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.