SCRANTON – Millions of people across the country heard President Barack Obama’s speech at Scranton High School on Wednesday, but only those in the room could shout their concerns and encouragement to the commander in chief that frenzied afternoon.
The 44th president of the United States used much of his 30-minute speech to tout his American Jobs Act and urge Washington to extend a one-year payroll tax cut that will expire at the end of the year.
The speech was often localized, relating what these taxes mean to the average Scrantonian, and his rally cry to ask “our wealthiest citizens to pay their fair share” in taxes provoked consistent cheers and applause from the reported 1,950 people in the gymnasium.
Opening with “Go, Knights!” referring to the high school’s mascot, Obama thanked city resident Donna Festa for allowing him to visit her East Elm Street home before she introduced the president onstage at 2:34 p.m.
“Come to my house!” a woman yelled.
“Next time,” Obama retorted with a smile.
Bringing greetings from Vice President Joe Biden, a Scranton native, Obama cited the Festas as an example of an typical middle-class American family, but noted that they have good, “steady jobs” while many have it “a lot tougher.”
“A lot of you watched your incomes fall or your wages flatline. Meanwhile, the costs of everything from college to health care were all going up. And then, after all that, the financial crisis hit because of the irresponsibility of some on Wall Street. And that made things a whole lot tougher,” he explained.
“There’s a sense of deep frustration among people who’ve done the right thing, but don’t see that hard work and that responsibility pay off. And that’s not the way things are supposed to be, not here in America.”
Obama sent the American Jobs Act to Congress two months ago, which “independent economists said…would create up to 2 million jobs,” but Republicans in the Senate blocked it. Mentioning another Scranton-born politician, he said Democratic Senator Bob Casey is “already on the program.”
“(Republicans) refused to even debate it. Even though polls showed that two-thirds of Americans of all political stripes supported the ideas in this bill, not one single Republican stepped up to say, ‘This is the right thing to do,’” he said, which was met by boos from the audience.
Deflecting Republican criticism labeling him as a “tax and spend liberal,” he noted that taxes on the average middle-class family are lower now than when he took first office in January 2009, giving “working families” a $1,000 tax cut in 2011 that is set to expire in about a month.
“Instead of a $1,000 tax cut next year, the typical working family under my plan would get a tax cut of $1,500,” Obama said. “If you’re a small business owner, my jobs bill will cut your payroll taxes in half. So if you’ve got 50 employees making $50,000 each, you’d get a tax cut of nearly $80,000.”
The president pointed to Scranton’s history of immigration, with “each successive generation doing a little bit better” by doing their part while “looking out for one another” and compared this to the “simple choice that’s facing Congress right now.”
“Are you going to cut taxes for the middle class and those who are trying to get into the middle class? Or are you going to protect massive tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, many of whom don’t even want those tax breaks?” he questioned.
“(Republicans) may have voted ‘no’ on these tax cuts once, but I’m already filled with the Christmas spirit. There’s kind of some chill in the air. I saw some Christmas decorations at the Festas, so I’m in a Christmas spirit. I want to give them another chance. I want to give them a chance to redeem themselves.”
Balancing his serious plea with lighthearted jokes throughout, he told the audience to send the Senate a message this holiday season: “Don’t be a Grinch.”
“Don’t vote to raise taxes on working Americans during the holidays. Make sure to renew unemployment insurance during the holidays,” he continued. “Stop saying ‘no’ to steps that would make our economy stronger. Put our country before party. Put money back into the pockets of working Americans.
“Do your job. Pass this bill.”
Obama’s Nov. 30 message may have fallen on deaf ears as the Senate voted 51-49 in favor of the Middle Class Tax Cut Act of 2011, falling nine votes shy of the required 60 for the bill to pass. Pennsylvania’s senators split their votes as Casey, the sponsor of the legislation, voted in favor and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Zionsville, voted against it.