By DARLENE SUPERVILLEAssociated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - Seeking to focus public attention on the problem he was sent to the White House to solve, President Barack Obama is making a renewed push for policies to expand the middle class, helping people he says are still treading water years after the financial meltdown.
Obama will use a series of back-to-back speeches over two days to take another stab at selling the public on his vision of a thriving economy.
The first of those speeches comes Wednesday when Obama visits the Midwest to speak at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., where he gave his first major speech as a freshman U.S. senator in 2005 during booming economic times. He is not expected to announce any new initiatives. The president also speaks later in the day at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. The third speech is set for Thursday at the Jacksonville Port Authority in Florida.
The White House is billing Obama's latest speech at Knox College as a major one, comparable in tone to the commencement address he delivered there eight years ago, also about the economy. Back then he talked about how the country can give every American a "fighting chance" in a 21st century transformed by technology and globalization.
The trio of speeches comes as Congress prepares to leave Washington next week for its monthlong August recess. These and other speeches planned for the coming weeks and months are designed to increase public pressure on lawmakers in hopes of avoiding showdowns over taxes and spending in the fall.
The White House believes such stalemates will stunt the economy, which has added more than 200,000 jobs a month in the past six months. The new federal budget year begins Oct. 1 and the government will soon hit its borrowing limit.
Even before Obama spoke, Republican congressional leaders were panning the president's renewed economic focus.
"Every time he goes out and gives one of these speeches, it generates little more than a collective bipartisan eye roll," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "It's just such a colossal waste of time and energy - resources that would be better spent actually working with both parties in Congress to grow the economy and create jobs."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said, "Welcome to the conversation, Mr. President. We've never left it."
In his 2005 speech at Knox College, Obama spoke about how technology and globalization and the weakening of labor unions had upended the idea that those who worked hard would be able to get good jobs that paid enough to support their families, provided adequate health care, allowed them to retire with dignity and gave them hope that their children would have a better future.
He was expected to argue Wednesday that those underlying trends haven't been reversed.
"They are still a central challenge that we face," Obama told supporters Monday night in Washington. "There's no more important question for this country than how do we create an economy in which everybody who works hard feels like they can get ahead and feel some measure of security."
Other issues, like stemming climate change, advancing women's and civil rights, and reducing gun violence, are important too, Obama said. "But what we also know is, is that so many of the issues that we care about are more likely to progress if people feel good about their own lives and their economic situation."
Obama said Wednesday's speeches begin a monthslong effort to refocus on the economy. New policy proposals are expected to be included in a series of single-issue, follow-up speeches planned through September.
The economy largely has been overshadowed in the first six months of Obama's second term, partly driven by a White House that chose to invest time and political capital on other parts of his agenda, such as the failed effort to enact stricter gun laws and the push for an immigration bill.
Circumstances outside of the White House's control also played a role, including the civil war in Syria, the coup in Egypt and renewed attention by Congress to the deadly attack on Americans in Libya. Closer to home, the targeting of political groups by the Internal Revenue Service and the seizure of journalists' telephone records by the Justice Department also required large investments of White House time.
The economy has showed slow improvement throughout, registering gains in the housing and stock markets and consumer confidence. The national unemployment rate, though it remains high by historical levels, actually is down to 7.6 percent.
But the coming fiscal deadlines threaten to undo that progress, adding a sense of urgency to the push in Washington and with the public at large to focus on the economy.
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