President Obama focuses on income gap

Posted Thursday, Dec. 05, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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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 that 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 one of his central themes since he declared his candidacy: harnessing the government to help those at the bottom or middle of the economic ladder.

He focused on the issue during a commencement address at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., before he was president and during 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 — deeming it a crucial step to racial equality. He is expected to raise 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 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 worker protections.

He called on lawmakers to reverse automatic spending reductions that he signed into law in 2011 in a failed bid to force Congress to enact some other way to cut the deficit. And he urged them to extend benefits for 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans that expire within weeks.

Obama did not recommend new policies to alleviate the income gap, but he pushed for programs that he has supported before — increasing minimum wage, expanding preschool initiatives, rewriting immigration laws, and enacting laws that would protect women and gays against discrimination — all of which have been met coolly by Republicans.

Obama challenged the GOP on 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 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.”

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