GALESBURG, Ill. - Seeking to force the public debate back to the economy, President Obama today slammed Republicans for standing in the way of his efforts to boost the middle class, as he launched a campaign to highlight his second-term priorities.
"With an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball. And I am here to say this needs to stop," the president said in a lengthy, high-profile speech at Knox College, the site of his first economic address on the national stage in 2005.
"Short-term thinking and stale debates are not what this moment requires. Our focus must be on the basic economic issues that the matter most to you - the people we represent. And as Washington prepares to enter another budget debate, the stakes for our middle class could not be higher," he said.
With a fresh round of federal deficit and debt ceiling negotiations looming, the president outlined his economic vision and vowed to help the middle class going forward, declaring his "highest priority" to be the fight against economic inequality.
"This growing inequality isn't just morally wrong; it's bad economics," he said. "That's why reversing these trends must be Washington's highest priority."
"Unfortunately, over the past couple of years in particular, Washington hasn't just ignored the problem; too often, it's made things worse," he said. "Over the last six months, this gridlock has gotten worse."
The president took credit for the economy's comeback and touted the steps his administration has taken, including tax reforms, investments in new technology and the auto industry bailout.
"Five years after the start of that Great Recession, America has fought its way back," he said to applause. "But I'm here today to tell you what you already know - we're not there yet. … We have more work to do."
"The key is to break through the tendency in Washington to bounce from crisis to crisis. What we need isn't a three-month plan, or even a three-year plan, but a long-term American strategy, based on steady, persistent effort, to reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades," he said.
The president did not outline any new initiatives, however. Instead, he largely restated his previous proposals and said he would "engage the American people in this debate" through a series of speeches in the next several weeks.
"I will lay out my ideas for how we build on the cornerstones of what it means to be middle class in America, and what it takes to work your way into the middle class in America," he said. "Some of these ideas I've talked about before, and some will be new. Some will require Congress, and some I will pursue on my own. Some will benefit folks right away; some will take years to fully implement."
"It may seem hard today, but if we are willing to take a few bold steps - if Washington will just shake off its complacency and set aside the kind of slash-and-burn partisanship we've seen these past few years - our economy will be stronger a year from now," he said.
The president urged Republicans to set politics aside and work to find common ground. "There are Republicans in Congress right now who privately agree with me on many of the ideas I'll be proposing, but worry they'll face swift political retaliation for saying so. Others will dismiss every idea I put forward either because they're playing to their most strident supporters," he said. "In either case, I say to these members of Congress: I am laying out my ideas to give the middle class a better shot. Now it's time for you to lay out yours."
Republicans aren't buying it and have criticized the president's latest "pivot" back to the economy.
Speaking on the House floor earlier today, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, likened the president's speech to "a hollow shell."
"It's an Easter egg with no candy in it," he said. "Americans aren't asking the question 'where are the speeches?' - they're asking, 'Where are the jobs?'"
The president largely repeated his remarks in Illinois during a later stop at the University of Central Missouri today, a site he claimed was a "laboratory" demonstrating methods colleges can use in keeping student costs from going up. The university partners with a local high school, community college and businesses in areas including health care and engineering to allow students the option to fast-track a bachelor's degree in those fields in two years.
Next week, President Obama will continue his economic tour with a stop at an Amazon facility in Chattanooga, Tenn., for a speech the White House said will focus on manufacturing and "new ideas to create American jobs."
ABC News' Matthew Larotonda contributed to this report.