While official Washington's attention was elsewhere, the economy was slowly but steadily improving. The housing market is recovering, the stock market is soaring, and unemployment, while still high at 7.6 percent, is falling.

But the White House fears that standoffs this fall over the debt ceiling and the sequester could upend that progress. The president has declared that he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling and expects Republicans to lift the borrowing limit without concessions. He's also pushing to end the federal budget cuts before they extend into the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

The president panned the sequester as a "meat cleaver" that has "cost jobs, hurt our military and gutted investments in American education."

Obama will seek to keep up his renewed economic focus in the coming weeks with a series of speeches on manufacturing, education, housing, retirement security and health care. Advisers say some of those speeches will contain more specific policy proposals, both for congressional legislation and executive action.

The president said he welcomed ideas from lawmakers of both parties, but wouldn't stand for reflexive opposition to his own initiatives.

"I'm laying out my ideas to give the middle class a better shot," he said. "Now it's time for you to lay out your ideas."

For Obama, the day trip to Knox College marked a return to the site of his first major economic address. He spoke at the school's graduation ceremony in 2005 as a newly elected U.S. senator.

His remarks back then were strikingly similar to the themes he outlined Wednesday in Illinois and later in Missouri, including the government's role in ensuring all Americans have opportunities to get ahead and the need for the U.S. to be better prepared to compete internationally. Barring action now, Obama said, "We will be waving the white flag while other countries forge ahead in the global economy."

If you liked this article you might like

What's Behind the Surge in Energy Stocks

Hillary Clinton Says Prosecuting Individuals is Key to Wall Street Reform