David Jackson, USA Today
WASHINGTON - President Obama sought to revive the issue of growing
income equality on Wednesday, saying it restricts economic mobility and
threatens to shrink the middle class.
"I believe this is the
defining challenge of our time," Obama said in a speech at an event
hosted by the Center for American Progress, a pro-Obama think tank. "It
drives everything I do in this office."
The growing gap between
rich and poor can be closed by actions ranging from an increase in the
minimum wage to better education to following through on his health care
plan, Obama said.
Basically outlining an agenda for the remaining
three years of his presidency - as well as next year's congressional
elections - Obama repeated calls for legislation that would strengthen
unions, reduce the pay gap between men and women, and make college more
Obama also again proposed creation of government-assisted "Promise Zones" in urban and rural areas that are struggling.
Democratic-Republican and liberal-conservative disputes about the
economy won't be resolved any time soon, Obama said that "it is
important that we have a serious debate about the issues."
gave the speech at a time when his job approval ratings have fallen to
around 40%, largely because of problems with the rollout of his health
care plan and general anxiety about the direction of the economy.
president and aides designed the income inequality speech as something
of a follow-up to one he delivered two years ago in Osawatomie, Kansas -
remarks that previewed his 2012 re-election campaign.
Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, noted that
Obama has been president for nearly five years and said his health care
plan and new business regulations have kept the economy down.
president's economic policies promote government reliance rather than
economic mobility," Buck said. "Rather than tackling income inequality
by lifting people up, he's been fixated on taxing some down."
The 2014 congressional elections are 11 months away.
his speech, Obama said that since 1979 - the year he graduated from
high school - the size of the American economy has doubled, but the top
10% of people have half the nation's income. Obama said the average CEO
now makes 273 times the income of the average worker.
incomes for the middle class hurt the ability of Americans to move to
better jobs, Obama said. It also breaks down social cohesion as more
Americans come to think that the system is rigged against them.
combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a
fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we
stand for around the globe," Obama said.
The 49-minute speech gave
the president the opportunity to mount a defense of government
activism, ranging from Abraham Lincoln's championing of land grant
colleges to the development of Social Security and Medicare.
modern income gap began growing dramatically in the late 1970s because
of several factors, Obama said. Technology and globalization allowed
employers to reduce manufacturing jobs, or move them offshore.
Obama cited "a trickle-down ideology" that reduced the power of unions,
and led to tax cuts "for the wealthiest, while investments in things
that make us all richer, like schools and infrastructure, were allowed
Obama also disputed the notion that income inequality
and related problems affect mostly African Americans and Hispanics,
saying these issues cut across socioeconomic lines. "The opportunity gap in America is now as much about class as it is about race," Obama said, "and that gap is growing."
inequality should help all Americans, Obama said. "We need to dispel
the myth that the goals of growing the economy and reducing inequality
are necessarily in conflict."