WASHINGTON — Amid public doubts over his stewardship of the economy, President Obama is putting a renewed focus on the income gap between rich and poor as he pushes for short-term congressional action and begins setting the domestic agenda for the remainder of his presidency.
The president plans to deliver an address Wednesday to argue his case that income inequality and wage stagnation are threatening upward mobility and retirement security. The speech comes amid growing national and international attention to economic disparities — from the writings of Pope Francis to the protests of fast-food workers in the U.S.
Obama is not expected to propose any new policy initiatives. But the White House says he will reiterate his call for an increase in the minimum wage and promote possible economic benefits of the troubled health care law. Obama also is expected to call on Congress to make a deal on 2014 spending, pass a farm bill with enough money for food stamps and extend unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed before the end of the year.
Polls show that the economy remains the single biggest concern for Americans, despite the recent focus on problems with the health care law. While some economic indicators are showing positive trends, unemployment remains high at 7.3 percent.
Moreover, the speech comes at a low point for the president. A recent CBS News poll shows that 60 percent of adults disapprove of his handling of the economy, the highest in nearly two years.
Setting the tone for his State of the Union address early next year, Obama is expected to highlight policy priorities that he has previously called for, including attracting businesses from overseas, simplifying the tax code, spending on infrastructure, improving education to compete for high-tech jobs and making college more affordable.
Those ideas have been recurrent themes in Obama's economic agenda, but most have failed to materialize.
Obama has attempted to include some of those policies in past negotiations with Republicans for a comprehensive budget deal that would lower long-term deficits, raise revenue and increase upfront spending to spur the economy. But those efforts have failed and current budget negotiations between congressional Democrats and Republicans are far less ambitious.
"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.