Tilly: All eyes on Galesburg

BY ZACH TILLY | JULY 29, 2013 5:00 AM

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I have, for a number of reasons, been thinking a lot lately — too much, even — about Galesburg, Ill. I drive through there every week or two, I’ve had a song about Galesburg stuck in my head for days, and a few days back, the president stopped in for a visit.

Last week, President Obama chose Galesburg — presumably for its relatively rural charm and its sentimental value — as the backdrop for a major economic policy speech. Obama’s most recent “pivot to the economy” was met with cynicism by those who believe that the president is looking to distract people from the disappointments, scandals, and general stagnation of this year by simply changing the subject.

Others noted that the president’s economic speech might have been timed to present the White House’s economic agenda ahead of another looming Congressional budget fight slated for later this year. What’s lost in the endless analysis and the lethargy of midsummer is much of what Obama actually said in Galesburg.

His economic message was centered primarily on reversing the tide of systemic inequality. “Even though our businesses are creating new jobs and have broken-record profits,” President Obama said in Galesburg, “nearly all the income gains of the past 10 years have continued to flow to the top 1 percent.”

The average compensation for CEOs, he noted, has gone up by nearly 40 percent since 2009, while wages for many have stagnated for the past 15 years. The crux of his message: “This growing inequality not just the result of inequality of opportunity — this growing inequality is not just morally wrong, it’s bad economics.”

In his discussion of the state of the economy, the president has stopped pulling punches. His message has sharpened since the last election, and that shift isn’t exclusive to his characterization of the economy. Obama has also been speaking more forcefully about climate change lately. Last month, the president unveiled a new round of executive measures to reduce carbon emissions, including a tightening of power-plant regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency.

He’s spent this summer taking on some major problem that nobody in Washington wants to deal with, and it seems as though he’s free to do that because nobody wants to deal with him right now. In Iowa, for example, Obama’s approval ratings are in the tank. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found that 55 percent of Iowans disapprove of the job President Obama is doing, compared to 41 percent who approve. In May, 50 percent disapproved and 45 percent approved, according to the same poll.

It may be that we are in the trough of Obama’s wave of approval, but it is suddenly a distinct possibility that we will spend the next few years with a president who is not much more than an impotent harbinger of doom, able to point out the systemic failures that will ultimately crush us but unable to do much to stop them. In time, Obama’s warning at Knox College will be lost to the ever-churning news cycle, and soon I’ll stop thinking so much about Galesburg, but the big problems — rapidly diverging social classes and a harsher climate among them — will still be there.

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