What Will Be President Obama's Objective For City Club Speech?

President Obama at 2013 visit to ArcelorMittal steel plant in Cleveland (photo: Brian Bull)
President Obama at 2013 visit to ArcelorMittal steel plant in Cleveland (photo: Brian Bull)
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President Obama’s City Club speech will focus on middle class economics. During his last visit in November 2013, Obama also spoke of the middle class, comparing the turnaround of the city’s ArcelorMittal steel plant to a determined push towards prosperity.

“When we work at it, we know we can get to a better place,” said Obama. “And we can restore some security to a middle class that was forged in plants just like this one, and keep giving ladders of opportunity for folks who were willing to work hard to get into the middle class. That's what I'm about.”

These hopeful high notes targeted northeast Ohio residents, who had weathered a housing crisis, recession, and stagnant wages over the past decade.

And this late in his final term, the President can afford to be rosy as he crafts his legacy. Much like Ronald Reagan was in 1988, at his City Club appearance. Reagan used the moment to champion his presidency and Republican initiatives.

“We cut taxes, we quashed inflation, deregulated the economy unleashing the creative energies of the American people,” said Reagan. “The result would never have been imagined, by expert opinions eight years ago. Some 14 and a half million new jobs, more jobs than Europe and Japan created, combined.”

But Jim Foster -- who was the City Club’s Executive Director for 20 years -- recalls there was an ulterior motive for Reagan’s speech.

“President Reagan came specifically because there were concerns about how sharp he was or wasn’t, and they wanted to demonstrate that he was fully capable, had all his faculties.”

Five years later, on May 10th, 1993, President Bill Clinton – just months into his first term – followed the bell’s chime and promoted his vision for America…which included tackling a $300 billion deficit.

“The results have been clear…” began Clinton, “…a limited ability to create new jobs, even when productivity is growing. We’re allegedly in an economic recovery of some 17 months in duration and yet the unemployment rate is higher this month than it was at the depths of the recession.”

Later, Clinton signed the Deficit Reduction Act of 1993, credited as helping provide a surplus in later years. And Clinton came back for a second turn at the podium in the fall of 1994.

Again, Jim Foster:

“Ah, it was called “Restarting the Economic Agenda” and it was right before the midterms,” recalls Jim Foster. “And it was a critical forum to try to get some traction as far as the economic policies that they’d been putting forth but that they had not been very successful in getting a lot of public support for.”

A week after Clinton’s remarks, the so-called “Republican Revolution” swept Congress….a development that challenged the president’s agenda and set the stage for a government shutdown.

The most recent sitting president to speak to the City Club had his own share of conflicts, nine years ago.

President George W. Bush spoke on May 20th, 2006….the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq War.

“The central front on the war on terror is Iraq,” asserted Bush.

By this point, the Abu Ghraib scandal and prolonged fighting against insurgents were making the American public weary of the conflict. President Bush used his appearance to justify the war, and the ouster of a tyrant.

“There’s much discussion in our country about the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, and our remaining mission in Iraq. The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was a difficult decision. The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision.”

Former City Club executive director Jim Foster says Bush wanted to demonstrate he wasn’t afraid to take questions about the war. The president’s question and answer session lasted more than 40 minutes.

“It was quite extraordinary,” recalls Foster, “it was almost like a press conference only it was for the general public because it wasn’t reporters asking questions, it was actual citizens.”

It’s safe to expect that President Obama will champion his initiatives -- from the Affordable Care Act and his push for increased exports – as well as frame his party as the one that’s looking out for middle class Americans in this battleground state.

This late in his final term, there’s not much at stake politically for the president…though John Green, a University of Akron political science professor, says it’s a good time to highlight his legacy and sell his successes as part of the Democratic Party’s pitch for future elections.

“There’s after all going to be a new president in 2017,” says Green. “I’m sure that President Obama would like it to be a Democrat. And anything he can do to help that future campaign, he’ll want to do. But also even if his successor is a Republican, he’ll want to lay down some markers for economic policy, and goals for the broader government.”

In addition, President Obama may speak of his efforts to advance energy development and increase wages for the working class. iven that the unemployment rate is low both nationally and in Ohio, it’s likely the president will want to take credit for that as well.

Meanwhile, Republicans are preparing for their own forum here next year, when the Republican National Convention comes to Cleveland.

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