Obama: Greater Mobility 'the Defining Challenge of Our Time'

The president lists policies aimed at boosting the economic fates of low-income and middle-class Americans.

President Barack Obama speaks about the economy and growing economic inequality, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013, at the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus in Washington.
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President Barack Obama on Wednesday outlined a long list of policies he said he would make a priority, as a means toward a broader end of creating an economy that allows more mobility for lower- and middle-class Americans.

"I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: making sure our economy works for every working American," he said. "It drives everything I do in this office."

In a speech hosted by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning, Washington-D.C.-based think tank, Obama advocated policies he said would boost the fortunes of average Americans, including universal preschool, the passage of laws aimed at ending pay and employment discrimination, and a boost to the federal minimum wage. He also defended his health care reform package known as Obamacare as another policy that will help average and less fortunate Americans' economic well being.

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"We need to set aside the belief that government cannot do anything about reducing inequality," Obama told the crowd.

Currently, the U.S. has a far higher level of inequality than its international peers. The U.S. has the fourth-highest measure of inequality among 34 member nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of developed nations. Inequality has also grown more or less steadily during the last four decades.

Obama's speech was not a vehicle for new policy initiatives, instead packaging together ideas the president has long espoused.

Raising the minimum wage is one such issue. The federal minimum wage is at $7.25 per hour, where it has been since July 2009. Though the president did not name a specific amount in his Wednesday speech, he has done so in the past. On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama proposed boosting the minimum wage to $9.50 during the course of three years. In his 2013 State of the Union address, he proposed raising the minimum wage incrementally to $9 by 2015. And in November, he supported a bill introduced by congressional Democrats that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 and peg it to inflation.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, the current minimum wage is roughly where it was in 1950. Raising it to $9 would put it back where it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Raising the minimum wage requires an act of Congress, and powerful business interests are opposed to the notion. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a federation representing business interests, opposes minimum wage increases, saying such increases have an outsized adverse effect on small businesses.

However, a spate of recent localized minimum wage hikes may suggest a growing appetite for higher wages nationwide. The Washington, D.C., City Council on Tuesday passed a minimum wage of $11.50 per hour, alongside neighboring Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland. And on Election Day 2013, New Jersey voted to boost its minimum wage from the federal level to $8.25, and the Seattle suburb SeaTac voted to boost the minimum wage from the state level of $9.19 to $15.

The president also advocated the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which aims to shrink the gender wage gap in the U.S., and the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, which aims to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Both of these bills, however, face tough fights, particularly in the Republican-led House of Representatives.

[READ: Democrats' Secret Weapon in 2014 — Minimum Wage]

Obama took the opportunity to acknowledge what he called "admittedly poor execution" of the health care reform law passed in 2010. Problems with the health insurance exchange websites kept enrollment rates down through the first weeks the sites were online. However, Obama said Wednesday that the ability to buy health insurance will boost consumers economically, and noted that uninsured rates have fallen during the last there years.

"It is these numbers – not the ones in any poll – that will ultimately determine the fate of this law," he said.