Obama To Lay Out Economic Vision This Week

President Obama returns to Illinois this week and to the city of Galesburg, site of a pivotal speech he made early in his first presidential campaign. His speech Wednesday will be a set of proposals for strengthening the economy.

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On Wednesday, President Obama will return to Illinois and to the town of Galesburg. It was the site of a pivotal speech he gave about the economy in 2005, his first year as a senator. This week, the president will appear once again at Knox College in Galesburg, to lay out his economic vision as we approach the fifth anniversary of the financial crisis.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now to discuss the speech and others Obama plans to give on this topic. And, Mara, let's talk about the timing, first of all. Why is President Obama doing this now, in the dog days of summer?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, he wants to refocus this and the country's attention on the issues that matter most to people. After six months of debate about guns, immigration reform, the IRS, Benghazi, Edward Snowden and Trayvon Martin, he wants to get back to the economy, which is the number one issue for voters. And he wants to, once again, lay out his big vision for an economy that grows the middle class through investment in infrastructure and education. This is what the White House calls grow from the middle out, instead of the top down.

The president also knows that there are a series of very big showdowns coming up in the fall; showdowns over the debt ceiling, a potential government shutdown. And President Obama lost the last round of budget fights. He couldn't stop the sequester - those across-the-board cuts that are in effect now. So he wants to regain the initiative and try to frame the upcoming debates with Congress his way, to use his bully pulpit to set out the choices for those fall debates.

BLOCK: You mentioned that big vision, Mara. Is the president also expected to have big, new legislative proposals?

LIASSON: Well, the White House says he's going to use every lever that he can to try to invest in the middle class, whether it's through legislation or executive orders. But no, this first speech will not be full of specific proposals. White House aides say the speech is not a legislative negotiating tactic, even though we know that talks in the budget and taxes are continuing with Republican senators and the White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Not a lot of progress in those talks yet.

But Wednesday's speech is a big vision speech. It's not a to-do list for Congress.

BLOCK: Well, anything that the president would want to do to improve the economy would, of course, require Congress to sign on. And Congress, of course, has been gridlocked on just about everything. The news of the speech seems to be greeted with a pretty big yawn from Republicans in Congress, who say, look, this sounds like the same old same old.

LIASSON: Well, right. And there's every reason to think that nothing will happen. And I don't know if the White House is actually expecting anything to come of these speeches, except there have been a few breakthroughs to gridlock lately. The White House is actually feeling pretty good. They just got a bunch of the president's cabinet officials confirmed. They are getting a deal on student loans. Immigration has passed the Senate. The scandals seem to be receding.

And now they have a plan to drive the debate on the economy through the fall. And they really are rolling this out in a very careful, elaborate way; a lot of briefings for reporters. This is a series of speeches, not just one of those frequent brief pivots to the economy that gets overshadowed by some other big news event. The president wants to frame the terms of the debates so that Republicans can either come to him in the fall or compromise with him. And in the event they don't want to do either one, he wants those terms of debate to be favorable for Democrats in the upcoming elections.

BLOCK: So a series of speeches to follow the one on Wednesday in Illinois. Specific topics, are they all different?

LIASSON: There are specific topics. The president will be giving a speech almost every week between now and mid-October. He really wants to drive the debate. The speeches that are planned include one on jobs, one on housing, one on college affordability - probably at the end of summer, close to back-to-school time - one on health care, one of retirement security. There'll be one on income equality. And then in September, on the fifth year anniversary of the crash, he'll talk about what's happened since the financial crisis.

Throughout every one of these speeches, I think you'll hear the president say that we're at a crossroads. The economy is growing but all too slowly; people feel more stable in their economic situations but still not secure. They're not so worried about losing their jobs but they don't see any better jobs out there to apply for. And that's the same thing with the fiscal situation. The deficit has shrunk a lot, but the long-term fiscal challenges are still out there.

BLOCK: One last thing, Mara, we did hear the president make some extensive remarks on Friday about the Trayvon Martin shooting. Are you expecting that we'll be hearing more from the president about that case in Florida?

LIASSON: I don't think so. I think he's leaving the next steps up to Eric Holder and state officials who may, or may not, want to examine some of those Stand Your Ground laws. And he's leaving it up to the public who are having this conversation about race. I think his remarks on Friday will go down as one of the most memorable events of his presidency.

You had the first black president talking about race, something he's avoided for very good political reasons up until now, talking about what it means to be a black man in America, and saying what so many Americans - black and white - have been thinking, that even if you believe the jury in the Martin case followed the legal instructions correctly, it's also possible to believe that if Trayvon Martin had been a white kid in a sportcoat, he'd be alive today.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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