WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday laid out an ambitious agenda for the remainder of his presidency, looking past the opposition that has blocked much of his administration’s efforts for three years and toward a wealth of policies to reduce joblessness, lift median wages and fix persistent problems in the economy that have caused intense anxiety for Americans.
Obama’s speech was hosted by the liberal Center for American Progress and delivered at the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus, which caters to people in one of Washington’s lowest-income areas.
Obama’s remarks – calling for a higher minimum wage, more early childhood education and other measures – amounted to his most specific road map for what he hopes to accomplish in the 37 months he has left in office, as he seeks to move beyond partisan fights over government funding and the launch of his health care law.
“We know that people’s frustrations run deeper than these most recent political battles. Their frustration is rooted in their own daily battles, to make ends meet, to pay for college, buy a home, save for retirement,” Obama said. “It’s rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them. And it’s rooted in the fear that their kids won’t be better off than they were.”
At times dark, at times optimistic, Obama spoke of his and wife Michelle’s humble beginnings and recalled the economic activism of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt.
Invoking the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope Francis, he once again sounded the populist themes that he has embraced at other critical moments in his campaigns and his presidency.
But in describing “the relentless decades-long trend” of a “dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility,” Obama acknowledged that his administration has so far failed to arrest the stubborn trends of widening inequality and declining economic opportunity.
With few if any of his policies likely achievable without Democratic control of Congress, Obama’s speech also was the first clear sign of the issues Democrats will likely campaign on as they seek to keep hold of the Senate and reclaim the House in next year’s midterm elections.
Democrats’ hopes of electoral success have been hindered by the severe problems buffeting the launch of the Affordable Care Act. But on Wednesday, Obama argued that the law is not only working better but that it will help relieve some of the most significant financial pressures on middle-class Americans burdened by rising health care and insurance costs.
“For decades there was one yawning gap in the safety net that did more than anything else to expose working families to the insecurities of today’s economy, namely, our broken health care system,” Obama said. “That’s why we fought for the Affordable Care Act.”
But though he touted his agenda – which his advisers said would be the basis for next month’s State of the Union address and for the rest of his term – Obama did not provide a legislative playbook for accomplishing it.
Republicans have steadfastly rejected nearly all the president’s proposals – and in some ways are successfully pushing policy in the opposite direction, embracing deep spending cuts and the end to unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed.
“It should be no surprise why his approach has left more Americans struggling to get ahead,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in an email Wednesday. “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.”
Obama, however, said that if Republicans oppose his ideas, they still ought to offer proposals of their own.
“If Republicans have concrete plans that will actually reduce inequality, build the middle class, provide moral ladders of opportunity to the poor, let’s hear them,” the president said. “I want to know what they are.”