President Barack Obama on Wednesday decried income inequality and a lack of upward mobility in the U.S., giving a ringing endorsement for more government action – and invoking free-market economic champion Adam Smith to make his point.
President Barack Obama speaks about the new health care law, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. (AP/ Evan Vucci)
“Government can't stand on the sidelines in our efforts because government is us,” Obama said. “It can and should reflect our deepest values and commitments. If we refocus our energies on building an economy that grows for everybody and gives every child in this country a fair chance at success, then I remain confident that the future still looks brighter than the past and that the best days for this country we love are still ahead.”
Speaking at an event sponsored by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, Obama vowed to focus the rest of his presidency on shrinking the income and opportunity gap between rich and poor, increasing the minimum wage, boosting funding for education from pre-school through college, and a defense of programs such as food stamps and unemployment insurance, and standing with labor unions.
“It's well past the time to raise a minimum wage that in real terms right now is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office,” Obama said to applause.
“This shouldn't be an ideological question. You know, it was Adam Smith, the father of free-market economics, who once said, they who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people should have such a share of the produce of their own labor as to be themselves, to be well-fed, clothed and lodged," he continued. "For those of you who don't speak old English, let me translate: It means if you work hard, you should make a decent living.”
Obama said he supported a “pro-growth” agenda, which he said would include promoting business interests. But he also said it meant more government spending, reversing the sequestration cuts that have helped reduce the federal deficit.
“It means coming together around a responsible budget one that grows our economy faster right now and shrinks our long-term deficits, one that unwinds the harmful sequester cuts that haven't made a lot of sense and then frees up resources to invest in things like the scientific research that's always unleashed new innovation and new industries,” Obama said. “When it comes to our budget, we should not be stuck in a stale debate from two years ago or three years ago. A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit.”
Republicans argue that Obama shouldn't shirk responsibility for the difficult economic conditions, much of which worsened during his watch.
Citing U.S. Census Bureau data, the Republican National Committee pointed out that since Obama took office, poverty has increased from 13.2 percent to 15 percent, with 6.7 million Americans havig fallen into poverty under a week job market during the Obama administration. As of 2012, there was a total of 46.5 million Americans living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau information.
Speaking directly to constituent groups, Obama called for more aggressive enforcement of collective bargaining laws, and laws providing more legal recourse for women and the LGBT community.
Obama said income inequality began to take hold in the 1970s and has become worse since, and that now the United States lags behind other Western countries in upward mobility, or the ability to rise from poor to rich.
“Starting in the late '70s, this social compact began to unravel. Technology made it easier for companies to do more with less. eliminating certain job occupations,” Obama said.
“Statistics show not only that our levels of income inequality rank near countries like Jamaica and Argentina, but that it is harder today for a child born here in America to improve her station in life than it is for children in most of our wealthy allies, countries like Canada or Germany or France," the president continued. "They have greater mobility than we do, not less.”