Confronting deep partisan divide over the 2014 federal budget, tax reform and raising the debt ceiling later this year, Obama’s first address in Illinois and another planned for later Wednesday in Missouri sought to frame the budget debate by focusing on the nation’s recovery from recession during his presidency and his call for equal opportunity that helped him win two elections.
Obama said at Knox College that “America has fought its way back” after recession, but noted that the upward track of top-income earners while the average worker struggles to get by was “morally wrong” and “bad economics.”
Earlier Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged to CNN that a goal was to ratchet up pressure on Republicans to work with Democrats and the White House, noting that “in the end, members of Congress respond to their constituents.”
Republicans call Obama’s speeches a retread strategy that lacks fresh ideas to further bolster an economy that everyone agrees should be growing faster.
“We have heard it all before. It is really quite old,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said before Obama spoke Wednesday, adding that more speeches by the president only generated what the Kentucky Republican called a “bipartisan eye roll.”
The first six months of Obama’s second term have been dominated by issues like gun violence and immigration reform, with legislation on both currently mired in partisan wrangling. In addition, controversies such as Internal Revenue Service targeting of groups seeking tax-exempt status have been prominent.
Senior administration officials say Obama wants to change the terms of the political debate and lay out the economic direction he feels America should take in a series of speeches in coming weeks as the government approaches the end of its fiscal year on September 30.
Obama called for Washington to focus on “rebuilding our manufacturing base, educating our workforce, upgrading our transportation systems, upgrading our information networks” instead of what he labeled “an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals.”
Knox College is where Obama delivered his first major economic address of his national political career eight years ago.
He warned that the position of the middle class will erode further if America avoids bold action and continues to allow the economy to muddle along.
The president was particularly tough on conservative Republicans in the House who he blamed for blocking progress on issues such as immigration reform agreed to by their GOP colleagues in the Senate.
“Washington has taken its eye off the ball. And I’m here to say, this needs to stop,” Obama said.
He added that he would use executive authority and call on call on business leaders, philanthropists, labor leaders — “anybody who can help” — to push for economic changes promoting equal opportunity.
“I will not allow gridlock or inaction or willful indifference to get in our way,” Obama said.
Later in the day, Obama he travels to the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg for another address.
Despite slow but steady growth over the past four years, polls show many Americans are still concerned about unemployment and the economy overall even though indicators show an improving recovery and Wall Street is again in record territory.
Two new surveys on Wednesday indicated less than half of Americans approve of the president’s handling of the economy. Both polls, by NBC News/Wall Street Journal and ABC News/Washington Post, found more respondents disapprove of how Obama has dealt with the economy, which remained the top issue for the public.
Regardless of what has occurred in recent months, the national debate was certain to focus on the federal budget this summer.
Pitched political battles over spending and taxes have dominated Obama’s presidency, and Republican leaders spurred on by conservative House Republicans facing congressional elections next year are threatening hardline negotiating tactics over the budget and affiliated issues of tax reform and forced spending cuts known as sequestration that took effect this year.
Both the Republican-majority House and Democratic-majority Senate have passed spending proposals for fiscal year 2014, but the measures bear little resemblance to each other in terms of priorities.
Any attempt to reconcile differences through negotiation faces complications from related issues such as whether the sweeping government spending cuts that took effect in March and hit the military and discretionary accounts hard should continue unchanged.
Another potential landmine is the opposition by conservative Republicans, including some GOP leaders in Congress, to fund implementation of the health care reform law pushed through by Democrats with Obama’s backing in 2010.
Further complicating the debate is the certain need for Congress to authorize an increase in the government’s borrowing limit, or debt ceiling, sometime this fall.
House Speaker John Boehner has made clear that any rise in the debt ceiling would require an equal cut in government spending to get GOP support, a demand known as the Boehner rule as set by the Ohio Republican.
The White House has said it will not negotiate on the debt ceiling. Some congressional Republicans balk at linking it to specific demands, such as cuts in funds for implementing health care reform, but insist that more must be done to reduce deficits and debt.
“I think holding the debt limit a hostage to any specific thing is probably not the best negotiating place,” GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri told MSNBC on Wednesday. “Where we ought to be now is, we need more spending cuts.”
Blunt specifically called for reforms to popular entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to reduce their costs “so they last.”
However, Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on entitlements, long a target of conservatives seeking to shrink government, especially programs that they say lead to federal dependence.
Democrats argue the government pension program and health care for the elderly and poor are part of a vital social contract that ensures the well-being of vulnerable citizens.
By Adam Aigner-Treworgy and Tom Cohen
CNN’s Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.
The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2013 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.