[photos below from Galesburg Register-Mail]
On Wednesday President Obama returned to Knox College, eight years after he made his first important speech as a U.S. Senator there, to speak again on the American economy. He reminded his listeners in Galesburg that the trends damaging the middle class began before the Great Recession of 2009. He'd talked about them at Knox in 2005: principally, structural income inequality.
"And so what happened was that the link between higher productivity and people’s wages and salaries was broken. It used to be that, as companies did better, as profits went higher, workers also got a better deal. And that started changing. So the income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, but the typical family’s incomes barely budged."
The bubble that had obscured these trends burst in 2008, "And the decades-long erosion that had been taking place -- the erosion of middle-class security -- was suddenly laid bare for everybody to see."
Thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, he said--and the policies he fought for and got done, he implied--the U.S. has recovered from the Great Recession. ..."we’ve been able to clear away the rubble from the financial crisis. We started to lay a new foundation for stronger, more durable economic growth. And it's happening in our own personal lives as well, right? A lot of us tightened our belts, shed debt, maybe cut up a couple of credit cards, refocused on those things that really matter.
As a country, we’ve recovered faster and gone further than most other advanced nations in the world. With new American revolutions in energy and technology and manufacturing and health care, we're actually poised to reverse the forces that battered the middle class for so long, and start building an economy where everyone who works hard can get ahead."
"But if we don’t have a growing, thriving middle class then we won’t have the resources to solve a lot of these problems. We won’t have the resolve, the optimism, the sense of unity that we need to solve many of these other issues."
Because the choices that we, the people, make right now will determine whether or not every American has a fighting chance in the 21st century. And it will lay the foundation for our children’s future, our grandchildren’s future, for all Americans."
He talked about poverty and about rebuilding ladders of opportunity, and equal opportunity. He challenged businesses to pay better wages, he challenged Democrats to redesign programs where needed. And again he challenged Republicans, with a line that got a standing O and is likely to be heard again in the runup to 2014: "You can't just be against something. You got to be for something."
He pointed out that "even if you think I’ve done everything wrong, the trends I just talked about were happening well before I took office. So it’s not enough for you just to oppose me. You got to be for something. What are your ideas? If you’re willing to work with me to strengthen American manufacturing and rebuild this country’s infrastructure, let’s go. If you’ve got better ideas to bring down the cost of college for working families, let’s hear them. If you think you have a better plan for making sure that every American has the security of quality, affordable health care, then stop taking meaningless repeal votes, and share your concrete ideas with the country." Another standing O.
He said that if Congress doesn't royally screw things up by shutting down the government ("just because I want to keep it open") or defaulting on debt, the economy will probably muddle through. But inequality will continue to grow, and America will slip behind in the world economy. Some powerful prophecy:
If we just stand by and do nothing in the face of immense change, understand that part of our character will be lost. Our founding precepts about wide-open opportunity, each generation doing better than the last -- that will be a myth, not reality. The position of the middle class will erode further. Inequality will continue to increase. Money’s power will distort our politics even more.
Social tensions will rise, as various groups fight to hold on to what they have, or start blaming somebody else for why their position isn’t improving. And the fundamental optimism that’s always propelled us forward will give way to cynicism or nostalgia.
And that’s not the vision I have for this country. It’s not the vision you have for this country. That’s not the America we know. That’s not the vision we should be settling for. That’s not a vision we should be passing on to our children."
He pledged to concentrate on these issues for the rest of his term. "I care about one thing and one thing only, and that’s how to use every minute of the remaining 1,276 days of my term to make this country work for working Americans again."
He made one final moral--and character--argument for redressing this inequality of opportunity:
And in the end, isn't that what makes us special? It's not the ability to generate incredible wealth for the few; it's our ability to give everybody a chance to pursue their own true measure of happiness. (Applause.) We haven’t just wanted success for ourselves -- we want it for our neighbors, too. (Applause.)
When we think about our own communities -- we're not a mean people; we're not a selfish people; we're not a people that just looks out for “number one.” Why should our politics reflect those kinds of values? That’s why we don’t call it John’s dream or Susie’s dream or Barack’s dream or Pat's dream -- we call it the American Dream. And that’s what makes this country special -- the idea that no matter who you are or what you look like or where you come from or who you love, you can make it if you try. (Applause.) That’s what we're fighting for.
So, yes, Congress is tough right now, but that’s not going to stop me. We're going to do everything we can, wherever we can, with or without Congress, to make things happen. We're going to go on the road and talk to you, and you'll have ideas, and we want to see which ones we can implement. But we're going to focus on this thing that matters."
Reading this speech, I thought of FDR. It had his vision, his analysis, his way of relating economic matters to ordinary people, his directness in calling out the opposition, and above all his willingness to try things.
Watching and listening to this speech, I saw some of Bill Clinton and some of Michelle adapted to the basic Obama. His gestures were eloquent, his body language never better. Yet also echoes of his classic "Yes We Can" speech.
Even if reporters ignored the speech (reporters and pundits who complain that he doesn't lay out a vision and action plan for the economy, and then complain when he does that it will never get anywhere, and nobody was listening anyway) in favor of the big scoop of the royal baby's name, this speech may be a harbinger of things to come (especially the rest of this year, and into the 2014 campaigns), as well as a speech that will be looked back on as an initial defining statement for Obama's second term.