In a much anticipated speech in Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium on Thursday afternoon, President Barack Obama explained the facts behind the foundational policies of his administration, the progress those policies have already yielded and what needs to be done moving forward — calling on Kellogg School of Management students as the “business leaders in the future” to follow his vision for a future with a strong middle class.
“This is a university that is brimming with the possibilities of the new economy,” Obama said. “It’s going to be young people like you and universities like this that will shape the American economy and shape the conditions for middle class growth well into the 21st century.”
In front of a crowd of local political figures like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ill. Governor Pat Quinn, university administrators like President Morton Schapiro, graduate students and a few undergraduates, Obama focused on his administration’s four cornerstones: investments in energy and technology, preparing children with quality education for future jobs, health care reform and improving America’s fiscal stability.
Obama began by arguing that, because of those cornerstone goals, “it is indisputable that our economy is stronger than when I took office,” citing statistics such as the lower unemployment rate, the higher job creation rate and the number of businesses created under his administration.
However, he acknowledged, “it’s also indisputable that Americans don’t feel the benefits of the growing economy,” and said that there are specific policies still in place that need reform if the middle class is to share equally in the growth of the economy. Thunderous applause met Obama’s demand for a higher minimum wage and equal pay for women.
“If we raise the minimum wage, we won’t just put more money in workers’ pockets,” Obama said. “They’ll spend that money at local businesses, who in turn will hire more people … Let’s agree that nobody who works full time in America should ever have to raise a family in poverty.”
As for the fact that women still receive lower pay than men, “it’s stupid,” Obama said.
Raising women’s pay will “not just going to give women a boost,” he said, laughing. “Gentlemen, you want your wife making that money. It gives the entire family a boost, and it gives the entire economy a boost.”
Obama also set a new goal, effective Thursday, that his administration would enroll six million children in “high quality preschool” by the end of the decade. He also cited the need to rebuild roads and bridges, make it easier for people to buy their first home, invest in clean-energy technology, fix a “broken immigration system” and help students pay off their college loans.
Obama touched on the problem of Congressional gridlock, reiterating that he will continue to enact the change he wants outside of Congress, pushing for his policies “because they are right for America – they are supported by the facts.
“But every once in a while, we actually see a bill land on my desk from Congress,” he said. “We do a bill signing. I look at the members, and I tell them, ‘Look how much fun this is! Let’s do this more often!’”
The Thursday speech did not serve Obama’s personal political ends, he said, but rather the policies, or “cornerstones,” that his administration has implemented over the past six years.
“I’m not on the ballot this fall,” Obama said. “Michelle’s pretty happy about that. But make no mistake, these policies are on the ballot. This isn’t some official campaign speech, and I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, although I suppose it’s kind of implied.”
Obama also defended himself against conservative arguments classifying his agenda as anything other than “pro-business,” the way he characterized his own policies, citing healthy corporate balance sheets and a rebounding economy.
But he was quick to clarify that he also believes not so much in the power of the individual as he does in the power of the people.
“There is a reason why I came to a business school instead of a school of government. I actually believe that capitalism is the greatest force for prosperity and opportunity the world has ever known. I believe in private enterprise and not government, but innovators and risk-takers and takers and doers...but I also believe in a higher principle which is we’re all in this together.”
Following on that sentiment, Obama concluded his speech by asking the Northwestern MBA and undergraduate students in the audience to remember the American people as they follow their individual goals.
“As you engage in the pursuit of profits, I challenge you to do so with a sense of purpose. As you chase your own success, I challenge you to cultivate more ways to help more Americans to chase their own success.”