Months before the old Maytag plant here ran its last shift in 2004, the then Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate made the 3-hour drive from Chicago to meet with workers who had already received their pink slips after the maker of kitchen appliances decided to lay off all 1,600 workers and ship their jobs to Mexico.
"What had swept through a lot of towns throughout the Midwest and Northeast had happened in Galesburg, where people were left high and dry," Obama recalled earlier this week. The "tax base had declined, unemployment had soared, a lot of folks out of work; the jobs that replaced them generally were jobs that paid a much lower wage."
To begin what the White House is billing as a several weeks-long effort to turn the national conversation to the economy, Obama picked Galesburg to kick off the campaign.
The speech in Galesburg — the first in a series the White House says Obama will make on the economy between now and the end of September — has been dismissed by some Republicans in Washington as hollow rhetoric.
Still, for the president, there are few places with as much personal resonance as Galesburg. Obama has repeatedly pointed to this community's situation as emblematic of the pressures facing middle class communities throughout the country as the U.S. economy continues to limp along four years after the Great Recession ended.
He spoke of the workers at Maytag when he delivered his first Democratic radio address in the summer of 2004.
Weeks later, he lamented in his well-received keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston that the union workers in Galesburg were "having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour."
And he returned to Galesburg in 2005 as a newly minted senator to give his first major address on the economy, a speech where he focused on how changes in technology, globalization and the weakening of unions were wreaking havoc in manufacturing communities like this one.
In his 2006 book, Audacity of Hope, Obama recalled when he went to meet the Maytag workers, Galesburg was already reeling from the loss of an industrial auto parts maker and rubber hose manufacturer, which had shut their doors. Another big employer in Galesburg, the steelmaker Butler Manufacturing, would follow Maytag's path and close its doors and lay off more than 400 other workers.
But a rebound, albeit one that is coming in fits and starts, is underway here. Through tax incentives and other programs, Galesburg has assisted the private sector in retaining or creating 1,000 jobs over the last three years. For a small community of about 33,000, that's no small thing, said Gary Camarano, the global strategies director for the city.
In a building donated from a clothing manufacturer that closed its American operation years ago, Galesburg opened an 88,000 square-foot sustainable business center to spur what it is hoping will become a front door green technology in central Illinois.
Among the businesses that have taken advantage of the incubator: a tank-less gas water heater manufacturer, a renewable energy outfit growing a biodiesel fuel stock from a winter plant called pennycress, and a manufacturer of laminated bamboo products for flooring and construction use.
Two manufacturing businesses with longer ties to the community announced in 2012 that they would hire 87 and 76 welders respectively. The town also organized its first trade mission in December 2012 — a rarity for a community this size — to Indonesia to connect some of it companies with businesses there.
"As much as we'd all like for some 3,000 employee-company to move to Galesburg, that's probably not going to happen anytime soon," Camarano said. "So, in the meantime we're going to focus on working with small and mid-sized companies that we can help grow."
While there has been progress, anxieties about what lies ahead linger.
Linda Hankins, 58, was one of those Maytag workers who had a brief brush with Obama when he came down to meet with workers as layoffs were looming in 2004. With just a high school diploma, Hankins was able to snare a good paying job at Maytag at the age of 19. She would keep the job for 30 years until Maytag finally shuttered its facility at the end of the summer of 2004.
After Maytag, she went back to school and earned an associates degree. She is now working as an administrative assistant at Carl Sandburg College. While she has maintained economic stability, Hankins said that regaining a feeling of economic security has been more elusive.
"I still worry about losing everything I've worked my whole life for," she said.