8 Years Later, Obama Returns To Site Of Big Economic Speech

President Obama spoke Wednesday in Galesburg, Ill. — the site of a speech eight years ago that set out his vision of the economy and set the stage for his first presidential campaign. This time around, the president talked about where the economy needs to go in the years ahead.

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When president is in a second term, we often say that he's had his last campaign, at least as a candidate. For President Obama, this week is feeling in many ways like a campaign. He's trying to rally support for his ideas on the economy. The road trip began yesterday at Knox College in Illinois. Today he visits Jacksonville, Florida.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports that the president is trying to break out of the short-term cycle of crises to create a long-term economic plan.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: For as long as President Obama has been on the political scene, he has talked about the same core set of economic ideas: spending on investments that'll pay off in the future, building the middle-class, and creating government programs that he says will help secure the American dream.

The first time Obama laid out most of these ideas was in 2005, at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Yesterday, Obama recalled that time when he was a freshman senator with no motorcade, no gray hair, not even a teleprompter.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In fact, there was a problem in terms of printing out the speech, 'cause the printer didn't work here and we had to drive it in from somewhere.

SHAPIRO: A lot has changed since 2005, especially since the financial crisis rocked the U.S. economy. But standing before a welcoming audience at Knox College yesterday, President Obama said some things have not changed. The income inequality he talked about eight years ago, he said that's still a problem.

OBAMA: The average CEO has gotten a raise of nearly 40 percent since 2009. The average American earns less than he or she did in 1999.

SHAPIRO: In this hour-long speech, President Obama laid out his long-term plan to strengthen the economy. He described broad principles about education, infrastructure, housing and health care. Obama said lawmakers have not just ignored these problems, he said too often Congress has made it worse.

OBAMA: The key is to break through the tendency in Washington to just bounce from crisis to crisis. What we need is not a three month plan, or even a three year plan. We need a long-term American strategy based on steady persistent effort to reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle-class for decades.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: The event had the feel of a campaign rally, with a cheering crowds packing the wooden gym bleachers. Donovan Tucker was in the crowd. He was forced into early retirement when the Maytag plant in Galesburg shut down.

DONOVAN TUCKER: I couldn't believe that they was going to do it. And I woke up a lot of mornings thinking was that a nightmare that I went through, you know, that they were closing that plant?

SHAPIRO: Now he's doing OK. He thinks the economy is better than it was, but he hesitates when he says that.

TUCKER: Well, we're kind of coming back, I believe, in that things are looking a little better in that. I just wish they could get a little more incentive to do some of these things that he'd like to do.

SHAPIRO: Lawmakers are not likely to do many of the things Obama would like. Andrew Civettini is a political scientist at Knox College.

ANDREW CIVETTINI: We haven't seen a Congress this opposed to working with an opposition president that I'm aware of, at least not in the modern era of presidential congressional relations.

SHAPIRO: Indeed, House Speaker John Boehner said if the president really wants to do something for the economy, he should stop giving speeches and pointing fingers.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: What's the point? What's it going to accomplish? Probably got the answer. Nothing. It's a hollow shell. It's an Easter egg with no candy in it.

SHAPIRO: Instead, Boehner suggested approving the Keystone pipeline and delaying implementation of the health care law. The president said he expected this response and he challenged lawmakers to move beyond it.

OBAMA: I'm laying out my ideas to give the middle-class a better shot. So now it's time for you to lay out your ideas. You can't just be against something. You've got to be for something.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: Over roaring cheers he added: Repealing ObamaCare and cutting spending is not an economic plan.

Now the president is setting out on a sort of tour on the economic lecture circuit. He'll give a series of speeches focused on education, housing, infrastructure, and other pillars that he says can help build long-term economic stability. He says when Congress decides to work with him he'll welcome it. And the rest of the time he's prepared to take executive actions without them.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, traveling with the president.

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