Pressing his case in the town that launched his political career, President Barack Obama called Friday for the government to take an active, wide-ranging role in ensuring every American has a "ladder of opportunity" into the middle class.
Speaking at Hyde Park Academy in Chicago, Obama sought support for proposals, unveiled this week in his State of the Union address, to increase the federal minimum wage and ensure every child can attend preschool. He also pitched plans to pair businesses with recession-battered communities to help them rebuild and provide job training.
"In too many neighborhoods today, whether here in Chicago or in the farthest reaches of rural America, it can feel like for a lot of young people the future only extends to the next street corner or the outskirts of town, that no matter how much you work or how hard you try, your destiny was determined the moment you were born," Obama said.
Ensuring that no child is denied the ability to go as far as his or her talents will allow means removing some of the roadblocks from early in life, Obama said, calling for intensified efforts to promote healthier family environments. He called for removing financial disincentives to marry and reforming child support laws in hopes that more children will grow up in stable homes — and, specifically, with a responsible father in the picture.
Holding himself up as an example, Obama reflected on the absence of his father during his childhood, but said he had advantages not enjoyed by others, such as the at-risk young men from an anti-violence school program he met just after arriving in Chicago.
"I had issues, too, when I was their age. I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving. I had more of a safety net," he said.
Obama also pledged to partner with 20 of the country's hardest-hit communities to "get them back in the game." He said his administration would work with local leaders to cut through red tape, targeting neighborhoods pulled down by the weight of violent crime to help reduce crime using methods that have been proven to work.
The Chicago swing was a warm homecoming for Obama, just three days after delivering the first State of the Union address of his second term as president. Joining Obama at the school were many of the Illinois Democrats he worked with as a state senator, plus his former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
"This is where Michelle and I first met, where we fell in love," Obama said, prompting sitcom-style oohs from children in the audience. "It's good to be home."
Since the Tuesday speech, Obama has traveled to a new town each day, fleshing out the proposals he included in his address and asking the American public to get behind them. On Wednesday, he traveled to Asheville, N.C., to make the case for raising the minimum wage. On Thursday, he flew to the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, Ga., to push his proposal to provide preschool for all 4-year-olds.
But once Obama returns to Washington next week, the tough task of gathering congressional support for his proposals begins.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, seemed unmoved by Obama's appeals to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 to help workers paid at that rate escape poverty. Doing so, Boehner said, would cost jobs. Republicans have also been highly skeptical of his plans to expand preschool and enact an assault-weapons ban, claiming these and other proposals represent a misguided attempt to expand government's reach into areas best left to individuals and states.
"If we gather together what works, we can extend more ladders of opportunity for anybody who's working to build a strong, middle-class life for themselves," Obama said. "We may not able to help everybody, but we help a few, and that propels progress forward."
Although the purpose of Obama's visit was to promote economic and jobs proposals outlined in the speech, he also touched on the subject of gun violence, a potent issue in Chicago. In addition to commonsense measures to keep guns from criminals, Obama said, efforts to strengthen families and communities can help deter individuals from choosing violence in the first place.
After Chicago, Obama was headed to Palm City, Fla., to spend the long holiday weekend relaxing with friends, the White House said. He was to return to Washington on Monday.