If Washington can get past the fiscal fights looming on the horizon without another manufactured crisis, President Obama said Wednesday, the nation can probably "muddle along" without taking bold action to reshape the economy. But that's not enough, the president said.
"It may seem hard today, but if we are willing to take a few bold steps - if Washington will just shake off its complacency and set aside the kind of slash-and-burn partisanship we've seen these past few years - our economy will be stronger a year from now. And five years from now. And ten years from now," Mr. Obama said at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., in the first of three speeches he's delivering this week to lay out his broad economic vision for the future.
"What makes us special," the president continued, "has never been our ability to generate incredible wealth for the few, but our ability to give everyone a chance to pursue their own true measure of happiness. We haven't just wanted success for ourselves - we've wanted it for our neighbors, too."
With Republicans in Congress dead set in obstructing the White House's agenda at every turn -- whether it's the implementation of Obamacare, higher education budgets or environmental regulations -- Mr. Obama this week is returning to the voters to make the case for the basis of his economic agenda. Manufacturing, education and health care are all worth investing in, he's arguing, to rebuild an economy founded on a strong middle class.
The nation, he said, is "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 president pointed to the statistics that underscore the need for bold action: for instance, the income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, while the typical family's income has barely changed. The average American earns less than he or she did in 1999, while companies continue to hold back on hiring.
Without making fundamental, long-term economic changes, the president said, "an essential part of our character will be lost."
"Our economy will grow, though slower than it should; new businesses will form, and unemployment will keep ticking down," he said. "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."
Washington has "taken its eye off the ball," Mr. Obama said, "And I am here to say this needs to stop. Short-term thinking and stale debates are not what this moment requires."
Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, have balked at the president's three-speech tour, claiming they've been focused on job creation since taking over the House but have seen little help from the president.
"What's the point?" House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said on the House floor Wednesday, questioning the rationale behind the president's speech. "What is it going to accomplish?"
The speech, he said, is "a hollow shell. It's an Easter egg with no candy in it... Americans aren't asking the question, 'Where are the speeches?' They're asking, 'Where are the jobs?'"
Boehner said the president should start spurring economic growth by approving the Keystone XL pipeline or delaying the Obamacare mandate for individuals to obtain health insurance. The White House has yet to say whether it will approve the pipeline, but Mr. Obama on Wednesday slammed the "politically-motivated misinformation campaign" against the Affordable Care Act, pointing out that there's evidence premiums will go down in states that are committed to fully implementing the law.
The president said his vision for a stronger economy entails raising the minimum wage; investing in education and job training; investing in industries like wind, solar and natural gas; and letting homeowners refinance their mortgage. After laying out those ideas, Mr. Obama challenged Congress to offer up their own.
"You can't just be against something," he said. "You gotta be for something."