WASHINGTON – Education will be the focus as President Obama barnstorms from Buffalo to Syracuse to Binghamton next week.
The White House confirmed Wednesday that Obama will be stressing the importance of a quality and low-cost education on his two-day upstate bus trip, which other sources said will start Aug. 22 in Buffalo and end late the next day in northeastern Pennsylvania.
“He will discuss the importance of ensuring that every American has the opportunity to achieve a quality education by reducing cost and improving the value of higher education for middle-class students and their families,” said a White House official who asked not to be identified by name.
The White House still has not said exactly where Obama will appear in the Buffalo area or in any other stops on the bus trip.
As for the focus on education, it’s a continuing and evolving one for the president.
Upon signing a bill stabilizing student loan interest rates last week, Obama indicated that the measure was just a first step toward controlling college costs.
Praising the bipartisan congressional coalition that forged the student loan agreement, Obama said: “I’m going to be looking forward to engaging this same coalition to see if we can continue to take additional steps to reform our higher education system, and I’ll have some more things to say about that in the weeks to come.”
Obama said at the bill-signing that the cost of college is now “out of reach for a lot of folks” and that even those who can afford a higher education then find themselves laden with debt for years to come.
“The amount of debt that young people are coming out of school with is a huge burden on them; it’s a burden on their families,” he said. “It makes it more difficult for them to buy a home. It makes it more difficult for them if they want to start a business. It has a depressive effect on the economy overall. And we’ve got to do something about it.”
The president also stressed the issue in a speech at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., on July 24, saying that just as a college degree is getting more expensive, it’s getting more essential.
“The days when the wages for a worker with a high school degree could keep pace with the earnings of somebody who got some sort of higher education – those days are over,” he said. “Everybody here knows that.”
Obama’s upstate trip is part of his “better bargain for the middle class” effort, which started at Knox College. The tour is taking him to cities across the country this summer, stressing different pocketbook issues all along the way.
And to Obama, education is a pocketbook issue that’s wrapped up in his ongoing budget battles with Republicans.
With a government shutdown looming Sept. 30 unless Congress and the president agree on a spending plan for the 2014 fiscal year – or at least some sort of stopgap measure – Obama is criticizing the cuts in education funding included in “sequestration,” the draconian and automatic budget cuts that took effect earlier this year.
Republicans want to extend those cuts, but Obama calls them a drag on the economy.
“Rather than reduce our deficits with a scalpel – by cutting out programs we don’t need, fixing ones that we do need that maybe are in need of reform, making government more efficient – instead of doing that, we’ve got folks who’ve insisted on leaving in place a meat cleaver called the sequester that’s cost jobs,” Obama said in Galesburg. “It’s harmed growth. It’s hurt our military. It’s gutted investments in education and science and medical research.”
Those cuts are coming at a time of great change for the economy – which was the focus of Obama’s last visit to Buffalo in May 2010.
Returning to that theme in his speech in Galesburg, Obama stressed that education and the economy are now inextricably linked.
“There are a whole bunch of folks here whose dads or grandpas worked at a plant, didn’t need a high school education,” he said. “You could just go there. If you were willing to work hard, you might be able to get two jobs. And you could support your family, have a vacation, own your home. But technology and global competition, they’re not going away. Those old days aren’t coming back.”