Obama, After Health Law Distractions, Shifts Focus Back To Income Gap

After two months in a defensive crouch over the botched roll out of his signature health care law, President Obama turned to another topic Wednesday that has preoccupied his administration: the income gap. It has grown wider during Obama's tenure as the country has emerged from the Great Recession. Reversing that trend is a priority for Obama's final three years in office.

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President Obama turned his attention back to the economy today. In a speech to the liberal think thank the Center for American Progress, he addressed two longstanding negative trends in American life - the growth of income inequality and a lack of upward mobility. As NPR's Mara Liasson reports, the speech was a preview of what he will lay out in his next State of the Union Address.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The story President Obama told today was familiar and depressing. He said Americans' frustration with Washington was at an all-time high for obvious reasons, the reckless Republican shutdown and his own poor execution of the Affordable Care Act. But he said the public's dissatisfaction has a deeper cause, what many fear is the end of the American dream.

People feel the deck is stacked against them and that their kids won't do as well as they did, Mr. Obama said. It's a relentless trend that's been going on for decades.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And that is 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.

LIASSON: The president called this the defining challenge of our times. And he ticked off a familiar list of initiatives he said could mitigate inequality and lack of upward mobility - universal preschool, corporate tax reform, investments in education and infrastructure. And he suggested it would help if Washington focused less on the short-term budget deficit.

OBAMA: When it comes to our budget, we should not be stuck in a stale debate from two years ago or three years ago. A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit.

LIASSON: And he called, once again, for Congress to raise the minimum wage.

OBAMA: We know that there are airport workers and fast food workers and nurse assistants and retail salespeople who work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty. And that's why 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.

LIASSON: Right now, there's little chance any of this will be passed by Congress. And to deal with that obstacle, Mr. Obama offered a message Democrats say is their best defense. Addressing Republicans, the president said, if you have ideas about reducing inequality or building ladders to the middle class, let's hear them.

OBAMA: You owe it to the American people to tell us what you are for, not just what you're against.

LIASSON: When President Obama leaves office, the trends he lamented today - greater inequality and less mobility - will be part of the legacy of the Obama era. Middle class Americans will not be better off than when he took office. That must be a bitter pill for a Democratic president with an activist agenda, says former White House economic adviser Jared Bernstein.

JARED BERNSTEIN: The reason that's such a bitter pill for him is because of the vision that he had and articulated when he ran for office the first time and even the second time, as well. And I've worked with the man and I know the extent of that vision and how deeply he believes that there is a role for government to correct the kind of market failures he outlined today. And the fact that he's been able to do so little of that, I'm sure that is just a huge disappointment for him.

LIASSON: If President Obama can't get Washington to solve those problems, Bernstein says, he can at least make sure they are the subject of national debate.

BERNSTEIN: I think the agenda he laid out today is a critical one. It doesn't mean that it's going to get over a legislative barrier, given the steep opposition. But I think for him to use the bully pulpit to talk about it for the next few years is essential.

LIASSON: After the president spoke, he headed back to the White House to address a group of young people who are helping the administration get millenials to sign up for Obamacare. Getting the Affordable Care Act to work is actually one thing the administration believes it can do to cushion the effects of income inequality, by making health care more affordable to low-income families and making it less likely that a health care calamity will drive middle class people into poverty. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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