President Obama on Wednesday said the U.S. economy has become “profoundly unequal” and pressed for policies he said would halt growing income inequality and limited economic mobility.
“I believe this is the defining challenge of our time — making sure our economy works for every working American,” said the president in an address hosted by the Center for American Progress, a left-of-center group that has backed many of his initiatives.
The speech marked an effort by the president, who has been on the defensive over the botched rollout of his health care reform law, to return to offense and press Congress over the recovering economy.
“Increasing inequality is most pronounced in our country, and challenges the very essence of who we are as a people,” said Obama.
Obama said his concern over the issue was “why I ran for president. It was the center of last year’s campaign and it drives everything I do in this office.”
Wednesday’s speech marked Obama’s latest effort to turn the nation’s attention back to the economy and push for policies he says will bolster the middle class. Polls show Obama’s standing on the economy slipping, with a Pew poll in November finding that only 31 percent approve of his handling of the issue, with 65 percent disapproving.
While Obama did not present any new policy proposals in the address, he outlined principles he said would help tackle the issue. “We need to set aside the belief that government cannot do anything about reducing inequality,” he said.
The president urged Congress to “relentlessly pursue a growth agenda.”
“We cannot tackle economic inequality if the pie is stagnant or shrinking,” said the president.
Obama said lawmakers should “come around a responsible budget” that undoes sequester cuts. The conversation over the budget “should not be stuck in a stale debate from two years ago,” said the president.
Obama also urged lawmakers to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Employment Nondiscrimination Act and extend unemployment benefits by the end of the year. He vowed to “keep pushing” for a hike in the minimum wage.
Obama’s agenda though stands little chance of passing the GOP-controlled House.
The president has frequently addressed income inequality, and in an address in Osawatomie, Kan., in 2011, he said that the nation faced a “make-or-break moment for the middle class.”
“What’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement,” Obama said.
The White House on Tuesday said Obama’s speech would “provide a window into where the president will focus his energies over the next three years.”
“It is certainly a topic he will touch on in next year’s State of the Union address,” said a White House official.
The latest push on the economy also comes amid the troubled rollout of Obama’s health care reform law.
The administration has been on the defensive over the glitch-ridden healthcare.gov website and the millions of Americans who will be dropped from insurance coverage because of new Obamacare regulations. The health care woes have seen Obama hit his lowest approval ratings and record numbers questioning his managerial competence and trustworthiness.
The White House and congressional Democrats are launching a three-week campaign over the holiday season to boost enrollment numbers ahead of the Dec. 23 deadline for enrollees to receive insurance coverage for 2014.
A centerpiece of the new sales pitch is arguing the economic benefits of the Affordable Care Act.
“I’ve acknowledged more than once that we didn’t roll out parts of this law as well as we should have,” said Obama. “But the law’s already working in major ways that benefit millions of Americans right now, even as we’ve begun to slow the rise in health care costs, which is good for family budgets, good for federal and state budgets and good for the budgets of businesses, small and large.
“So this law’s going to work,” he added. “And for the sake of our economic security, it needs to work.”
This story was published at 12:26 p.m. and has been updated.