President Barack Obama blasted the policies of Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans on Thursday at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse during a speech that outlined new overtime rules intended to boost middle-class earnings.

The president arrived by Air Force One at the La Crosse Regional Airport, where he shook hands and exchanged greetings with Walker as well as La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, both D-Wis.

Obama greeted about two dozen invited guests on the tarmac during his first La Crosse visit as a sitting president before heading to the university, where he delivered the speech under a banner proclaiming “MIDDLE CLASS ECONOMICS” to an enthusiastic crowd of 2,399.

“It is good to be back in God’s Country,” Obama said as he took the stage.

Obama warmed up the crowd — and asked for a bratwurst — before attacking the economic strategy that brought him to Wisconsin.

Middle-class economics works when Americans come together, Obama told the pumped-up crowd at the Recreational Eagle Center.

“America has always done better when we’re all in it together and everybody gets a fair shot,” Obama said. “Everybody gets their fair shot, everybody is doing their fair share and nobody is playing by their own set of rules, and we all feel like we have a common stake in our success, from the CEO in the corner suite to the workers on the factory floor.”

That principle built the American middle class, Obama said.

“When you drive through La Crosse and throughout Wisconsin, when you see communities where kids are thriving and communities are thriving, it’s because everybody has a shot. Everybody is working hard. Everybody is pitching in. That’s when we’re at our best,” Obama said.

Obama said his economic policies support that ideal of everyone doing their fair share, including his Tuesday announcement that the U.S. Department of Labor will update the salary threshold to receive overtime pay.

“This is an issue of basic fairness. If you work longer and work harder, you should get paid for it,” Obama said.

The threshold to receive overtime will be increased to $970 per week, or $50,440 per year, in 2016 — up from the $455 per week, or $23,660 per year, it has been since 2004. He says the change will allow workers currently designated managers to receive overtime pay they deserve.

“They essentially label someone as a manager instead of a worker, even if they are making like $25,000, working a whole bunch of hours. It’s a way of getting around the minimum wage; it’s not fair,” Obama said.

Obama said the rules would give 80,000 people in Wisconsin and 5 million people in the U.S. overtime protections.

“In America, a hard day’s work deserves a fair day’s wage,” Obama said.

Obama advocated for a higher minimum wage, expanding sick leave and addressing the economic effects of child care.

“We’ve got to make sure that when we’ve got families where the mom and dad work, that we’re putting together ways for them to still make sure their kids are secure and safe,” Obama said.

Obama called for free community college “for responsible students,” and investing in the education system and infrastructure, as well.

Obama said his economic policies are working, noting that the U.S. created 223,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate is at 5.3 percent, nearly half the 10 percent it was when he took office.

“And that’s good. But we’ve got more work to do because we’ve got to get folks’ wages and incomes to keep going up,” Obama said. “We’ve got to make sure folks feel like their hard work is getting them somewhere. And let’s face it, there are a lot of folks who still feel like the playing field is tilted in ways that make it hard for them to get ahead.”

Obama said the Affordable Care Act was a step in that direction by providing people with the financial security of insurance.

Obama took some shots at his opposing party while celebrating his signature law.

“I have these vague recollections of when Republicans were saying Obamacare would kill jobs and crush freedom and bring about death panels. And it turns out we’re still celebrating the Fourth of July. The only difference is another 16 million Americans can celebrate it with health care. That’s worth celebrating,” Obama said.

“The republic survived,” Obama joked.

Obama didn’t pass up the opportunity to take some shots at the Republican presidential hopefuls either.

“We’ve got some healthy competition in the Democratic Party, but I’ve lost count of how many Republicans are running for this job. They’ll have enough for an actual Hunger Games,” Obama said.

The crowd laughed and applauded the reference to Suzanne Collins’ popular series.

“That is an interesting bunch,” Obama said.

Obama was glad to see Republican presidential candidates raising concerns about the middle class, but said, “They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.”

“The one thing that the bus full of people who are fighting to lead the Republican ticket all share is they keep on coming up with the same old trickle-down, ‘you’re on your own’ economics that helped bring about the crisis back in 2007-2008 in the first place,” Obama said.

Before going into detail about his disagreements with Republicans, he emphasized that he believes the candidates are good people with bad ideas.

“We’re one country, we’re all on one team, and so we’re all one American family. But we all go — we’re at Thanksgiving and Uncle Harry starts saying something and you say, ‘Uncle Harry, that makes no sense at all.’ You still love him. He’s still a member of your family,” Obama said.

“But you’ve got to correct him. You don’t want to put him in charge of stuff,” Obama added.

Obama assured any Uncle Harrys in the audience that it was just an example — bringing more laughter from the crowd — before citing specific Republican ideas he disagrees with.

“Here are a few of their bad ideas: Eliminating taxes that the wealthiest Americans pay on their investments while making you pay taxes on every dime of your paycheck. That’s a bad idea,” Obama said.

Obama also noted the Republican Party’s resistance to raising the minimum wage.

“Keeping the minimum wage worth less than it was when Ronald Reagan took office before most of you were born — that’s a bad idea,” Obama said. “Although, to be accurate, at least one of them actually thinks we just shouldn’t have a nationwide minimum wage at all — we should just get rid of it.”

Without naming names, Obama criticized Gov. Scott Walker, who is expected to announce his presidential candidacy July 13.

“Every single one of these candidates serving in Congress has supported cutting taxes for folks at the top while slashing investments in education. I know that sounds familiar,” Obama said.

The Wisconsin biennial budget proposed by Walker included a $150 per pupil cut in state aid. The cut was later restored by the Joint Finance Committee.

“We’ve seen what happens when top-down economics meets the real world. We’ve got proof right here in Wisconsin. You had a statewide fair-pay law that was repealed. Your right to organize and bargain collectively was attacked,” Obama said.

Obama cited a Jan. 4 La Crosse Tribune editorial, entitled “Minnesota is winning this border battle,” which compared Walker’s policies to those of Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton of Minnesota, who raised taxes on the top 2 percent of wage-earners and raised the state’s minimum wage.

“Now, according to the Republican theory, all those steps would have been bad for the economy. But Minnesota’s unemployment rate is lower than Wisconsin’s. Minnesota’s median income is around $9,000 higher,” Obama said.

“Now, it is true that, as the Tribune pointed out, Wisconsin does have the Packers. Even a Bears fan can respect the Packers,” Obama added.

Obama said there’s no reason Wisconsin can’t share Minnesota’s success.

“Wisconsin is this extraordinary state filled with extraordinary people. But if you end up having policies that cut education, help folks at the top, aren’t expanding opportunity, then it’s not going to work,” Obama said. “We need better policies because the bottom line is top-down economics doesn’t work. Middle-class economics works.”

The crowd reacted enthusiastically as Obama said his policies aren’t only a matter of economics.

“This is also a matter of values. Being an American is not about taking as much as you can from your neighbor before they take as much as they can from you,” Obama said. “We’re not just a bunch of individuals out here on our own. We’re a community; we’re a family.”

Obama acknowledged that the proposed economic changes would be slow and difficult to implement.

“But the last seven years — shoot, the last seven days — should remind us there’s nothing America cannot do,” Obama said, referring to two U.S. Supreme Court decisions last week that upheld federal subsidies for health insurance in all 50 states and ruled same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional.

Obama quoted Steve Cottrell of La Crosse, who he said wrote to him and said, “You can’t always do everything that everyone would like. But if you treat everybody like family, that’s good for us.”

If you treat everybody like family, that’s good for us,” Obama repeated.

“Not just me; not just you; not just Democrats; not just Republicans; not just old folks or young folks; not just black folks or white folks — it’s good for us,” Obama said.

“We’re not going to solve every problem in one fell swoop. But if we make things a little better for our fellow Americans, we’re going to leave something better for us and for our kids. And if we’re walking down that road together, we’re going to get there faster,” Obama said.

Obama ended by wishing everyone a happy Fourth of July and saying “God bless you. God bless America,” nearly drowned out by thunderous applause.

Bystanders lined parts of the 9-mile motorcade route as Obama made his way to the UW-L campus and back again.

Most held cellphones. Some waved American flags or wore red, white and blue outfits. One woman stood outside a salon with foil still in her hair.

A few held signs, including a pair indicating opposition to Obama and the symbol of the former Soviet Union. Another man in a VFW hat with a U.S. flag on his truck saluted the motorcade as it passed by.


Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

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