U.S. President Barack Obama said Wednesday that Washington has "taken its eye off the ball" as he pledged a stronger second-term commitment to tackling the economic woes that still strain many in the middle class nearly five years after the country plunged into a recession.

Returning to Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., where he gave his first big speech on the economy as a newly elected U.S. senator eight years ago, Obama repackaged his economic message, promising to "use every minute of the 1,276 days remaining in my term to make this country work for working Americans again."

While proposing nothing new, the president was obviously setting the table for what will likely be a bitter fight with congressional Republicans this fall over the need to again raise the U.S. government's borrowing limit to pay its bills and to fend off deep spending cuts being written into an upcoming Republican budget proposal.

1st of 3 speeches on economy

In the first of three planned speeches on the economy, Obama played heavily on the need to put the brakes on growing income inequality, a repeated theme in all his remarks on the economy.

'The average CEO has gotten a raise of nearly 40 per cent since 2009, but the average American earns less than he or she did in 1999.' — U.S. President Barack Obama

"Even though our businesses are creating new jobs and have broken record profits, nearly all the income gains of the past 10 years have continued to flow to the top one per cent," Obama said to heavy applause.

"The average CEO has gotten a raise of nearly 40 per cent since 2009, but the average American earns less than he or she did in 1999. And companies continue to hold back on hiring those who have been out of work for some time."

The president also chided Congress for being less concerned about the economy and more about "an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals."

"I am here to say this needs to stop," he told a receptive crowd. "Short-term thinking and stale debates are not what this moment requires."

He called on Congress to set aside the kind of "slash-and-burn partisanship" that has been a drag on the country's economic recovery and urged Republicans to "set aside politics and work with me to find common ground."

Will use executive authority to help middle class

But Obama also said he wouldn't shy away from doing what it takes to push through the policies he sees as essential to getting the country back on track.

'I will not allow gridlock, inaction or willful indifference to get in our way. Whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I'll use it.' — U.S. President Barack Obama

"I believe there are members of both parties who understand what's at stake," Obama said. "But I will not allow gridlock, inaction or willful indifference to get in our way.

"Whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I'll use it. Where I can't act on my own, I'll pick up the phone and call CEOs, and philanthropists, and college presidents — anybody who can help — and enlist them in our efforts. Because the choices that we, the people, make now will determine whether or not every American will have a fighting chance in the 21st century."

Obama ticked off the pillars of his plan to prop up the middle class with policies that promote jobs, educational opportunities, homeownership, secure retirement and affordable health care

He promised much-needed infrastructure upgrades, including new roads, bridges and airports; better education, including government-funded pre-school for children at age four; an overhaul of the home mortgage system; tax reform; continued implementation of his health care overhaul; and programs to rebuild deteriorating American cities while raising the minimum wage.

"We've got 100,000 bridges that are old enough to qualify for Medicare," he said of the country's neglected infrastructure.

Obama said America needs to get back to being a country that builds things and that this idea is not unique to the Democratic Party.

"Lincoln was all about building stuff," Obama said, referring to the Republican president of the Civil War era, Abraham Lincoln.

Republicans pan speech in advance

But top Republicans in Washington decried Obama's speech even before he took to the podium, issuing withering criticisms of the president's return to the economy and foreshadowing continuing and relentless partisan opposition to programs Obama needs support for in Congress.

"Welcome to the conversation, Mr. President. We've never left it," said House Speaker John Boehner.

He suggested that approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast and delaying Obama's health care law would do more to create jobs than delivering speeches would.

"If Washington Democrats were really serious about turning the economy around, they'd be working collaboratively with Republicans to do just that, instead of just sitting on the sidelines and waiting to take their cues from the endless political road-shows the president cooks up whenever he feels like changing the topic," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

But in his speech, Obama issued a challenge to his political opponents:

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

"If you're willing to work with me to strengthen American manufacturing and rebuild this country's infrastructure, let's go. ... If you are serious about a balanced, long-term fiscal plan that replaces the mindless cuts currently in place, or tax reform that closes corporate loopholes and gives working families a better deal, I'm ready to work — but know that I will not accept deals that do not meet the test of strengthening the prospects of hard-working families."

Galesburg symbolizes nation's struggles

In returning to Knox College and Galesburg Obama chose an example of the nation's economic struggles. One year before his first speech at Knox eight years ago, a Maytag appliance plant in town shuttered its doors, leaving hundreds of people unemployed.

The old factory still sits vacant, and Galesburg's unemployment rate is just under eight percent. About 23 per cent of the town's population lives in poverty — 10 per cent more than the state as a whole.

Later Wednesday, Obama spoke at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. A third speech is set for Thursday at the Jacksonville Port Authority in Florida.

The economy largely has been overshadowed in the first six months of Obama's second term, partly driven by a White House that chose to invest time and political capital on other parts of his agenda, such as the failed effort to enact stricter gun laws after December's school massacre in Connecticut and the push for an immigration bill.

Circumstances outside of the White House's control also played a role, including the civil war in Syria, the coup in Egypt and renewed attention by Congress to the deadly attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya.

Closer to home, the targeting of political groups by the Internal Revenue Service and the seizure of journalists' telephone records by the Justice Department and the exposure of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program also required large investments of White House time.

The economy has showed slow improvement throughout, registering gains in the housing and stock markets and consumer confidence. The national unemployment rate, though it remains high, is down to 7.6 percent.

But the coming fiscal deadlines threaten to undo that progress, adding a sense of urgency to the push Washington and the public at large to focus on the economy.

With files from CBC News