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Obama to talk jobs in struggling Illinois town

U.S. President Barack Obama makes remarks on student loans from the White House in Washington May 31, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama makes remarks on student loans from the White House in Washington May 31, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama returns on Wednesday to an Illinois town that has been a touchstone for his plan to rebuild America's manufacturing sector, giving the first in a series of speeches that will set the tone for his fiscal battles with Congress in the fall.

The White House said the address in Galesburg, Ill. will lay out Obama's priorities in the face of a pair of expected fights with Republicans over raising the government's debt limit and the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins October 1.

"The President wants to talk about the issues that should be at the core of that debate," senior Obama advisor Dan Pfeiffer said in an email announcing the speech.

The speech signals Obama's plans to go on the offensive with his jobs message this summer after months of defending his administration, which has suffered recent setbacks in Congress and been accused of abuses by civil libertarians as well as conservatives.

Obama will introduce some new economic ideas this summer, Pfeiffer said, although it was not clear what those would be.

Galesburg, a town of about 30,000 people, lost more than 900 jobs after Maytag, now owned by Whirlpool Corp, announced in 2004 that it would shut down a refrigerator factory.

Then-Senator Obama met with workers, and spoke about them at the Democratic National Convention that year, when he first turned heads as a potential future presidential candidate.

He also gave a commencement address at Knox College in Galesburg in 2005 and mentioned the town's struggles in his State of the Union speech in 2010.

A Knox College study of what happened to the Maytag workers found that six years after the plant closed, the workers' median household income had dropped by $10,000, and 40 percent of those surveyed said they would never recover financially.

Most of them felt the "American Dream" was out of reach, according to study results published in 2011 by the Galesburg Register-Mail newspaper.

NEW IDEAS, FAMILIAR ARGUMENTS

Obama has often said jobs are his top priority, with unemployment remaining stubbornly high above 7 percent.

But he has spent much of his second term battling Republicans over other priorities such as gun control, immigration reform, and the roll-out of his landmark 2010 healthcare restructuring law.

The Democratic president also has been put on the defensive to explain government surveillance programs after a former U.S. government contractor leaked information about phone and email collection programs aimed at Americans as well as allies abroad.

His Galesburg address comes the week after the biggest municipal bankruptcy filing in American history, in Detroit - a former manufacturing powerhouse and the historic center of the U.S. automotive industry.

Obama played a key role in helping to bail out the auto sector in 2009, but the White House is now struggling to determine how it can help Detroit get back on its feet financially.

Obama, who will give a number of similar speeches this summer, will present new ideas as well as some familiar arguments to seek the upper hand in the economic debate in his Galesburg address, Pfeiffer said.

He will give a second speech later on Wednesday at the University of Central Missouri, which runs an "Innovation Campus" to give accelerated training and internships to high school students focused on science, math and engineering.

Obama's message will be bolstered by addresses in Washington this week by senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Gene Sperling, head of the National Economic Council, Pfeiffer said.

"The President thinks Washington has largely taken its eye off the ball on the most important issue facing the country," Pfeiffer said.

"Too many in Congress are trying to score political points, re-fight old battles, and trump up phony scandals," he said.

Obama has pitched economic ideas in his second term, including the development of a new network of manufacturing hubs, an infrastructure jobs program, investments in education and a hike in the minimum wage.

He has urged Congress to lower the corporate tax rate, particularly for manufacturers, and raise taxes on the rich.

But his ideas have fallen flat in Congress, especially the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Obama last visited Galesburg in 2011 during a bus tour of the Midwest where he also focused on jobs. The campaign-style tour came after that year's battle with Congress on spending and the debt ceiling, which resulted in a cut to the long-term U.S. credit rating and a hike in U.S. borrowing costs.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Paul Simao)

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