President Barack Obama turned his focus Wednesday to the pocketbook issues that Americans consistently rank as a top concern, arguing that the dream of upward economic mobility is breaking down and the growing income gap is a “defining challenge of our time.”
“The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed,” the president said in remarks at a nonprofit community center a short drive from the White House in one of Washington’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
The president vowed to focus the last three years of his presidency on addressing the discrepancy and a rapidly growing deficit of opportunity that he said is a bigger threat than the fiscal deficit.
Obama’s remarks on the economy come as he seeks to move past the health care woes that have consumed his presidency in recent months. He acknowledged his administration’s “poor execution” in rolling out the flawed website that was supposed to be an easy portal for purchasing insurance, while blaming Republicans for a “reckless” shutdown of the government.
“Nobody has acquitted themselves very well these past few months. So it’s not surprising that the American people’s frustrations with Washington are at an all-time high,” Obama said. But he added that Americans’ frustrations also run high to try to meet ends meet, no matter how hard they work.
The speech comes amid growing national and international attention to economic disparities — from the writings of Pope Francis to the protests of fast-food workers in the U.S. The president cited the pope’s question of how it isn’t news when an elderly homeless person dies from exposure, but news when stock market loses two points.
Obama said increasing income inequality is more pronounced in the United States than other countries. He said Americans should be offended that a child born into poverty has such a hard time escaping it. “It should compel us to action. We’re a better country than this,” the president said.
Obama did not propose any new policy initiatives in the speech, sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the White House. But he reiterated his call for an increase in the minimum wage and other measures he’s been backing to help lower income Americans.