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Obama: US Economic Inequality a 'Defining Challenge'

President Barack Obama gestures as speaks at a White House Youth Summit event on December 4, 2013

President Barack Obama gestures as speaks at a White House Youth Summit event on December 4, 2013

President Barack Obama said Wednesday the income gap between the rich and poor in America, and the lack of upward mobility, remain the "defining challenge" for the nation's economic future.

The president's address was framed as a follow up to one he delivered two years ago about the challenges of income inequality and shrinking upward mobility.

At the time, less than a year before the 2012 presidential election, he also criticized opposition Republicans for what he called their desire to return to "the same policies that stacked the deck against middle class Americans."

As he prepares for new political battles over spending and other issues, Obama returned to the same themes about the threat to U.S. prosperity from the gap between rich and poor, and lack of opportunity.

"A dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle class America's basic bargain, that if you work hard you have a chance to get ahead," said the president. "I believe this is the defining challenge of our time, making sure our economy works for every working American."

Obama spoke as polls show strong majorities of Americans disapprove of his handling of the economy, with numbers the lowest of his presidency.

Unemployment remains high at 7.3 percent. The economy remains the biggest concern for Americans, despite record numbers on U.S. stock market exchanges.

The president renewed his call for increasing the minimum wage, and urged Congress to reach a "responsible" budget deal that eliminates harmful spending cuts known as the "sequester, and extends unemployment insurance.

He said important social programs for the jobless, seniors and the poor must be sustained, and the American "safety net" reinforced, while Social Security must be strengthened to ensure its promise for future generations.

The president said public frustration with Washington is at an all time high because of the "admittedly poor execution" of his health care law, popularly known as "Obamacare," and blamed what he called the "reckless" government shutdown on congressional Republicans.

Obama challenged Republicans to propose "concrete plans" that would help reduce inequality, build the middle class and provide opportunity to the poor.

"If you still do not like Obamacare, and I know you do not, even though it is built on market-based ideas of choice and competition and the private sector, then you should explain how exactly you would cut costs, and cover more people and make insurance more secure," he said. "You owe it to the American people to tell us what you are for, not just what you are against."

In a written statement, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner said Obama's speech acknowledged "the failure of his economic policies."

Boehner also spoke on the House floor, asserting congressional Democrats are to blame for blocking Republican-sponsored legislation and "serious good faith efforts."

"Every single one of these bills has been blocked by Washington Democrats," he said. "The Senate [and] the president continue to stand in the way of the people's priorities."

On the budget, currently being negotiated by key lawmakers, Obama said, "We should not be stuck in a stale debate. A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity," he said, "is a greater threat to our future than a rapidly-shrinking fiscal deficit."

Obama's speech was also a preview of the sorts of themes he is likely to address in his State of the Union address next year.

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