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Fighting to retake the initiative on Americans' No. 1 concern, President Barack Obama pushed Republicans to stop their "meaningless" assaults on Obamacare and help him shrink income inequality and help America's middle class. GOP leaders preemptively scoffed at what they described as stale rhetoric reheated for political purposes.
“With an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball. And I am here to say this needs to stop,” the president said Wednesday in the first major economic address of his second term.
“Job security, with good wages and durable industries, a good education, a home to call your own, affordable health care when you get sick. A secure retirement even if you’re not rich. Reducing poverty, reducing inequality. Growing opportunity. That’s what we need," he said in a campaign-style speech.
Obama was speaking at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., where he made his first speech on the economy as a national political figure back in 2005. Much of his remarks amounted to a defense of his first-term economic record, a potential vulnerability for Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections.
“Today, five years after the start of that Great Recession, America has fought its way back. We’ve fought our way back,” he said. “Over the past 40 months, our businesses have created 7.2 million new jobs. This year, we are off to our strongest private-sector job growth since 1999.”
But he also threw down the gauntlet to Republicans, saying he would look to act with or without them.
“I will welcome ideas from anybody, across the political spectrum, but I will not allow gridlock, or inaction, or willful indifference to get in our way,” he promised. “That means whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I’ll use it."
And “where I can’t act on my own, and Congress isn’t cooperating, I’ll pick up the phone and call CEOs, I’ll call philanthropists, I’ll call college presidents, I’ll call labor leaders — I’ll call anybody who can help — and enlist them in our efforts,” he declared, to applause from the friendly crowd.
But, he told GOP lawmakers looking to undo Obamacare, "stop taking meaningless repeal votes and share your concrete ideas with the country."
Obama’s speech wasn’t packed with new policy ideas or fresh hopes that Republicans in Congress will approve some of his stalled economic agenda. At times, it seemed modeled on the tried-and-true (and bipartisan) presidential message that "now is the time for Americans to set aside their partisan differences — and do what I say."
But the president worked to enlist his de facto political arm, Organizing for America, into an effort to pressure GOP lawmakers during the upcoming monthlong August break.
On his official Facebook page (nearly 36.5 million “likes”) and in a special video aimed squarely at OFA’s grass roots army, Obama pushed for what OFA’s official website dubbed “Action August.”
“During the August congressional recess, make sure your members of Congress know where you stand on the issues that matter most,” implored a message on his Facebook page.
And Obama planned to deliver a series of speeches over the coming weeks to highlight individual components of his economic agenda. (Yahoo news got an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the speechwriting process with Obama's top wordsmith.)
Ahead of the speech, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell mocked the address as merely reheated presidential rhetoric.
“With all the buildup, you’d think the president was unveiling the next Bond film or something,” the Kentucky lawmaker said. “But in all likelihood it will be more like a midday rerun of some '70s B movie. Because we’ve heard it all before. It’s old.”
McConnell pressed Obama to approve the controversial Keystone pipeline and accused the president of unfairly lampooning Republicans.
“Instead of taking responsibility for his failure to lead, he’ll probably try and cast this as some titanic struggle between those who believe in quote-unquote ‘investing’ in the country, and those who supposedly want to eliminate paved roads, or stop signs, or whatever ridiculous straw man he invents this time,” the senator said.
The Republican reception wasn’t any better in the House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner acidly noted, “Americans aren’t asking the question ‘where are the speeches?’ – they’re asking ‘where are the jobs?’”
“There are no new proposals in this speech. The president himself said it isn’t ‘going to change any minds,’” Boehner said. "All right, so exactly what will change? What’s the point? What’s it going to accomplish? You’ve probably got the answer: Nothing.”