President Barack Obama’s speech at the University of Central Missouri late Wednesday afternoon was a promise to invest in education — and, by extension, the success of the middle class.
In an auditorium packed with hundreds of UCM students and Warrensburg residents, Obama declined to repeat the lengthy economy-themed speech he had recited earlier that day in Galesburg, Ill. “What I do want to talk about today is what I talked about when I gave my first big speech as a senator eight years ago,” he said. “And that’s where we as a country need to go.”
Obama’s stop in Warrensburg marked his first visit to Missouri since May 2012, when he spoke at Joplin High School’s commencement ceremony a year after a deadly F5 tornado devastated the area. On that occasion, the president’s message was one of rebuilding and recovery — a sentiment echoed Wednesday in his words on the economic turnaround.
“We did this together,” Obama said. “Because Americans are gritty, are resilient, and work hard, we’ve been able to clear away the rubble of the financial crisis.”
Obama cited strong private sector job growth, surging exports, oil production and a fast-falling deficit as crucial factors in national economic growth.
He pledged to prioritize the middle class by investing in education and vowed to devote the remainder of his term to increasing the availability of high-quality preschools, rethinking high schools and addressing the soaring costs of higher education.
The president praised UCM’s Missouri Innovation Campus program, a partnership between the university, the Lee’s Summit School District, Kansas City’s Metropolitan Community College and regional businesses that equips students with high-demand skills and allows them to graduate two years after high school with minimal debt. He said he viewed the program as an example for the nation to follow.
“That’s a recipe for success over the long term,” Obama said.
Because technology and global competition had permanently changed the face of the workplace, he said, failing to invest in American education would place workers and businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
“If you think education’s expensive, you should see how much ignorance is going to cost in the 21st century,” he said.
The president’s words resonated with many of the members of his audience.
Retired teacher and Warrensburg resident Marlene Stewart said she appreciated Obama’s commitment to keep students from drowning in debt. “He refreshed our memory to how far we’ve come,” she said.
Stewart said programs like Missouri Innovation Campus are mutually beneficial arrangements that allow college students to learn important workplace skills while fulfilling the companies’ needs.
“That’s so important — that you have respect for the people you work for,” she said. “I think we’ve lost some of that.”
James Mongkhvilay, a junior studying graphic design at UCM, said he found the president’s message especially encouraging.
“On a personal level, as far as my own situation with being a student and talking about debt … it gives me a little bit of hope,” he said.
Mongkhvilay said he was financing the costs of college through a combination of grants and student loans, adding that he was apprehensive about the prospect of repaying the borrowed money.
“It’s a little rough,” he said.