President Obama Shifts Focus To The Economy

Jul 24, 2013
Originally published on July 24, 2013 2:04 pm

NPR’s national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us to talk about the politics of President Obama’s economic speech at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.


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I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW.

In the first in a series of economics speeches, President Obama told the audience at Knox College today that Washington's highest priority must be strengthening the middle class.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This growing inequality, it's not just morally wrong. It's bad economics, because when middle-class families have less to spend, guess what? Businesses have fewer consumers. When wealth concentrates at the very top, it can inflate unstable bubbles that threaten the economy. When the rungs on the ladder of opportunity grow farther and farther apart, it undermines the very essence of America, that idea that if you work hard, you can make it here.

YOUNG: The president also called on both Republicans and Democrats to make this vision a reality, and said he wouldn't let gridlock stand in his way. Well, that might be tough. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson listened in. Mara, did anything jump out at you? Was there anything brand new?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: No. I didn't think there was anything brand new in the speech. But I thought the speech itself and the fact that he's giving about six or eight more of these speeches on different topics over the next couple of weeks and months is new. I think the president is trying to regain control of the narrative. I think he's getting ready for some debates, really difficult debates with the Republicans in the fall, as we reach the deadlines around the debt ceiling and a possible government shutdown.

And I also think that the president is doing what his supporters have been begging him to do, which is tell a disciplined, relentless story about the economy over and over and over again, present a coherent, unified vision of where you want the economy to be, and do it so often that all of the things that distract him and knock him off stride and the other debates in Washington will not prevent the American people from knowing what he wants to do.

YOUNG: But he also risks - people saying as they are now, you can see it all over social media - this is the same thing we've also heard. But as you say, he's willing to take that risk to lay this groundwork. Tell us more about what's ahead.

LIASSON: Well, I think - you mean the deja pivot criticism? Is that what you're referring to?

YOUNG: Yes. Yes.

LIASSON: Yes. You know what? I think that's theater criticism. The fact is that the president has to say these things over and over again for them to cut through. Of course, he has to actually accomplish things. And one of the problems that he's facing is that it's been six months in his second term, and he hasn't passed anything yet. His approval numbers are dropping. He's in the mid to high 40s now. His approval on handling the economy is also dropping. That is a problem.

And we're about to get some second-quarter growth numbers that might be zero-point-something. So all those are problems. But he has to come back to the economy over and over again, because that is the number one thing people care about. They don't care about guns and immigration and Syria. They care about jobs and the economy.

But if you're asking what's ahead, what's ahead are more speeches. There's a speech coming up on housing, on college affordability, on retirement security. There's going to be one on income inequality. There's going to be one on infrastructure. There's also going to be a speech on the fifth anniversary of The Wall Street crash. So the president is really planning to roll out. Some proposals in these speeches will be new. Some will be executive orders, and some will be things he's asking Congress to do, along with renewed calls for the things that he's already asked for, like universal pre-K, a rise in the minimum wage, more money for infrastructure. But, of course, the truth about all of those things is he can't get any of them without a big deal on taxes and entitlement reform with Republicans. And that grand bargain does not seem any closer today than it's been.

YOUNG: And, Mara, just briefly, he's doing all of this as much of Washington is getting ready to go on vacation.

LIASSON: Well, I think that's the point. This is a vacuum that he can fill. These are the dog days of summer. There's not much else going on. So the president is going to fill it by telling a very familiar economic story. But this is his narrative, that the middle class has been squeezed for the last 30 years, not just recently. You know, that even though productivity is going up, the average persons' wages hasn't change since 2009, but the top 1 percent has nearly quadrupled in the last 30 years. He's also telling the story about where we are since the recession began. We're back, but we have a long way to go.

YOUNG: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks, as always.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.