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Obama: Income gap threatens our 'way of life'

President Barack Obama put a spotlight on rising income inequality in a major economic speech on Wednesday, arguing that the disparity poses a "fundamental threat" to the American dream.

Marshaling both the recent papal exhortation by Pope Francis and a flurry of statistics reflecting a growing income gap between the wealthiest Americans and most others, Obama urged Washington to adopt policies to address the economic divide. 

"The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe," Obama said at a speech in Washington, D.C. hosted by the progressive think tank Center for American Progress.

While delivering remarks on poverty, inequality and the decreasing economic mobility of the middle class, President Obama declares that 'we are a better country than this' and these injustices should compel citizens to action.  

Obama called for a litany of proposals -- a higher minimum wage, stronger labor laws and a budget which promotes both education and social safety programs -- that he said would provide better economic stability for families in the aftermath of the recession that took hold as he first took office in 2009.

And, as Congress again approaches a mid-January budget deadline that could threaten another government shutdown or further spending cuts, the president said that addressing inequality was a more urgent challenge than further cutting the budget.

"A growing deficit of opportunity is more of a threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit," he said.

Many of the proposals pushed by Obama on Tuesday are unlikely to go anywhere on Capitol Hill, however. As lawmakers gear up for their own re-election efforts in 2014, Republicans in particular seem disinclined to help advance most parts of the president's agenda.

Continuing with a recent theme, the president in turn challenged Republicans in Congress to detail their own proposals to address health care or wages or other social ills instead of simply opposing his own plans.

"You owe it to the American people to tell us what you are for," Obama said, "not just what you're against."

Obama's remarks came almost two years to the day after a particularly notable speech he delivered in Osawatomie, Kansas about the same themes. Obama visited the small Kansas town because it was where Theodore Roosevelt had detailed many of the pillars of progressivism in 1910. 

Obama's 2011 speech in Osawatomie was also seen as an informal statement of his case for re-election, outlining themes he would use successfully to beat Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.

Now, a year removed from his comfortable victory over Romney, many of Obama's initiatives have stalled in the Republican-held House of Representatives. Much of 2013 has been consumed by fiscal showdowns and an unwillingness in the House to even bring up some of Obama's top economic priorities, like comprehensive immigration reform or the Employee Non-Discrimination Act.

Indeed, as Obama delivered his remarks, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, took to the House floor to accuse Obama and the Democratic Senate of being the primary impediments to economic growth.

Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama speaks at the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus December 4, 2013 in Washington, DC.

"The Senate and the president continue to stand in the way of the American people’s priorities," Boehner said, according to prepared remarks, referencing a stalled budget agreement and farm bill, among other issues. "When will they learn to say 'yes' to common ground? When will they start listening to the American people?"

Somewhat anticipating the Republican response, Obama suggested that GOP appeals to free enterprise are an insufficient response.

"It's not enough anymore to just say we should get our government out of the way and let the unfettered market take care of it, for our experience tells us that's just not true," he said.

Obama's speech was also a clarion call to his liberal base, a band of supporters that has been discouraged in recent weeks by the troubled launch of HealthCare.gov, which has harmed the president's approval ratings and threatened to weigh on Democrats in next year's elections.

The issue of income inequality has increasingly become an animating issue on the American left, as progressive champions like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth warren, D, and others speak more forcefully about the issue. Inequality -- and how to best address it -- is poised to become one of the animating issues for Democrats in the coming years, especially during the 2016 presidential primary.

"We know that people's frustrations run deeper than these most recent political battles," Obama said, giving voice to some of those arguments. "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."

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