WASHINGTON — It's hard to find anyone who thinks President Barack Obama's series of heavily promoted economic speeches will be the flash point that unclogs the system in Washington — including the president.
A day after he kicked off the tour in Illinois and Missouri, Obama was traveling Thursday to a seaport in Jacksonville, Fla., to yet again deride the wide gulf between his vision for a new American prosperity driven by a burgeoning middle class and the intense gridlock snarling up Congress.
"With an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball," Obama said Wednesday in Galesburg, Ill. "And I am here to say this needs to stop."
But even Obama knows little will change unless pressure from Americans refocuses the conversation. He acknowledged as much on Monday, as he offered supporters of Organizing for Action, the nonprofit backing Obama's agenda, a preview of his efforts to come.
"Here's the thing: It will be a pretty good speech," Obama said to scattered laughter. "But as we've learned, I've given some pretty good speeches before and then things still get stuck here in Washington."
"Which is why I'm going to need your help," he added.
So Obama set off on a two-day swing to towns far away from Washington, hoping to stockpile momentum ahead of looming fall fights over the nation's borrowing limit and federal spending levels. On Thursday, he planned to emphasize how House Republicans were threatening to undermine progress in key areas like jobs, housing, education and health care by pushing a budget that preserves deep cuts to federal agency operating budgets, the White House said.
In northeast Florida, Obama and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx were to tour the Jacksonville Port Authority, giving the president a chance to focus on what he says is a critical need to reinvest in American infrastructure to enable future economic growth. The president will promote the need to speed up projects by expediting permitting and cutting red tape in line with an executive order he signed. The port's terminal plans to expand its rail yard and container facility under a project enabled by that program, the White House said.
The visit also marks Obama's first to the state since the acquittal of the man charged in the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. The case has generated a painful, nationwide debate about racial prejudice. Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Florida planned to greet Obama with a full-page ad in the local newspaper claiming it is Obama, not Republicans, who has taken his eye off the economy.
Although Obama is offering little in the way of new policies or fresh solutions, his advisers couched the speeches as a concerted effort to put a spotlight on the economy after a six-month stretch that's been dominated by issues like gun control and immigration, as well as foreign policy crises and domestic controversies.
While official Washington's attention was elsewhere, the economy was slowly but steadily improving. The housing market is recovering, the stock market is booming, and unemployment is falling despite remaining uncomfortably high at 7.6 percent.
Obama's pleas for a more solutions-oriented Washington were tempered by his own sharply partisan tone as he accused Republicans of putting short-term politics ahead of the people's business.
"There are Republicans in Congress right now who privately agree with me on a lot of the ideas I'll be proposing. I know because they've said so," Obama said. "But they worry they'll face swift political retaliation for cooperating with me."
Likewise, the quick reactions to Obama's remarks made evident the deeply engrained obstacles to such cooperation as both parties blamed each other for blocking progress. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California called Obama's speech "a clarion call to action" on jobs, growth and middle-class prosperity.
"Americans deserve better than the Republicans' repeal-only agenda," Pelosi said. "It's time for Republicans to join Democrats in establishing a better bargain for the middle class."
Not so, said Republicans, who panned the president's remarks as a series of repackaged ideas and empty promises.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called it "a colossal waste of time" that "generates little more than a collective, bipartisan eye roll." GOP House Speaker John Boehner's spokesman, Brendan Buck, chimed in: "Summary of the president's speech: 'I'm going to give more speeches.'"
The broad economic themes Obama planned to illustrate Thursday will be followed up in the coming weeks by another series of speeches drilling down on key sectors such as manufacturing, education, housing, retirement security and health care. Advisers say some of those speeches will contain more specific policy proposals, both for legislation and executive action Obama can take without congressional approval.
The first of those addresses was to come Tuesday, when Obama will travel to Chattanooga, Tenn., to promote American competitiveness at an Amazon fulfillment center, which packs and ships products to online purchasers. The White House said some new policy ideas will be unveiled during that visit.
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