In a wide-ranging speech on the economy focused on the middle class and notably devoid of populist rhetoric, President Obama touted the gains made on his watch but acknowledged that too many Americans have not participated in those gains:
“It is indisputable that our economy is stronger today than it was when I took office. At the same time, it is also indisputable that millions of Americans don’t yet feel the benefits of a growing economy where it matters most—in their own lives.”
The president noted that wage growth has not matched job growth and that the typical family isn’t bringing home any more than it did in 1997. That’s a problem for those in the middle class—and for those fighting to get there.
Mr. Obama framed his argument principally in economic terms. The issue of inequality that had dominated his speeches in 2012 barely arose, and the theme of fairness was muted. Indeed, the president stressed,
“This is about more than fairness. When middle-class families can’t afford to buy the goods and services our businesses sell, it actually makes it harder for our economy to grow. Our economy cannot truly succeed in a winner-take-all system where a shrinking few do very well while a growing many struggle to get by.”
“Our economic greatness rests on simple principle,” Mr. Obama declared, “when the middle class thrives, America thrives. When it doesn’t, we don’t. This is the defining challenge of our time. We have to make our economy work for every working American.”
The president ticked off a number of encouraging signs. Led by natural gas, the energy sector is on the move. Lower energy prices are helping to boost manufacturing production and jobs. High school completion is up, as is attendance at community colleges where young adults can acquire vital technical skills. The rise in health care costs is slowing, the budget deficit is declining, and a better-regulated financial system rests on a stronger foundation.
But we need to do more to accelerate growth, job creation, and wage increases, Mr. Obama insisted. We must invest in infrastructure and clean energy technology and basic research, help young families afford pre-school and first-time buyers become homeowners, redesign our high schools, fix our immigration system, and increase the minimum wage as we ensure equal pay for equal work. If we do these things, he concluded, the economy won’t turn around overnight, but life will get steadily better for working families.