Washington • It was 2005, just an hour or so before the graduation ceremony at tiny Knox College, and then-Sen. Barack Obama was ducking into classrooms, desperately seeking a computer to make last-minute tweaks to his commencement address.
The finished product was a 24-minute defense of the government’s role in boosting middle class prosperity and preparing the nation to compete in an increasingly interconnected global economy. It also marked Obama’s first economic address as a national political figure.
Much has changed since then, both for Obama and the economy. Yet the graduation speech at the Galesburg, Ill., college has remained a touchstone for the president and his advisers through two national campaigns and five years in the White House.
“I think it is one of the best distillations of the problems we face and the case for a government role in ensuring that American dream,” said Robert Gibbs, a longtime Obama adviser who was serving as his Senate communications director in 2005. “Galesburg has always been a good reminder for him and for the staff of what is really at stake.”
The president will return to Knox College Wednesday for what the White House is billing as another major address on the economy. Advisers say his remarks will be infused with the same themes he articulated eight years ago — themes that are also strikingly similar to so many of the economic addresses he has made in the intervening years.
The centerpiece of Obama’s 2005 speech was a takedown of what he called an “ownership society” that leaves each individual responsible for their own success or failure. Instead, he backed a government role in shaping “our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we’re all in it together and everybody’s got a shot at opportunity.”
Fast-forward to 2013 and the same message is featured prominently in Obama’s second inaugural address.
“No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores,” he said from the steps of the U.S. Capitol. “Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.”
Obama’s longtime speechwriter Jon Favreau said the president has purposely sought to echo the Galesburg speech in other economic addresses.
“Every economic speech has built on that first one,” said Favreau, who left the White House earlier this year. Upon his departure, Obama presented him with a framed copy of the Knox College speech.
Despite the consistency in Obama’s economic vision, the nation’s economy has experienced major upheaval since he first spoke at Knox. Back then, the nation’s unemployment rate was 5 percent, with 7.5 million people unemployed. One global recession and tepid recovery later, the unemployment rate stands at 7.6 percent and nearly 12 million Americans are unemployed.
Galesburg also serves as an example of the nation’s economic struggles. One year before Obama’s first speech at Knox, a Maytag plant in town shuttered its doors, leaving hundreds of people unemployed. The old factory still sits vacant, and Galesburg’s unemployment rate sits just under 8 percent. About 23 percent of the town’s population lives in poverty — 10 percent more than the state as a whole.
What’s also changed since that first address is Obama’s responsibility for those economic conditions. As a freshman senator, an economic vision for places like Galesburg was all Obama really needed. Now he bears a large share of the responsibility for putting in place policies that advance that vision and ensuring they succeed. In return, the nation’s economic health will ultimately dictate much of Obama’s legacy as president.
The president’s Republican critics argue he should spend less time talking about the economy and more time implementing policy — though Republicans and Democrats rarely agree on what policies to implement.
“If Washington Democrats were really serious about turning the economy around, they’d be working collaboratively with Republicans to do just that, instead of just sitting on the sidelines and waiting to take their cues from the endless political road-shows the president cooks up whenever he feels like changing the topic,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
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