President Barack Obama spoke at Northwestern University on Oct. 2. RoundTable photo

President Barack Obama came to Evanston last week to address students at Northwestern University and the Kellogg School of Management, who filled the more than 1,000 seats at NU’s Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St. 

“Hello Evanston. Hello Northwestern. … It’s great to be back home,” he said in his opening remarks. He last visited NU to give a commencement speech in 2006, when he was a Senator. He spoke at Chute Middle School when he was running for Senate.

In his 50-minute speech, President Obama highlighted how the economy has improved since he took office, and he listed many things that remained to be done. A thread through his speech was that a strong middle class is essential to a strong America.

In the last four and a half years, he said, the economy has grown stronger. Businesses have created 10 million new jobs; homes are selling for more money; and the stock market has doubled. 

Some other economic gains he mentioned are the U.S. now produces more oil than it buys from other countries; it has tripled the amount of energy harnessed from the wind and increased tenfold the energy generated from the sun; manufacturing jobs are increasing twice as fast as the rest of the economy; about 10 million people, who were previously uninsured, have obtained health insurance under the Affordable Care Act; health-care costs are increasing at a much slower pace, so that the cost of Medicare and Medicaid is projected to be $188 billion less in 2020 than projected a few years ago; and the federal deficit has dropped from 10% of the economy to 3%.

Yet, the President said, “The gains of the recovery are not broadly shared – or at least not broadly shared enough. … The typical family isn’t bringing home any more than it did in 1997.”

 “When the middle class thrives, and when people can work hard to get into the middle class then America thrives. And when it doesn’t, America doesn’t,” he said.

 “This is going to be a central challenge of our times. We have to make our economy work for every working American. And every policy I pursue as President is aimed at answering that challenge.”

He listed some of the things that still need to be done: rebuild roads and bridges; keep investing in clean energy technology; increase pre-school enrollment by 6 million children; invest in the best ideas; fix the broken immigration system; raise the minimum wage; and eliminate barriers that keep more moms from entering the workforce.

He said the decisions on “whether or not we restore the link between hard work and higher wages, whether or not we continue to invest in a skilled, educated citizenry, whether we rebuild an economy where everyone who works hard can get ahead” will set the conditions for middle-class growth in this century and determine whether or not “we set the stage for America’s greatness in this century.

“American economic greatness has never trickled down from the top. It grows from a rising, thriving middle class and opportunity from working people.”

He told the business students in the audience, “So as you engage in the pursuit of profits, I challenge you to do so with a sense of purpose. As you chase your own success, I challenge you to cultivate more ways to help more Americans chase their success.”

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...