WASHINGTON (AP/WJLA) - Calling on Congress to raise minimum wage, the President says it's time to reduce the gap between the rich and poor that was recently cited by the Pope.
"This income inequality is most pronounced in our country," Obama said. "And it challenges the very essence of who we are as a people."
President Barack Obama turned his focus Wednesday to the pocketbook issues that Americans consistently rank as a top concern, arguing that the dream of upward economic mobility is breaking down and the growing income gap is a "defining challenge of our time."
"The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed," the president said in remarks at a nonprofit community center a short drive from the White House in one of Washington's most impoverished neighborhoods.
The president vowed to focus the last three years of his presidency on addressing the discrepancy and a rapidly growing deficit of opportunity that he said is a bigger threat than the fiscal deficit.
Obama's remarks on the economy come as he seeks to move past the health care woes that have consumed his presidency in recent months. He acknowledged his administration's "poor execution" in rolling out the flawed website that was supposed to be an easy portal for purchasing insurance, while blaming Republicans for a "reckless" shutdown of the government.
"Nobody has acquitted themselves very well these past few months. So it's not surprising that the American people's frustrations with Washington are at an all-time high," Obama said. But he added that Americans' frustrations also run high to try to meet ends meet, no matter how hard they work.
Obama said increasing income inequality is more pronounced in the United States than other countries. He said Americans should be offended that a child born into poverty has such a hard time escaping it. "It should compel us to action. We're a better country than this," the president said.
Democrats are currently pushing a bill to boost the national minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to closer to $10.
Barbara Lang heads the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, which has backed a raise to the D.C. minimum wage here, but she says that too high of a boost with no nationwide raise puts D.C. and Maryland at a distinct disadvantage, competing with the Commonwealth for new businesses and jobs.
"Until the feds do something, or until the state of Virginia does something, it makes us not competitive with Virginia. And so what we have just done is guaranteed full employment for Virginia residents," she explained.
In D.C., where small businesses, retailers, and restaurants sit side-by-side with spaces left vacant by the recession, some worry about the impact of a wage hike.
"The business people will lose money, and if they lose money, they will close the business," says Lanham resident Mohammed Kabbany.
Others say its time for a raise.
"There are so many people who are making five, six, seven dollars an hour. And people can't live on that," says Alexandria resident Erik Synnestvedt.
Obama did not propose any new policy initiatives in the speech, sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the White House. But he reiterated his call for an increase in the minimum wage and other measures he's been backing to help lower income Americans.