President Obama touted ambitious policy goals – including universal child care and free community college – to strengthen middle class families when he spoke before an enthusiastic crowd of more than 7,000 at the University of Kansas on Thursday.
The president’s visit to KU – the first by a sitting president since President Taft’s in 1911 – comes two days after he repeatedly defended what he called “middle class economics” in his State of the Union address.
He used that phrase repeatedly at KU’s Anschutz Sports Pavilion as he stood before a large sign that read, in capital letters, “MIDDLE CLASS ECONOMICS.”
Obama chose to visit two of the reddest states in the nation, Kansas and Idaho, to promote his vision for his last two years in office. He acknowledged that he hasn’t fared well in the Sunflower State in elections, joking that he might have won sections of Lawrence, one of the state’s few Democratic strongholds.
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But the president, whose mother was born in Wichita, reflected on his roots in the state and referred to himself as a “Kansas guy.” He recounted how his grandmother had worked in a bomber factory in Wichita during World War II and said that the U.S. helped provide child care to working mothers during a time when many fathers were fighting overseas.
“This country provided universal child care because they understood if women were working they were going to need some help … but we stopped doing it,” Obama said. “Now in today’s economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, affordable child care and early childhood education – these aren’t just ‘nice-to-haves.’ These are must-haves.”
“If we knew how to do this back in 1943 and ’44 … what’s the holdup?” he asked.
He was introduced by Alyssa Cole, a KU senior and single mother, who said that the cost of child care almost prevented her from pursuing her education.
Student debt, child care
Nancy Schneider-Wilson, who listened from the audience, said she faced a similar challenge when she attended graduate school at KU in the 1990s.
“I went broke putting my kids in day care when I was working and going to schools,” said Schneider-Wilson, who now teaches graphic design at Johnson County Community College. She said she sees her current students face similar struggles.
Schneider-Wilson is thrilled by the president’s proposals to make community college free. “I think it’s a great idea,” she said. “It takes people who want to go further, further.”
Obama said that the combination of student loans and child care costs can be crippling for many young parents.
“And by the way, Republican families feel it just as much as Democratic families,” he said.
He told Republicans who don’t support his plan to show him their ideas, but said they could no longer pretend that issues like student debt and child care do not exist.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Dodge City, contended that the president’s own policies had made it tougher for working students to make ends meet.
“In the Obama economy, Kansas students are struggling to pay their tuition and even their grocery bills,” Roberts said in a news release. “Obamacare made that burden even more challenging by forcing employers like KU to cap the work hours of many part time student employees.”
Roberts said that voters had sent the president a clear message on election day, when Republicans reclaimed control of the U.S. Senate and strengthened their hold on the U.S. House.
Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, said the president is the one who is out of touch. “For a President – who has moved more folks from the middle class to food stamps – to claim he suddenly understands what Kansans need, shows how disconnected he is from the real world and from the hard working people from our state,” he said in a statement.
In his speech, Obama acknowledged that what often stops such initiatives is how to pay for them and repeated his desire to rewrite the tax code to benefit low- and middle-income people. He contended that Americans do not mind paying their fair share of taxes, but said the current tax code is unfair.
“We’ve got lobbyists who have rigged the tax code that lets some corporations pay nothing. … We’ve got the super rich getting breaks they don’t need and middle class folks not getting the breaks they do need for things like child care,” he said, calling for Congress to close loopholes that benefit corporations that move jobs overseas.
“Use that money to help more Americans pay for college and child care,” he said emphatically.
‘Nothing to lose now’
People began filling up the pavilion as early as 8 a.m. The KU band provided a soundtrack of Sousa marches and the “Star Wars” theme to entertain the attendees waiting for the president to arrive.
Dawn Shew, who works as an academic adviser at KU, brought her three children.
Her son Jake, 10, said he figured his teachers at Kennedy Elementary in Lawrence would understand him missing school to see the president speak.
Shew said she voted for Obama twice, but this would be her first time watching him speak.
“It’s like he has nothing to lose now, so he’s saying everything,” Shew observed about the State of the Union address about an hour before the president began his remarks.
State Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, said the speech made her proud both as a black woman and as a Wichitan. Faust-Goudeau excitedly described an encounter with the president and said she invited him to Wichita.
“It was amazing! I felt like a little kid at a rock star concert,” she said.
Another person who was star-struck was Tammy Bartels, president of the Kansas PTA, who got to have a brief meeting with Obama.
“The U.S. Department of Ed called me over the weekend and were like, ‘Would you like to meet the president?’ What?! Of course! Who wouldn’t want to? He was very earnest and kind and interested. It was amazing,” Bartels said.
She voiced strong support for the president’s idea to increase access to early childhood education, noting that many studies show its long-term benefits but not all families can afford to pay for preschool.
Seeing the president speak was a special thrill for Maulin Sheh, who was born in India and now lives in Lawrence.
“I became a citizen last year, so this was a great opportunity for me. And also today President Obama is flying to India, so I told all of my friends, I’m going to see him before you guys see him,” he said.