By JIM KUHNHENN
(WASHINGTON, AP) — Drawing renewed attention to the economy, President Barack Obama will return this week to an Illinois college where he once spelled out a vision for an expanded and strengthened middle class as a freshman U.S. senator, long before the Great Recession would test his presidency.
The address Wednesday at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., will be the first in a new series of economic speeches that White House aides say Obama intends to deliver over the next several weeks ahead of key budget deadlines in the fall. A new fiscal year begins in October, and the government will soon hit its borrowing limit.
The speech comes just a week before Congress is scheduled to leave for its monthlong August recess and is designed to build public pressure on lawmakers in hopes of averting the showdowns over taxes and spending that have characterized past budget debates.
In his economic pitch, Obama will talk about efforts to expand manufacturing, sign up the uninsured for health care coverage, revitalize the housing industry and broaden educational opportunities for preschoolers and college students. He will also promote the economic benefits of an immigration overhaul.
The White House is promoting the speech as part of an arc of economic messages from the president that began at Knox College in 2005, when Obama was in his first year in the Senate. Since then, Obama has sought to raise the profile of his economic agenda with periodic speeches, including one at Georgetown University in Washington in 2009 and one in Osawatomie, Kan., in 2011. The White House posted a video highlighting Obama’s previous economic addresses.
The president will also speak Wednesday at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Mo.
Obama’s focus on the economy comes as he has experienced a degree of success with the Senate, which passed an overhaul of immigration laws and unclogged a Republican blockade against several presidential nominations. It also reflects a belief at the White House that the administration has been able to manage a series of confrontations with Congress over the Internal Revenue Service, phone surveillance of Americans and the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
“The president thinks Washington has largely taken its eye off the ball on the most important issue facing the country,” Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Sunday evening in a message sent to the White House’s public email list. “Instead of talking about how to help the middle class, too many in Congress are trying to score political points, refight old battles and trump up phony scandals.”
Obama’s agenda still faces stiff opposition in the House, where Republicans have a majority. On immigration, for example, Speaker John Boehner has said the House will not pass the Senate bill and, instead, intends to deal with the issue on a piecemeal basis.
Obama is pushing to end the federal budget cuts that kicked in this year so they don’t extend into the next fiscal year. That could create a showdown with congressional Republicans in September, as the end of the current fiscal year approaches. Some Republicans also want more deficit reduction as a price for raising the debt ceiling, a bargain Obama says he will not make.
Republicans are fundamentally opposed to Obama’s mix of budget cuts and tax increases. It wasn’t until after last year’s election that Republicans agreed to increase taxes for the wealthiest Americans in a deal that kept taxes for most Americans at rates set during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday, Boehner said the way to get the economy moving again is by stopping unnecessary regulations and bringing the federal deficit under control.
Describing “this new normal of slow economic growth, no increase in jobs that are available, wages are being basically frozen,” Boehner said: “We’re squeezing the middle class. And I would argue the president’s policies are getting in the way of the economy growing, whether it’s Obamacare, whether it’s all these needless regulations that are coming out of the government.”
Obama has some wind at his back as the economy continues its recovery from the recession that began during the Bush administration. Housing is coming back, the stock market is on an upswing and consumer confidence is generally higher. But unemployment, while down from a peak of 10 percent in 2009, remains high at 7.6 percent and economic growth remains modest.
Pfeiffer said Obama will unveil some new ideas, outline steps Congress can take and identify measures he can initiate on his own.
“He’ll talk about the progress we’ve made together, the challenges that remain and the path forward,” Pfeiffer said.