Obama focuses agenda on relieving economic inequality

Here are two minutes of the key points from the speech President Obama gave Wednesday on economic mobility and the Affordable Care Act. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

President Obama laid out an aspirational agenda Wednesday for the remainder of his presidency, looking past the Republican opposition that has long blocked his goals and toward policies to narrow income inequality and promote opportunity for the poor.

Obama’s remarks at an arts and education center in a low-income Southeast Washington neighborhood provided his most specific road map for how he intends to spend his final 37 months in office, seeking to overcome partisan fights about the budget and the troubled rollout of his health-care law. He pressed for a higher minimum wage, more spending on early-childhood education, an overhaul of immigration laws and other measures aimed at boosting the economy.

“We know that people’s frustrations run deeper than these most recent political battles. Their frustration is rooted in their own daily battles, to make ends meet, to pay for college, buy a home, save for retirement,” Obama said. “It’s rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them. And it’s rooted in the fear that their kids won’t be better off than they were.”

But the president offered little sense of how he might achieve his long-sought economic goals. Instead, the speech — coming at the end of a difficult and politically damaging year — was designed to help define a populist argument that he and other Democrats can carry into upcoming legislative battles and into next year’s midterm elections.

Wednesday’s speech came two years after a similar address Obama delivered in Osawatomie, Kan., in which he outlined policies to help the middle class that would form the basis of his re­election campaign. As he is now, the president was at a low point in 2011, battered by a dangerous debt-limit fight with Republicans and fearful that his chances for a second term were in peril.

The president's speech on resolving inequality included few policy objectives. But that wasn't the point. (The Washington Post)

Many Democrats think a re­juvenated economic message is far more comfortable terrain for them than for Republicans, particularly after the political whipping Obama and his party have received over the fumbled Affordable Care Act rollout. But the harder edges of Obama’s message Wednesday may make some centrists in the party nervous, posing a challenge for Democrats fighting to hold their seats in conservative states.

Republicans widely panned the speech and said they would continue to work in opposition to Obama’s economic agenda, including continued endorsement of deep spending cuts and an end to jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.

“It should be no surprise why his approach has left more Americans struggling to get ahead,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said in an e-mail Wednesday. “The president’s economic policies promote government reliance rather than economic mobility. Rather than tackling income inequality by lifting people up, he’s been fixated on taxing some down.”

But Obama faulted Republicans for not offering their own proposals to address economic insecurity, relying instead on simply opposing him.

“If Republicans have concrete plans that will actually reduce inequality, build the middle class, provide moral ladders of opportunity to the poor, let’s hear them,” he said. “I want to know what they are.”

Jim Kessler, a co-founder of the centrist group Third Way, has expressed concerns about an overly populist tilt in the Democratic Party, openly feuding with ascendant liberals such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and newly elected New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. “On a political level, we find it just very divisive and seeking out a host of things to blame for people’s predicaments and those folks are holding you down,” Kessler said Wednesday.

But he said that Obama’s speech in Southeast struck the right tone. “The president has done a pretty good balancing act,” he said. “Income inequality is something that people at every end of the spectrum should be speaking at.”

Obama’s 48-minute address, filled with historical references and economic statistics, showed a president less concerned about retail politics and more concerned about his legacy — seemingly aware that he may not be able to pass any substantive legislation for the rest of his tenure.

At times dark and at other times sunny, Obama spoke of his and wife Michelle’s humble beginnings and recalled the economic activism of predecessors Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He also invoked the views of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and of Pope Francis, who issued a long statement last week condemning economic inequality.

But in describing the “relentless decades-long trend” of a “dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility,” Obama acknowledged that his administration has not arrested two stubborn trends: widening income inequality and declining mobility, where lower-income people have a harder time finding a path to the middle class.

Many Democrats worry that the problems with the health-care law’s launch could undermine the public’s faith in the government’s ability to reverse such economic trends. But Obama argued that the law will help relieve one of the greatest economic anxieties facing middle-class Americans who have long struggled with rising costs and the threat of bankruptcy if they fall seriously ill.

The address, hosted by the liberal Center for American Progress and delivered at THEARC — the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus — was the return to an argument Obama has been honing for more than a decade. Advisers said it would form the basis for next month’s State of the Union address, as well as for his priorities in the rest of his term.

Obama’s earlier concerns as a young politician focused on the impact of globalization and technological automation on middle-class jobs, as well as growing wage inequality. While those remain important to him, he lately has been sounding the alarm more loudly about economic mobility.

“The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough,” Obama said. “But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care or a community that views her future as their own — that should offend all of us.”

In making his argument, the president sought to shatter “myths” about inequality, starting with the notion that it is exclusively a problem of minorities.

“Some of the social patterns that contribute to declining mobility, that were once attributed to the urban poor . . . it turns out now we’re seeing that pop up everywhere,” he said. “Government can’t stand on the sidelines in our efforts, because government is us. It can and should reflect our deepest values and commitments.”

Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is a staff writer covering the White House, focusing on President Obama’s economic, financial and fiscal policy.
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