One week after Pres. Obama delivered impromptu remarks on race relations and the Trayvon Martin shooting, he delivered a series of economic policy speeches to refocus attention on middle class jobs, job security, and racial equality.
In a 40-minute interview with the New York Times, Mr. Obama said that upward economic mobility used to be “part and parcel of who we were as Americans” but has “been eroding over the last 20, 30 years, well before the financial crisis.”
“If we don’t do anything, then growth will be slower than it should be. Unemployment will not go down as fast as it should. Income inequality will continue to rise,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s not a future that we should accept.”
Mr. Obama said in the interview that the civil rights struggles of the 1960s were just as much about the right to vote and equal representation as they were about gaining access to quality jobs. He even keeps a framed copy of the original program from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, best known as the day Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, in the Oval Office to remind himself and others that racial inequality and income inequality often go hand-in-hand.
“That was a march for jobs and justice; that there was a massive economic component to that. When you think about the coalition that brought about civil rights, it wasn’t just folks who believed in racial equality. It was people who believed in working folks having a fair shot.”
While he noted in remarks on the George Zimmerman acquittal that race relations have improved in recent years, too many young African American men are still not treated with the same dignity and respect as other citizens.
“Racial tensions won’t get better; they may get worse, because people will feel as if they’ve got to compete with some other group to get scraps from a shrinking pot,” he said to the New York Times. “If the economy is growing, everybody feels invested. Everybody feels as if we’re rolling in the same direction.”
The interview was conducted while Mr. Obama was delivering an economic policy address in Galesburg, Ill., a small town of approximately 30,000 that has seen its unemployment skyrocket over the last decade as a number of industries, most notably Maytag, closed shop and moved operations out of the country.
Mr. Obama noted in that speech that austerity hurts the economy, depresses job growth, and will destroy the middle class.
In the interview, Mr. Obama said that rather than austerity, the U.S. needs “spending for infrastructure, education, clean energy, science, research and other domestic initiatives.”
“I want to make sure that all of us in Washington are investing as much time, as much energy, as much debate on how we grow the economy and grow the middle class as we’ve spent over the last two to three years arguing about how we reduce the deficits,” Mr. Obama said.
In both his economic policy speech in Galesburg and his interview with the New York Times, Mr. Obama did not offer any new proposals as many previous proposals still need to be taken up in Congress.
In the interview, Mr. Obama also discussed his health care law and the decision to delay the implementation of the employer mandate, a move that was widely criticized by Republicans as evidence the health law will not work and needs to be repealed.
“This is the kind of routine modifications or tweaks to a large program that’s starting off that in normal times in a normal political atmosphere would draw a yawn from everybody,” he said. “The fact that something like this generates a frenzy [from] Republicans is consistent with the fact that they’ve voted to repeal this thing 38 times without offering an alternative that is plausible.”
“If Congress thinks that what I’ve done is inappropriate or wrong in some fashion, they’re free to make that case,” he added. “But there’s not an action that I take that you don’t have some folks in Congress who say that I’m usurping my authority. Some of those folks think I usurp my authority by having the gall to win the presidency.”
Mr. Obama is delivering a series of economic policy speeches aimed at pressuring House Republicans not to attach harsh austerity measures to any agreement to raise the U.S. debt limit this October.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew appeared on several Sunday morning shows to reiterate the Obama administration’s aversion to negotiating on the debt limit.
"I certainly hope that Congress isn't looking to create confrontations and false crises because we did see, in 2011, how bad that is for the American economy," Lew said on ABC’s This Week. "The mere fact of negotiating over the debt limit, after 2011, would introduce this notion that somehow there's a question about whether or not we're going to pay our bills, whether or not we're going to protect the full faith and credit of the United States."