U.S. President Barack Obama pledged a renewed effort to push his economic agenda through Washington gridlock, vowing to act without Congress when he can, and calling on business owners to exercise more influence over the lawmakers they help elect.
Mr. Obama returned to Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. – the site of one of his first major speeches as a young U.S. senator in 2005 – to refresh a message that has lost its power in the capital.
As he did eight years ago, Mr. Obama told his audience Wednesday that his guiding principle is to restore middle class prosperity. He avoided new policy proposals, but promised some would come in the weeks ahead, as the President attempts to set the stage for another autumn of legislative battle with his opponents in the Republican Party.
"What we need isn't a three-month plan, or even a three-year plan, but a long-term American strategy, based on steady, persistent effort, to reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades," Mr. Obama said. "That has to be our project."
The speech's importance was more in its symbolism than its details. 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.
But as he's done on other occasions, Mr. Obama is deploying his most powerful political weapon – the lectern – to frame the debate he wants to have when politicians return to Washington in September after a month spent close to voters. He's counting on coming across as a more sympathetic character in Washington's partisan battles, which polls suggest are hurting congressmen and senators more than they are the President.
"As long as Congress doesn't manufacture another crisis," Mr. Obama said, citing earlier fights of the debt ceiling and spending cuts, "we can probably muddle along without taking bold action." The President said doing so would be un-American. "If we just stand by and do nothing in the face of immense change, understand that an essential part of our character will be lost," he said.
While the address was high on rhetoric of that sort, there were some noticeable shifts in strategy and emphasis.
Mr. Obama made a point of stating that a "group of Republicans" was blocking his efforts, an acknowledgement that some moderate Republicans, especially in the Senate, have been co-operating with the White House on issues such as immigration.
The President also was more forceful in his assertion that he would use executive authority whenever possible to implement economic policies, a suggestion that drew applause. And it was unusual for Mr. Obama to single out business leaders as vital to helping break the legislative impasse.
"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."