptions are familiar ones. But he said that if Republicans in the House of Representatives tried to block his way he would seek help from private sector forces and, where possible, circumvent Congress to get things done.
His philosophy is to grow the economy “from the middle out” rather than from the top down, with a focus on investing in education and repairing ageing infra- structure.
Some Republicans scoffed at the speech saying they had heard it all before. That led to eye-rolling in the Obama camp. “There seems to be some effort to make hay out of the fact the president is consistent when he speaks about what we need to do,” Jay Carney, his spokesman, said.
Mr Obama said the average American earned less than in 1999 while income for the average CEO had risen 40 per cent in four years. “This growing inequality isn’t just morally wrong; it’s bad economics… When the rungs on the ladder of opportunity grow farther apart, it undermines the very essence of this country.”
Standing put and “muddling through” should not be an option, Mr Obama asserted. “If that’s our choice – if we just stand by and do nothing in the face of immense change – understand that an essential part of our character will be lost. Our founding precept about wide-open opportunity and each generation doing better than the last will be a myth, not reality,” he said.
While he warned Democrats they will need “to question old assumptions” and accept changes to cherished federal programmes, his sharpest words were addressed to Republicans in the House who oppose him.
Because of “an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball,” he suggested. “And this needs to stop. Short-term thinking and stale debates are not what this moment requires.
“I will not allow gridlock, inaction, or wilful indifference to get in our way. Whatever 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.”
“What makes us special has never been our ability to generate incredible wealth for the few, but our ability to give everyone a chance to pursue their own true measure of happiness,” Mr Obama concluded. “We haven’t just wanted success for ourselves – we’ve wanted it for our neighbours, too. That’s why we don’t call it John’s dream or Susie’s dream or Barack’s dream – we call it the American Dream.