President Obama on Wednesday laid out an aspirational 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 remarks at a Washington, D.C., arts and education center in Anacostia — calling for a higher minimum wage, more early childhood education and other measures — was 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 mid-term 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 e-mail 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."
Obama's address — hosted by the liberal Center for American Progress and delivered at Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus, which caters to people in one of the District's lowest-income areas — was the most recent form of an argument he has been honing since early in his political career. He has returned to it periodically, perhaps most notably in Osawatomie, Kan., in December 2011, which he used to advance his central argument for reelection.
Obama's original concerns focused on the impact of globalization and technological automation on middle-class jobs, as well as growing wage inequality. And while those remain preoccupations, he has lately been sounding alarm on a newer phenomenon: declining economic mobility, where Americans born into lower-income families have less of a chance of making it to the middle class than in earlier eras.
Obama's first batch of proposals early in his presidency focused on making immediate changes to the economy to boost jobs, but now he has shifted to trying to improve the nation's long-term economic prospects.
"The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough," Obama said. "But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care or a community that views her future as their own — that should offend all of us. And it should compel us to action. We are a better country than this."
Obama began his speech by weaving together economic statistics discussion with more philosophical observations about the nature of opportunity in America. He then sought to shatter "myths," starting with the notion that inequality is exclusively a problem of minorities.
"Some of the social patterns that contribute to declining mobility, that were once attributed to the urban poor, ... it turns out now we're seeing that pop up everywhere," he said. "So the fact is this: The opportunity gap in America is now as much about class as it is about race. And that gap is growing."
Obama's solutions were all ones that he has presented before, from passing an overhaul of immigration laws, to enforcing equal pay rules, to expanding education, to spending more on manufacturing and infrastructure.
"Government can't stand on the sidelines in our efforts, because government is us. It can and should reflect our deepest values and commitments," he said. "And 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."