WASHINGTON — In the run-up to President Obama's big economic speech at Knox College in Illinois Wednesday, Republicans pointed to the frustratingly slow growth and said the state of the economy is Obama's responsibility.
At Knox College, Obama offered his response: I'll take it.
The speech kicked off a new economic focus by Obama, one administration officials say will focus on the president's goal of expanding the middle class. But the speech also served as a marker for the president to lay the White House view that the recession is in America's rearview mirror and the country has Obama to thank for it.
"Today, five years after the start of that Great Recession, America has fought its way back," Obama said at Knox according to prepared remarks distributed by the White House.
Six months into his second term, Obama said the wind is at America's back.
"Thanks to the grit and resilience of the American people, we've cleared away the rubble from the financial crisis and begun to lay a new foundation for stronger, more durable economic growth. In our personal lives, we tightened our belts, shed debt, and refocused on the things that really matter," he said. "As a country, we've recovered faster and gone further than most other advanced nations in the world. With new American revolutions in energy, technology, manufacturing, and health care, we are actually poised to reverse the forces that have battered the middle class for so long, and rebuild an economy where everyone who works hard can get ahead."
The focus of Obama's speech was not on dealing with economic crisis, but with building on what the White House feels is real success on the economic front under Obama's leadership. Critics have panned Obama's effort to return to the economic topic, saying he can do little to affect things with the congressional gridlock he faces.
Obama pointed to the Affordable Care Act, mortgage reforms, and the tax increases on the rich he championed as a foundation to economic change that's already happening, even as he called for more action in the future. The long-term goal, Obama said, is to grow the middle class.
"I will lay out my ideas for how we build on the cornerstones of what it means to be middle class in America, and what it takes to work your way into the middle class in America," Obama said. "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 and inequality. Growing prosperity and opportunity."
The country is no loner in financial crisis, Obama said, saying it's up to Congress to see how far things go from here.
"As long as Congress doesn't manufacture another crisis — as long as we don't shut down the government just as the economy is getting traction, or risk a U.S. default over paying bills we've already racked up — we can probably muddle along without taking bold action," Obama said. "Our economy will grow, though slower than it should; new businesses will form, and unemployment will keep ticking down. Just by virtue of our size and our natural resources and the talent of our people, America will remain a world power, and the majority of us will figure out how to get by."
The White House has been careful to avoid saying the economy is in full rebound, a case that's hard to make anyway with unemployment still high and wages stagnant. But the Knox College speech was largely about projecting confidence and taking credit for the positive changes in the economy so far — and using those changes as evidence that Congress should follow Obama's economic model going forward.
"America, we have made it through the worst of yesterday's winds," Obama said. "And if we find the courage to keep moving forward; if we set our eyes on the horizon, we too will find an ocean of tomorrows, a sky of tomorrows — for America's people, and for this great country that we love."
Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.
Contact Evan McMorris-Santoro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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