After health law woes, Obama returns focus on middle class, poor

Reuters

By Mark Felsenthal

WASHINGTON, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Seeking to recover from thebungled rollout of his healthcare reforms, President BarackObama went back to basics on Wednesday with a renewed focus ongovernment policies that benefit the struggling poor and middleclasses.

"The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasingmobility pose a fundamental threat to the American dream, ourway of life, and what we stand for around the globe," he said.

With his job approval ratings sinking, Obama sought topromote some of the ideals he has championed throughout hispresidency. The Democratic president cast his political agendain terms of a broad fight to improve economic opportunity inways that benefit all Americans.

"We have to relentlessly push a growth agenda," Obama told asupportive crowd at a community center in one of the capital'spoorest neighborhoods. "A relentlessly growing deficit ofopportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidlyshrinking fiscal deficit."

He challenged Republicans in Congress to do more than say'no' to initiatives including raising the minimum wage orexpanding health coverage: offer alternatives and set aside apreoccupation with cutting government spending.

"You owe it to the American people to tell us what you arefor," he said.

Obama's proposals to promote economic growth by increasingspending on things like infrastructure building, hiring teachersand raising the minimum wage have been handcuffed byRepublicans, who say bloated government gets in the way ofstronger economic growth. With the opposition party in controlof the House of Representatives, Obama and his Democrats havelittle hope of accomplishing goals that require legislation.

The gridlock was reflected a poll released Wednesday byHarvard's Institute of Politics that showed young Americans areunhappy with virtually every major thing Obama has done since hewas re-elected last year. Most in the 18- to 29-year-old agegroup - Obama's traditional support base - cited the economy astheir top concern. But their disapproval ratings were higher forboth Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

In the meantime, the disastrous launch of the website tosign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act has hurt thepresident's credibility and his approval ratings are hoveringjust below 40 percent. The setback raised concerns amongDemocratic lawmakers that the 2010 health law, known asObamacare, will be an albatross around their necks in nextNovember's election.

But the White House said this week the problematic website,HealthCare.gov, was working much better and that visits to thesite and enrollments in health insurance plans have picked up.

The administration is trying to move beyond the earlytechnical problems and advertise the benefits of the law.

On Tuesday, Obama sought to frame the program in the broadercontext of economic stability for all Americans.

"I've acknowledged more than once that we didn't roll outparts of this law as well as we should have," he said. "But thelaw's already working in major ways that benefit millions ofAmericans right now."

The president's hopes of raising the minimum wage are likelyto face resistance in Congress and elsewhere.

The right-leaning American Action Forum released a studythis week arguing the minimum wage would do little to liftpoverty, in part because the vast majority of wage earners arenot in poverty and because a third of minimum wage earners areteenagers in well-off families.

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