Before a packed crowd at the Paramount Theatre, President Barack Obama delivered optimistic remarks that centered on the economy, job growth, and income inequality Thursday afternoon.
During his speech, which came at the end of a two-day fundraising trip to Texas, Obama also slammed obstinate Congressional Republicans, who he heavily criticized for shooting down every “serious idea” aimed at strengthening the middle class.
Obama pointed to 10 million new jobs, 52 straight months of job growth, a rebounding housing market, and an unemployment rate lower than levels seen in 2008 as signs of economic recovery.
“By almost every measure, we are better off now than when I took office. But the fact is, we still got a long way to go,” he said.
In his appeal to the middle class, Obama skewered income inequality – fueled by GOP policies – pointing to record corporate profits and executive pay. While we’ve fared better as a whole, said the President, the ultra-wealthy continue to reap the benefits while wages for the working class haven’t kept up with the rising cost of living. “If you work full-time, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty,” he said.
Partisan gridlock and “cynical political games” by House Republicans have stunted progress, said Obama, citing their failure to extend unemployment benefits, raise the minimum wage, support food stamps, pass fair pay laws, or bring the immigration reform package bill to a floor vote. Their legislative priorities have only served to bolster the pocketbooks of large corporations and big banks, said the President. The best thing you could say about the GOP at this point is that they haven’t managed to shut the government down, Obama half-joked.
The President also took the opportunity to mock GOP attempts at impeachment and litigation against him by members of the Texas delegation for alleged abuses of executive power. Obama countered that the number of executive orders which include student loan interest rate relief and minimum wage increases for federal contract workers – are the lowest amount issued in the past 100 years.
“You hear some of them ... 'Sue him! Impeach him!,'” he said. “Really? Really? For what? You're going to sue me for doing my job? Think about that. You're going to use taxpayer money to sue me for doing my job, while you don't do your job.”
Casual, candid, and admittedly tired from lack of sleep, the President—fresh from lunch at Magnolia Café – doled out his hallmark charm to the local audience (“Let’s face it, I just love Austin.” And: “It’s great to play at the Paramount – I think I’ve finally made it.”) His ultimate message (for those still buying that message, at least): Don’t be cynical. Stay hopeful.
While the President’s speech didn’t focus on immigration (although, when it was mentioned, he did draw some heckling), the issue is hot on the minds of many, including local residents. Across the street from the Paramount, a group of immigration reform protesters in blue shirts chanted and waved signs that listed ways the Obama administration could help alleviate the immigration crisis. Among them: Expand DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), ensure DREAMers benefit from DACA, reunite families torn apart by deportation, and take steps to end the widespread incarceration of immigrant communities.
De facto leader Sheridan Lagunas, an undocumented local resident, called on Obama (via bullhorn) to end deportations (shortly before being asked to relocate by a man presumably with the nearby presidential event). Lagunas localized his criticism, expressing his opposition to the Secure Communities program and said he hoped to highlight the story of undocumented resident, Erik Zumaya, an Austin father of six, who is said to face deportation on Friday after a 2010 arrest for driving without a license.
“Erik’s family, who are all U.S. citizens, have been worrying endlessly all night, we are here to support them. He is one of the many that can’t wait until the end of the year for action from the President,” said Lagunas.
The cadre of immigration reform activists is affiliated with United We Dream, a national immigrant youth-led organization. Members of the group participated in the anti-deportation protests during the LBJ Civil Rights Summit in Austin, which ended in three arrests, and similarly rallied earlier this week, along with LGBTQ rights group GetEQUAL, outside a fundraiser for the President at the home of filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. The organization points to the more than 2 million deportations under the Obama administration, the highest of any U.S. president to date.
Immigration reform activists hoped Obama would visit the border to witness first-hand the “humanitarian crisis” unfolding as a result of the influx of thousands of Central American refugee children. An estimated 52,000 unaccompanied child immigrants from the area have illegally crossed the southern U.S. border this year.
On the other end, Obama came under pressure from conservatives to visit the border (albeit with different intentions), including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who specially requested to meet with the President to talk border security – because for Perry, a handshake at the airport just wouldn’t suffice. At the roundtable discussion in Dallas on Wednesday, the President urged Perry to persuade his Republican colleagues in Congress to grant $3.7 billion in emergency relief funds to the border crisis. In response to the calls to the visit the border, Obama said, “This isn’t theater; this is a problem. I’m not interested in photo-ops, I’m interested in solving a problem.”
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