| WASHINGTON, July 24
WASHINGTON, July 24 John Eskridge knows what he
wants to hear President Barack Obama say when he returns to
Galesburg, Illinois, on Wednesday for what the White House has
billed as a major economic address.
This town where plants once rolled out refrigerators, ovens,
lawnmowers and other stock furnishings of the American home has
been hit hard by globalization, losing factories that gave
generations of people good jobs right out of high school.
Eskridge, 52, worked at the last plant to close in
Galesburg. Maytag, now owned by Whirlpool Corp, shut the
plant doors in 2004 and moved the jobs to Mexico - jobs the
company has since moved to China.
"I wish he'd come here and say, 'Something's coming here,
and we're bringing jobs to Galesburg.' That's what I'd like to
hear," the life-long resident of the town of 30,000 told
The White House has signaled that Obama is unlikely to make
any such sweeping announcement in his speech, slated for 12:55
ET (1655 GMT). Instead he will try to get past a bumpy start to
his second term in office.
On Monday night, before a group of donors to Organizing for
America, an advocacy group run by his former campaign staffers,
he previewed his remarks in Illinois: "There's no more important
question for this country than how do we create an economy in
which everybody who works hard feels like they can get ahead and
feel some measure of security."
FROM ANTI-SLAVERY TO MINIMUM WAGE
Eskridge now runs an auctioneering business and appraises
antiques. He knows everything about the rich history of this
town, once a stop on the Underground Railroad and home to poet
Carl Sandburg and George Washington Ferris, who invented the
He rattles off visits by at least six other presidents, and
speculates that Obama likes Galesburg because it's where Abraham
Lincoln argued for the abolition of slavery in 1858 during the
fifth of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. One of Eskridge's
ancestors sat on the speakers' platform.
Obama spoke at Knox College in Galesburg in 2005 when the
plant-closing was on everybody's mind. He has said he considered
the commencement address his first big speech about the economy.
Many plant workers there had been making $50,000 to $60,000
a year with good benefits. A Knox College study done in 2010
found average income dropped by $10,000. Forty percent of
workers said they felt they would never recover financially.
The town hasn't got over the loss of its manufacturing
sector, said Eskridge. "You can get jobs, but most of them are
at minimum wage. A lot of places don't want to give you too many
hours at that, because they don't want to have to provide any
BACKDROP FOR AN ARGUMENT
It's a district where a Democrat, Cheri Bustos, pulled off
an upset in 2012, defeating a congressman backed by the Tea
Party in 2010 when Republicans took control of the House of
Representatives and began to thwart Obama's agenda.
Galesburg is a symbolic backdrop for the arguments Obama
wants to make to Americans in coming weeks and months to prod
Congress to allow him to spend more building roads and bridges
and giving states grants to hire teachers.
He has described his speech in Galesburg as a "thematic"
look at the issues, with details still to come.
Richard Stout, a economist who worked at the Federal Reserve
Board of Governors until he moved to Galesburg to teach at Knox
College in 1981, said he will be listening for those details.
He stood in line to get tickets for the event, but said he
doesn't have high expectations because he thinks Congress will
reject anything Obama proposes.
Stout worked on the study of how Galesburg was hurt by the
plant closures, and said he thinks infrastructure programs and
federal grants would be good steps to help spur the economy.
More jobs would mean people have more money to spend, which
means they can buy more manufactured goods, made in factories in
towns like Galesburg, he said.
It would also restore faith in the American Dream that hard
work can lead to a good living and decent retirement, said
Stout. "If you've lost your union job with good benefits and
you're now working two part-time jobs and earning $10,000 a year
less than you did before ... I think there's a sense of
unfairness about that.
"I grew up blue-collar, and I was really lucky. I hit the
jackpot. I'm a college professor. But if you're blue-collar,
you're saying, 'My God, I've been screwed.'"
Despite empty homes and storefronts, not everyone is
despondent about Galesburg.
"People think - and we did too - when a factory closes,
that's the end of the town," said Marilyn Webb, journalism
professor emeritus at Knox College. She worked on the study with
Stout and is writing a book about the surprising number of
About a third of the people who lost their jobs say their
lot has improved, some in intangible ways.
Nearly 900 people took advantage of government aid to go to
college for retraining and found new sources of satisfaction,
Webb said. She cited Becky Nott, a woman who pursued her talent
for gardening after Maytag closed, finding a job she loves at a
"These are working-class people who just basically started
thinking, 'I've been a cog in a wheel, and life is short - what
can I do that makes me feel good about myself?'
"They would have never taken that risk had they not had the
factory leave," she said.