In Missouri, President Obama focuses on the economy, especially the middle class

Kansas City StarJuly 25, 2013 

Diana Klosterman listened closely Wednesday, applauding as President Barack Obama spoke in a stuffy auditorium on the campus of the University of Central Missouri.

Jobs? Check. The middle class? Check. More help for higher education? Check.

Did she hear anything to suggest compromise with Congress is possible on those issues?

“Absolutely not,” the Higginsville, Mo., woman said. “But I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.”

Klosterman’s view was widely shared among Republicans, political scientists and even some Democrats following Obama’s speech in Warrensburg and a longer address earlier in the day at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.

As an agenda setter, they said, the speech was valuable. As a road map to compromise with a recalcitrant Congress, there was less to see.

“This was an attempt to go public,” said James Staab, a political science professor at the university. “Directly to the American people.”

Both speeches were widely seen to reflect a White House desire to pivot back to economic issues and the middle class. The long speech in Galesburg and the shorter version in Warrensburg came just weeks before expected battles this fall over the debt ceiling, the budget and the automatic spending reductions known as the sequester.

“We’ve got to focus on jobs and the economy,” Obama told more than 1,500 people packed into the gymnasium on the UCM campus.

He called for a restoration of what he described as an implicit American bargain that rewards hard work with security and more fairly shares the spoils of the world’s largest economy.

“We still live in an upside-down system” that rewards the rich for saving, but not the poor and middle class, he said in Illinois.

He touted the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, as a significant step to protect working families from financial ruin by making health insurance more affordable for a wider range of Americans. He boasted that insurance premiums in New York will drop by half in new markets set up by the act. Analysts have noted that the large state could be an aberration unlikely to be repeated across the country.

“Building the middle class, making sure they’re secure, that’s my highest priority,” he said. “When the economy’s working for the middle class, that solves a lot of other problems.”

And he urged Great Society-style programs, from preschool education to the subsidizing of college student loans.

“If you think education is expensive,” Obama said, “you should see how much ignorance is going to cost in the 21st century.”

Obama provided few new policy details in either speech. He promised more specifics on education, jobs and spending in the weeks ahead.

Republicans were swift to reject the president’s remarks.

“The Obama presidency is in free fall and President Obama is not so much trying to restart as to distract Americans from his failures,” said Missouri GOP chairman Ed Martin.

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, spent the day doing TV interviews, floor speeches and a news conference with political reporters. Each time, Blunt sharply criticized Obama’s effort to move away from divisive arguments over guns, immigration and foreign affairs.

“This is about his 11th or 12th reset,” Blunt said on MSNBC.

Obama did not shy away from criticizing Republicans. He accused House GOP members of preventing progress on a number of fronts — the failure, for example, to pass a farm bill that contained funding for the food stamp program.

“With this endless parade of distractions and political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball,” he said in Illinois. “I am here to say this needs to stop.”

Kansas City Councilman Jermaine Reed, who was in Warrensburg for the speech, said it was a message the GOP needs to hear.

“The American people can’t wait,” he said. “He’s doing exactly what he needs to do.”

But Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said the addresses are unlikely to undo the logjam between the White House and Capitol Hill.

“Presidential speeches in and of themselves almost never reset administrations,” he said. “Events and trends do.”

Obama’s speech on the UCM campus started nearly an hour late. People stood shoulder to shoulder in the warm gym, sipping ice water and waving homemade fans. A few swooned in the heat and were treated at the scene.

Obama chose UCM to highlight the way the Missouri Innovation Campus prepares students to advance their educations at an accelerated pace while lowering costs and avoiding loan debt. The program began last year in partnership with the university, the Lee’s Summit School District, Metropolitan Community College and local companies such as Cerner Corp.

It teams classes with on-the-job experience so students secure associate degrees at the same time they earn high school diplomas. Then they’re on pace to finish a bachelor’s degree in two years. It also aims to arm them with the skills that employers are looking for and gives them an inside track to jobs with local companies.

“That’s a recipe for success over the long term,” Obama said.

Students from the program joined the president on the podium and were scattered in the audience.

The Warrensburg speech highlighted higher education — and the need to reduce the cost of a college degree, rather than simply make it cheaper to borrow.

“If we don’t have smart kids, we don’t have a future,” said Susan Graham, a teacher at UCM, after the speech.

Like many Warrensburg residents, she welcomed the president’s visit. There were few protesters, and welcome signs lined the highway between Whiteman Air Force Base, where Obama landed, and the UCM campus.

Warrensburg is part of Missouri’s heavily Republican 4th Congressional District. While several GOP state lawmakers from the area attended the address, Rep. Vicky Hartzler did not.

Gov. Jay Nixon and Sen. Claire McCaskill, both Missouri Democrats, were on hand.

The view that Wednesday’s speeches would have little permanent impact was not universal. Norm Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute said it is possible the addresses will reframe the debate and force a dysfunctional government to act.

“It’s not like you’re going to suddenly mobilize Americans across the board for you,” he said. “But the fact is the president has a bully pulpit that nobody else has.

“Even if it’s not a superpower — it’s not like X-ray vision or the ability to fly — nobody else has it. When he speaks, he can have an impact on shaping that agenda.”

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