Obama decries income inequality in final State of the Union address

Obama's state of the economy in two minutes
Obama's state of the economy in two minutes

Restoring the American Dream got top billing in President Obama's final State of the Union address Tuesday night.

The world is in the midst of extraordinary change that is reshaping the way people live and can either "broaden opportunity or widen inequality," Obama said.

He named inequality as the first of four "big questions" facing the country.

"How do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?" Obama asked.

Strengthening the middle class and reducing income inequality have been among Obama's top priorities during his two terms. He did not get much of what he wanted, but used Tuesday's address to list some of his accomplishments.

  • More than 14 million new jobs were created and the unemployment rate cut in half.
  • Bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind and both early childhood education and high school graduation rates increased.
  • Student loan payments were reduced to 10% of a borrower's income.
  • Health care coverage expanded to nearly 18 million people under the Affordable Care Act and the rate of health care inflation was reduced.

While he defended the strength of the American economy, Obama said that global forces have squeezed workers.

Related: Obama's economic legacy: Unfinished business

"Companies have less loyalty to their communities. And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top," he said. These trends have "made it harder for a hardworking family to pull itself out of poverty, harder for young people to start on their careers, and tougher for workers to retire when they want to."

Obama even channeled Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a staunch defender of the 99%, saying the American people must decide government's role in making sure "the system's not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and biggest corporations."

The president touched on some prescriptions for making sure the economy works better for everyone. These include: providing the education and training Americans need to land good-paying jobs, making college affordable, strengthening Social Security and Medicare and protecting workers who lose their jobs through retraining and wage insurance.

Republicans immediately added their two cents on income inequality, with House Speaker Paul Ryan issuing a release titled "For Too Many, The American Dream Is Slipping." In it, he noted that wages are flat, 46 million Americans in poverty, and too many people remain unemployed or have given up looking for work altogether.

Related: Obama's economy in 10 charts

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who gave the Republican response following Obama's speech, also highlighted the economic insecurity many are experiencing.

"As he enters his final year in office, many Americans are still feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels. We're feeling a crushing national debt, a health care plan that has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available, and chaotic unrest in many of our cities," she said.

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