December 04, 2013, 01:12 pm
Obama: 'Profoundly unequal' economy a 'fundamental threat'
By Justin Sink
President Obama on Wednesday declared that addressing income inequality would be the focus of “all” of the White House’s efforts “for the rest of my presidency.”
In a sweeping address that touched on raising the minimum wage, investing in infrastructure and ending tax breaks for the wealthy, Obama warned that the American economy has become “profoundly unequal,” declaring economic mobility the “challenge of our time.”
“The combined trends of increasing inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe,” he said in an hour-long speech from a community center in one of Washington, D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods, Anacostia.
Obama’s speech came as the president has seen his approval ratings drop with the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare.
A CBS News poll released last month showed six in 10 adults disapprove of the president's handling of the economy. Some 69 percent say the president has not made real progress toward fixing economic problems. And despite a booming stock market, unemployment remains high, at 7.3 percent.
Unemployment would be even higher were it not for the millions of people who have left the workforce. The percentage rate of people in the workforce has fallen since the recession that was in full force at the beginning of Obama’s presidency.
Republicans argue ObamaCare and regulations issued by the administration are holding back the economy further, hurting people at various income levels.
Independent experts say many of the gains since the recession have been gobbled up by wealthier households, and argue Obama has done little to address ths issue.
"The president is seeking to pivot back to the issue of stagnating middle-class incomes that has proved the Achilles heel of his presidency and indeed of the last generation," said Jacob Hacker, a Yale professor and co-author of a book on income inequality. "No surprise there, when ninety-five percent of all pre-tax income gains went to the richest 1 percent in the first three years of the recovery."
In his speech, Obama pointed the finger of blame at Congress, arguing its inaction on several issues was exacerbating problems.
Ahead of an push in the Senate to raise the federal minimum wage above $10, Obama argued that those who work hard “should make a decent living.”
“It's well past the time to raise a minimum wage that, in real terms right now, is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office,” said Obama, who called for a minimum wage hike in his 2013 State of the Union address. The White House has since focused its attention more on other issues, including immigration reform.
He reiterated calls to reform the corporate tax codes, repeal the sequester and pass legislation preventing discrimination against female and gay employees. And Obama said that rather than focusing simply on deficits, Congress should invest in technology and infrastructure.
“A growing deficit of opportunity is more of a threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit,” Obama said.
He also again pushed for universal high-quality pre-K education, and said he would soon announce economic “promise zones” to help lift children out of poverty.
Obama called for an extension of emergency unemployment benefits set to lapse by the end of the year, as well. House Republicans have signaled they likely will not support an extension.
The president argued that his embattled healthcare law was boosting the economy and helping improve the economic security of poor and middle-class Americans.
“This law is going to work, and for the sake of our economy, it needs to work,” Obama said.
Still, it remains an open question what progress — if any — the president will be able to make towards his economic agenda.
Almost every one of the proposals the president outlined had been mentioned before, including during his inaugural and State of the Union addresses earlier this year. But aside from a slight tax increase on the richest Americans early last year, the president has seen his economic agenda stymied in the Republican-controlled House.
On Wednesday, Obama signaled that he would look to more aggressively challenge Republicans to “offer their own” ideas to address inequality.
“You owe it to the American people to tell us what you are for, not just what you're against,” Obama said. “It's not just enough anymore to say get the government out of the way and let the unfettered market take care of it.”