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Obama wraps State of Union speech tour in Chicago

Returning to the South Side of Chicago, President Barack Obama allayed critics who called on him to address gun violence in his hometown by identifying economic opportunities and strong families as the key to combat crime.

“We’ve got to grow our economy and create more good jobs. It means we’ve got to equip every American with the skills and the training to fill those jobs. And it means we’ve got to rebuild ladders of opportunity for everybody willing to climb it. And that starts at home. There’s no more important ingredient for success, nothing that would more important for us reducing violence than strong stable families, which means we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood,” Obama said Friday afternoon at Hyde Park Academy in the Woodlawn neighborhood.

Since his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama has been giving stump speeches around the country about growing the middle class, all while pushing for new gun control legislation as well. For a couple of years, local activists have wanted the president to come to Chicago and tackle violence. The agitation hit a fever pitch last month after the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton, an honor student who had recently performed at his inauguration. Last Saturday First Lady Michelle Obama attended her funeral.

Obama said in his remarks that gun violence claims the lives not just in mass shootings like the one in Newtown, Conn. that killed 20 kids last December. He said 65 children were killed by guns in Chicago last year — the equivalent of a Newtown tragedy every four months. Several Chicago families who’ve lost children to gun violence sat in the invite-only audience at Hyde Park Academy.

“This is not just a gun issue,” Obama said. “We should reform our child-support laws to get more men working and engaged with their children,” the president said. He added that his administration will continue to work with the private sector and faith-based communities this year on a campaign to encourage parenting and fatherhood.

Obama noted that he was raised by a single mom but “I wish I had had a father who was involved and around.”

Before his remarks at Hyde Park Academy, Obama privately met with a group of students in a mentoring group called Becoming A Man. Robert Scates was one of them.

“It’s not what he said, it’s what he did, how he was able to become the president that should be able to spark some change in my eyes,”  Scates said. The meeting got him thinking about “how we can relieve our stress ... When you’ve got a lot of things built up inside of you, a lot of anger, the littlest thing will just make you go off for no reason.”

Violence experts have said mentoring and understanding the social and emotional needs of young people can deter gunplay.

Obama said he will push for tax breaks for businesses that invest and hire in hard-hit communities. Economic development is hard if people don’t feel safe and commerce dries up, he said. Chicago murders surpassed 500 last year, up from the previous year but nowhere near the figures of the 1990s.

While some specifics were absent from the president’s speech, many said Obama’s presence is a good first step in rebuilding communities: part inspirational, part dog-whistle to South Siders and his base.

Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, helped organize petitions that demanded Obama speak in Chicago.

“Many of us who’ve been in the community...have to be at least somewhat gratified. It was a very heartwarming event to have the president on the South Side,” Nashashibi said. “We know there’s much more work that needs to happen on the grassroots level and those policies need to come to fruition. But just on that basic level we need to see it as a victory.”

Father Richard Tolliver, of St. Edmund’s Church in Washington Park, said the president’s speech was on target and appropriate for the South Side.

“He spoke to issues directly important to us: jobs, education, recognizing sometimes there's a one-parent family because our laws prevent married people who are low-income from marrying because then women lose a lot of their benefits so he understands the unique challenges to our neighborhood,” Tolliver said.

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