GALESBURG — — Ever since his first campaign for U.S. Senate, President Barack Obama has been returning to Galesburg — a small Illinois town where household incomes still lag far behind the statewide average nearly a decade after a major factory closure.
He talked with union members when the town's Maytag plant closed in 2004. He urged new graduates at private Knox College not to forget about the place when they leave. And he showed up, unannounced, at the high school football field to surprise a coach and his players.
The west-central Illinois town is again on Obama's schedule Wednesday as he kicks off a campaign focused on improving the economy.
While the White House doesn't typically explain the selection of presidential visits, locals say layoffs and the town's hard, uneven recovery make Galesburg a good backdrop for talking about what's gone right and wrong in the country over the last decade.
Galesburg and Knox College — both founded by anti-slavery advocates — also provide Obama with a reliably pro-Democrat venue in conservative rural Illinois, and the roughly 32,000 people who live in Galesburg could stand to benefit, too.
"It gives them hope, that the leader of the free world keeps coming back," says Tim Dougherty, the football coach and civics teacher who looked up to see Obama walking toward him on the practice field at Galesburg High in 2011.
Wednesday's speech at Knox College is expected to be the first in a series focused on the economy, with the president talking about trying to expand manufacturing as well as attempts to breathe life back into the housing industry, educational opportunities and health care.
Most of those themes hit home in Galesburg, said Leo Dion, president of the Galesburg Regional Economic Development Association.
"I think that in west-central Illinois, I think we represent kind of some of the things that have happened — more recently with manufacturing being (moved overseas) — and the impacts on the community," he said.
Nearly a decade before the closure of the Maytag plant, Galesburg lost Butler Manufacturing and its 300 jobs. Maytag had once employed almost 3,000 people and still had about 1,600 jobs when news broke that its production would be moved to Mexico.
There is still a rail yard in town that offers about 1,000 jobs, but the town has changed. Now a total of about 1,000 people work in manufacturing, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Twenty-three percent of the population lives in poverty — 10 percent more than the state as a whole.
Unemployment now runs just under 8 percent, better than the state as a whole and certainly better than the years after the plants closed. But that's not the whole story.
"A lot of people are probably under-employed," Dion said, explaining that many people in town work part time or irregularly. "And then the jobs that filled (the gap for) those previous manufacturing jobs, they're not as well-paying as those manufacturing jobs."
The median household income in 2010 was about $33,000, according to the census That's well below the $56,000 Illinoisans average, and far less than the $40,000 to $50,000 annual incomes many Maytag workers counted on.
Obama campaigned for the U.S. Senate in town in 2003, before the factories closed. And he was back the next year, meeting with the union officials as thousands of workers faced unemployment. He talked about them in his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, the address in which he first caught the nation's attention.
And the next year he was back again, getting an honorary degree as he spoke to graduates at Knox.
"If you want, it will be pretty easy for you to leave here today and not give another thought to towns like Galesburg and the challenges they face," he told them, urging them to do just the opposite.
Megan Scott, the chief communication officer at Knox and a Galesburg native who attended the speech, said she felt like she was hearing the beginnings of "something big." But, while she is pleased Obama is coming back, she has mixed feelings about the circumstances.
"You don't always want to be the poster child for the economy going sour. But at the same time, he really managed to elevate Galesburg," she said. "I think we're proud of the fact that he hears us."
Republican U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, whose district includes areas around Galesburg, dismisses Obama's visit as little more than a campaign stop.
"Now is the time for presidential leadership, not the partisan, campaign-style tactics we have all seen as President Obama has traveled around the country in the past," Schock said Tuesday in a statement.
Galesburg, Dougherty figures, is as good a place as any for a president from Illinois to connect with a small town.
"If you look at Galesburg, it's kind of a microcosm of a lot of towns across America," he said.