By Justin Sink - 10/02/14 02:15 PM EDT
The midterm elections should be a referendum on "two starkly different visions" for the economy, President Obama told students at Northwestern University on Thursday.
"I am not on the ballot this fall…. But make no mistake: these policies are on the ballot," Obama said of Democratic proposals such as raising the minimum wage. "Every single one of them."
"It is a direct result of the American people’s drive and determination, and the decisions made by my administration," the president said.
Obama looked to blame congressional Republicans for voter frustration, saying the GOP had failed to move on a series of policy priorities that would help the middle class.
"When push came to shove this year, and Republicans in Congress actually had to take a stand on policies that would help the middle class and working Americans — raising the minimum wage, enacting fair pay, refinancing student loans, extending insurance for the unemployed — the answer was 'no,'” Obama said.
The president said Republicans should "have the courage to lay out" their ideas for creating job growth, and blasted the GOP for clinging to a platform that he said would provide tax cuts to the wealthy.
"If there were any credibility to the argument that says when those at the top do well, eventually everyone else will do well, it would have borne itself out by now," Obama said.
In response, Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerCameras go dark during House Democrats' sit-in Rubio flies with Obama on Air Force One to Orlando Juan Williams: The capitulation of Paul Ryan MORE’s (R-Ohio) office pointed to a speech he delivered two weeks ago at the American Enterprise Institute that included a five-point plan for “resetting” America’s economy.
For Obama, Thursday's speech was aimed equally at bolstering his own legacy and providing a helping hand to Democrats fighting for their political lives this fall.
The two issues are not unrelated. Despite a surging stock market and job growth, the president's approval numbers on the economy are near record lows, and he is seen largely as a liability for vulnerable Senate candidates.
A majority of Americans — 53 percent — disapproved of Obama’s handling of the economy in a CBS News/New York Times poll released earlier this month.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMcConnell: Trump needs to 'catch up fast' on fundraising McConnell dodges on whether Trump is qualified to be president Sunday shows preview: Next steps after Trump upheaval MORE (R-Ky.) ripped the president’s policies, pointing to people "who are suffering so much in the Obama economy."
"What about Americans who work in industries that liberals in Washington don’t approve of, like coal?" McConnell said. "This administration has thrown a wet blanket over the economy with its focus on spending, borrowing, taxing and regulating, and those things clearly haven’t worked."
Throughout his sprawling address, Obama argued that he has laid "the cornerstones" of a new economy throughout his fist six years in office.
The president said that investments in energy and technology had driven down costs and brought jobs back to America. He bragged that "public education in America is actually improving" and said his signature health care program has made it easier for businesses to grow.
The president described the economic benefits of ObamaCare as "staggering" and said the slowdown in premium increases since the law's passage was the equivalent of a $1,800 tax cut for the average American family.
"Healthcare has long been the single biggest driver of America’s future deficits," Obama said. "Healthcare is now the single biggest factor driving those deficits down."
The result of his policies, Obama said, is "an economy teeming with new industry and commerce; humming with new energy and new technologies; bustling with highly-skilled, higher-wage workers."
But, Obama argued, the nation "can't let up, or grow complacent." He touted a shopworn list of Democratic priorities, from infrastructure spending to universal pre-K to immigration reform.
"I’m going to keep making the argument for these policies, because they are right for America. They are supported by the facts," Obama said.
The president also vowed to continue using executive action to pursue that agenda "if gridlock prevails."
"If cooperation and compromise are no longer valued, but vilified; then I will keep doing everything I can on my own if it will make a difference for working Americans… Until Congress chooses to step up and help all of them, I will keep fighting for this," Obama said.
While the president's defense of his economic priorities provided a blueprint for Democratic candidates this fall, some liberal groups say the renewed focus on domestic policies might be too little, too late.
"The president's speech is a step in the right direction, but possibly too little too late for Democrats on the ballot who would have benefited from a strong economic populist message all year long," said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
Headlines in recent months have been dominated by foreign crises, from the threat posed by Islamist radicals in Syria and Iraq to Ebola to Russia's incursions into Ukraine.
Obama sought to tie his economic record to America's ability to project power abroad, arguing, "what supports our leadership role in the world is the strength of our economy at home."
— This story was updated at 2:56 p.m.