U.S. President Barack Obama has tied his legacy to the revival of the American Dream.
Mr. Obama on Wednesday returned to Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., the site of one of his first speeches as a young U.S. senator in 2005, only this time with a motorcade and a teleprompter.
But the message was the same as it was eight years ago. He told his audience that his guiding principle is to restore middle-class prosperity, and for the remainder of his presidency, everything else – terrorists, immigration, the environment – would come second to that mission.
“The only thing I care about is how to use every minute of the remaining 1,276 days of my term to make this country work for working Americans again,” Mr. Obama said to applause. “That’s all I care about. I don’t have another election.”
The speech’s importance lay in its symbolism more than its specific proposals. Of the latter, there were few, a recognition of congressional Republicans’ refusal to co-operate with Mr. Obama on policies that would have a big impact on the middle class, such as the President’s desire to create construction jobs by spending heavily on roads, bridges and ports.
His most potent political weapon remains the lectern. The White House spent three days foreshadowing the speech, positioning the President to use his rhetorical gifts to get the jump on his political opponents in framing what promises to be a series of tough legislative battles this fall.
After besting Republicans in a showdown over high-income tax increases after the 2012 presidential election, Mr. Obama has struggled to gain much traction on any of his other priorities. His push for stricter gun control laws died in Congress, and Republican lawmakers shrugged off his warnings that blunt spending cuts would deal the economy a mortal blow.
Mr. Obama avoided outlining specific new initiatives Wednesday, although he said those would be forthcoming. He did promise to double down on his commitments to provide prekindergarten education to every four-year-old and to create more jobs in manufacturing. “Opportunities for upward mobility in America have gotten harder to find over the past 30 years,” he said. “That’s a betrayal of the American idea.”
With Congress poised to break for the summer, there is little point introducing new initiatives, especially at a moment when Democratic and Republican lawmakers are as divided as they’ve ever been at any point in Mr. Obama’s presidency.
Mr. Obama appeared to acknowledge the more co-operative members of his congressional opposition, pinning the blame for Washington’s inaction on “a group of Republicans.” He hinted that he was planning to go on the offensive, vowing to act without Congress when he can, and calling on business owners to exercise more influence over the lawmakers they help to elect.
“I will not allow gridlock, or inaction or willful indifference to get in our way,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”
It’s difficult to assess whether Mr. Obama’s latest speaking campaign will have any effect. He tried a similar strategy to avoid the across-the-board spending cuts the “sequester” earlier this year and failed. And other initiatives remain caught in congressional gridlock. Passage of legislation that would overhaul the U.S. immigration system is less than assured, even though the bill was crafted by a group of Democratic and Republican senators. The same goes for agriculture policy, which used to be updated as a matter of course, but is now at the centre of an impasse. House Republicans are once again threatening to use the debt ceiling to force Mr. Obama to accept deeper spending cuts.
“It doesn’t matter – we’re not going to do what they want to do,” Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who leads the House Budget Committee, told Politico in reaction to news that some Senate Republicans were interested in negotiating a broad budget agreement with the White House rather than insist on cuts.
Mr. Obama did not acknowledge any responsibility for Washington’s unpleasantness, something that surely will be noted by Republicans who accuse the President of campaigning when he should be in Washington negotiating.
“There are a lot of things the President could have done to dull the partisan vitriol, just as the Republicans could have been more conciliatory,” said Michael Strain, a resident scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. “The President could show more leadership. He tends to react to events rather than try to shape them.”
Political tactics aside, there’s little denying the President’s contention that America’s middle class is a shadow of what it once was. Studies show Americans are no more likely to achieve the same relative income as their parents than are Pakistanis and Argentines, a fact that clashes with the perception that the U.S. is a society where anyone can get ahead.
“That’s something we like to tell ourselves, but sometimes data intrude,” said Jennifer Erickson, director of competitiveness and economic growth at the Center for American Progress.