President Barack Obama worked Wednesday to focus attention – again – on the growing income disparity between rich and poor that he says is a top problem for the country but which persists five years into his presidency.
Obama called anew on Republicans to embrace his prescriptions of government help, from jobless benefits to a higher minimum wage. Republicans said Obama’s policies make things worse, not better.
“I believe this is the defining challenge of our time, making sure our economy works for every working American,” Obama said. “That’s why I ran for president. It was the center of last year’s campaign. It drives everything I do in this office.”
His remarks follow a central theme he has pursued ever since declaring his candidacy: harnessing the federal government to help those at the bottom or middle of the economic ladder.
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He focused on the issue during a commencement address at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. before he was president and a speech in Osawatomie, Kan., in late 2011. In August, he honored the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington by calling for economic equality – what he called a crucial step to long sought after racial equality. He is expected to talk about the issue again in his State of the Union address early next year, according to White House officials.
“This is an issue that we have to tackle head on,” he said. “And if, in fact, the majority of Americans agree that our No. 1 priority is to restore opportunity and broad-based growth for all Americans, the question is why has Washington consistently failed to act?”
Much of the 50-minute speech in a low-income area of Washington touched on how changes in technology and globalization have hurt jobs and benefits for many while enriching others. The top 10 percent of wage-earners, who used to take in a one-third of the nation’s income, now take in half, he said.
“There’s a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain: that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead,” he said.
Obama said solutions draw on the actions of past presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who developed programs, such as land-grant colleges, Social Security and protections for workers.
He called on lawmakers to restore automatic spending cuts that he signed into law in 2011 in a failed bid to force Congress to enact some other way to cut the deficit and extend jobless benefits for 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans that expire in a few weeks.
Obama did not recommend any new policies to help alleviate the income gap, but he pushed for programs he already had supported _ an increase in the minimum wage, expanding preschool initiatives, rewriting the nation’s immigration laws and passing laws that would protect women and gays against discrimination _ all of which have been met coolly by Republicans.
Obama challenged Republicans Wednesday: “You owe it to the American people to tell us what you are for, not just what you’re against.”
Republicans responded that any economic failures are the president’s fault.
“It should be no surprise why his approach has left more Americans struggling to get ahead,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for the House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “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.”
Democrats, including the more liberal base of his party, welcomed the speech after opposing him on a series of recent issues, from his government spying programs, his desire to conduct a military strike on Syria and his consideration of Larry Summers to head the Federal Reserve.
“We must do more to address this problem by working to close the gaps in education that contribute to income inequality and by taking steps to help increase upward mobility in our society through access to jobs and opportunities,” said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
Obama’s speech comes amid growing international attention on the issues that even included a wide-ranging document by Pope Francis denouncing the global financial system.
Obama spoke at the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus, which provides educational, cultural and social service programs to residents of a low-income area of Washington. The event was organized by the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the White House that released a series of reports Wednesday showing that income inequality does not produce sustained economic growth.