WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 Reuters.
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 Ferris wheel.
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 benefits.”
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 positive stories.
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 garden center.
“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.
Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Prudence Crowther