WARRENSBURG — Expanding opportunities for the middle class, making it easier for students to pay for college and the success of the Missouri Innovation Campus were some of the topics President Barack Obama touted Wednesday during a stop at the University of Central Missouri.
Addressing a crowd of approximately 2,000 people in the UCM Student Recreation and Wellness Center, including many UCM students and staff, Obama said the bargain the country made with the middle class after World War II has “begun to fray.”
“In the period after World War II, the middle class were the engine of prosperity,” he said. “The economy did well in part because everyone was participating, whether you owned the company or swept the company floors or were somewhere in between, America offered a basic bargain — if you work hard you’ll be rewarded with fair wages, a chance to save for retirement ... but most of all a chance to pass on a better life to your kids.
“Then that engine began to stall ... and now a lot of middle class families believe the odds have been stacked against them and they’re right. There’s been a long-term erosion of middle class security that’s evident for everyone to see.”
The good news, Obama continued, is that five years after the worst of the recession America is recovering, noting in the past 40 months more than 7.2 million jobs have been created, the private sector has seen its strongest job growth since 1999, America produces more natural gas than any country in the world. “(The country) is about to produce more oil than we buy overseas for the first time in 20 years,” and the deficit is falling at the fastest rates in 60 years.
“We did this together,” Obama said to the crowd’s cheers of approval. “Americans are gritty and resilient and work hard. We’ve been able to clear away the rubble of the financial crisis and we’re starting to lay a new foundation for more durable economic growth. But I’m here to tell you what you already know — we’re not there yet.”
Building a middle class, ensuring its security and getting the economy to work for everyone were what Obama named as his No. 1 priorities, saying Washington has “some basic changes to make.”
“We have to get back and focus on what’s important,” he said. “We need to focus on jobs, the economy and helping middle class families get ahead. If we do that we’ll solve a whole lot of other problems. We can’t get involved in short-term thinking and keep having the same old debates, we have to focus on the core issues that matter.”
Much of the long-term plans Obama suggested Wednesday dealt with education, including making high-quality preschool programs available to every 4-year-old and connecting 99 percent of the country’s schools to high-speed Internet within five years.
Obama also said it was important to “re-think high school so our kids graduate with real world skills and reward schools that forge partnerships with universities and businesses and focus on science, technology, math and engineering.” He added colleges must do their part to keep tuition rates down, and in turn, states should prioritize education funding during budget talks.
One long-term idea Obama noted was the Missouri Innovation Campus, a collaboration between UCM, the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District, Metropolitan Community College and area businesses that allows students to “fast track” their education and graduate high school with both their high school diploma and associate’s degree. Students are then able to attend UCM and receive a bachelor’s degree in as little as two years, while being guaranteed an internship and possible job in a high-tech field upon graduation.
“Everyone is working together to equip students with better skills, allowing them to graduate faster with no debt and a certainty of getting a job at the other end,” Obama said. “That’s a recipe for success over the long term. That’s exactly the kind of innovation we need to cut college costs. I want the entire country to notice it, for other colleges to take a look at what’s being done here.”
During the next three years of his term Obama said the focus “needs to be on tackling college costs, creating more good jobs, establishing a better bargain for middle class families and an economy that grows not from the top down but from the middle out.”
“It may seem hard right now, but if we’re willing to take a few bold steps, if Washington can shake off its complacency ... I promise you our economy will be stronger a year from now,” he said. “There are so many wonderful things about this country but what makes us the envy of the world is that ... no matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from or who you love, you can make it here if you’re trying hard enough. We’ve got to make sure that continues, not just for this generation but for the next generation too.
“I’m going to spend every minute, for as long as I have the privilege of being in office, making sure I’m doing every single thing I can so middle class, working families out there struggling every single day know that work can lead to a better place, to making sure the American dream is available for everybody, not just now but in the future.”