Obama, in Speech, to Focus on Income Disparities

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“The economy is elemental to most Americans, and it is the principal focus of this presidency,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday, noting that Obama inherited the worst recession since the Great Depression in 2009. “We’ve seen sustained economic growth and job creation for a long time now. But we are not where we need to be.”

Obama is expected to press Congress to strike a deal that at least softens the blow of automatic spending cuts that are scheduled to kick in after Jan. 15. He also is expected to call for a renewal of jobless benefits for 1.3 million long-term unemployed people that expire just three days after Christmas. The additional weeks of benefits have been extended each year since 2009, but a senior Republican lawmaker, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, said Tuesday that Republicans oppose yet another extension.

Wednesday’s speech is sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the White House. It is the latest in a series of Obama addresses focused on the challenges of attaining the American dream, from a 2005 commencement address at tiny Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., to his speech in Osawatomie, Kan., in late 2011, to a return address at Knox College last July.

The speech comes near the end of the first year of Obama’s second term, with few domestic legislative achievements and plenty of upheaval, including the problem-plagued launch of the health care website, brinkmanship over the nation’s borrowing limit, a government shutdown, spying revelations and the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Economic inequality has been getting new attention lately, however. Pope Francis, in a wide-ranging church document last month, denounced the global financial system, specifically attacking trickle-down economic theories as unproven and naive. Meanwhile, fast-food workers in about 100 cities planned to walk off the job Thursday, organizers say, as part of a yearlong push to highlight the difficulties of living on the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

While the United States continues to recover modestly from the recession, unemployment and wages indicate the growth is not reaching all households.

“We need to be mindful of the inequality problem, which is as embedded as ever in our economy,” said Jared Bernstein, a fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. He said that while some signs of economic recovery are beginning to follow historic trends, “we never had the burst of growth before settling back into trend that you associate with deep recessions in our past.”

“We settled into the trend before we repaired the damage,” he said.

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