Government & Politics

President Obama tackles economy, cynicism in Kansas City speech

The Kansas City Star

President Barack Obama worked to rally public support for his economic policies Wednesday in a Kansas City speech that expressed worry about the nation’s gap between rich and poor.

He ticked off a range of successes he sees in the economy, including encouraging growth numbers released earlier in the day. He noted growing high school graduation rates, dropping unemployment numbers, increased manufacturing and exports.

Then he quickly turned to familiar themes, that the federal government needs to spend more on education and job training and adopt reforms that make economic opportunity more universal. And he suggested part of the reason Americans don’t benefit more for the rise of the stock market and other uptick in the economy rests with Republicans in Congress. The Democrat hit partisan notes throughout the speech.

“How do we make sure we’ve got an economy that’s working for everybody?” Obama said. “Imagine how much further along we’d be if Congress was doing its job. … They haven’t been too helpful. They haven’t been as constructive as I would have hoped.”

The president claimed that he’s had to sidestep Congress — Republicans have been highly critical of the way he’s used executive orders — to impose rules on gender pay equity, student loan payment caps and a variety of other measures.

In fact, Republican leaders have said they will sue the president for what they see as his failure to comply with limits on presidential power, particularly with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

“You who’s paying for this suit they’re going to file? You,” he said. “It’s not a productive thing to do.”

He pushed again for a raise in the minimum wage, noting that he’s ordered federal contractors to pay at least $10.10 an hour. Obama argued that better paid workers make for less frugal consumers, who could rev up the economy.

“America deserve a raise and it’s good for everybody,” the president said.

He closed his speech encouraging the crowd toward optimism, saying “cynicism never put a man on the moon.”

Obama spent the night in the Crowne Plaza in downtown Kansas City after having dinner at Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque with four local residents who’d written letters to him.

Wednesday’s speech at the Uptown Theater would mark the fourth time in four years that the president used people and places in or near Kansas City as backdrops to talk about the economy.

Demonstrators showed up early, some calling for Obama’s impeachment, others concerned about abortion or marijuana legalization and some calling for more support for Israel in the escalating conflict with Hamas.

One sign read “America deserves truth.” Another said “I have no medical options left.” Yet another said “BO BS” with an arrow pointing to the word “chaos.”

Robert Cherry of Kansas City stood outside the hall, disappointed that the president planned to talk economics rather than abortion of immigration issues.

“One percent of people own most of the wealth, so why are we discussing the economy?” Cherry said. “Abortion and deportation are much more important to everyone else.”

The Sciolaro family of Leawood arrived outside the theater at 7 a.m. to call for Obama “to do more to protect Israel.”

“It’s biblical,” Vicki Sciolaro said. “As Christians, we want to stand with Israel. We’ll stay here ’til we fall over or someone tells us to go home.”

Those gathered outside, and cordoned off by police tape, raised their signs and shouted as the president’s long string of vehicles pulled up to the theater about 10:30 a.m.

Inside the Uptown, much of the crowd of about 1,500 was just thrilled to see a U.S. president in the flesh. Some brought books to fill the hours while they waited. Pop music, from ancients such as Journey to more contemporary stuff from the likes of Pharrell Williams, played during the long wait.

Katrina and Brad Foster showed up at 8:45 a.m. for the 11 a.m. speech. Katrina Foster said seeing the president, well, “it’s on our bucket list.” They were curious to hear what the president has to say about the economy partly because Brad Foster is looking for work.

Sixteen-year-old Darian Malone said she thinks the president is personable and was “just excited to be here.”

A large, royal blue banner strung up inside the Uptown nodded the direction the president’s speech: “Opportunity for all.”

About 70 people were seated on risers behind the president’s lectern and below the banner. Flags, per usual for such events, were in abundance.

Obama got a bump for his message earlier Wednesday when the U.S. Commerce Department reported the American economy surged in the second quarter, more than offsetting a first-quarter setback and putting growth back on an upward direction for 2014. The country’s gross domestic product grew at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4 percent from April through June.

Victor Fugate of Butler, Mo., one of four local residents who had dinner with the president Tuesday, introduced him at the Uptown as somebody who “can really tear up some ribs. But if the first lady is watching, it was a beautiful salad.”

The president skipped on stage to a few bars of “Hail to the Chief” wearing a tie, sans jacket, with his sleeves rolled up.

He was interrupted by someone in the crowd as he was joking about barbecue.

A woman in the balcony called out to the president, yelling: “Jesus is the God of Israel. He is fully God.”

Obama responded: “I believe in God. … Thanks for the prayer.” Then the woman was drowned out by a quick “we love you” chant from the crowd.

Shortly after the speech, the Republican National Committee issued a statement criticizing the president’s talk.

“It’s clear President Obama is not living in the same economic reality that the rest of the country is, where growth is still on pace for one of the weakest years since the end of the recession, ObamaCare is raising premiums, and each month more Americans drop out of the workforce than actually find jobs,” the statement said.

The president’s presence in the heart of the city, and the need to move the presidential motorcade to the Uptown Theater and later to Kansas City International Airport, choked off streets as he passed.

Air Force One awaited the president and his entourage at KCI.

The Star’s Steve Kraske, Allie Hinga and Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

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