Economic Policy

Obama shifts to economy, calls for minimum wage hike

President Obama, under fire for the rocky debut of his signature health care program, shifted gears Wednesday to focus on the economy and reiterate his call for an increase in the minimum wage.

“It will be good for our economy, it will be good for our families,” Obama said of a minimum wage hike. The White House is backing a bill that would raise the federal minimum to just over $10 an hour, up from $7.25.

Critics of a minimum wage increase argue that it could have the perverse effect of hurting the economy, resulting in higher costs for consumers and fewer jobs to offset the cost of higher wages.

But Obama touted local efforts to address the minimum wage. Around the same time as Obama’s speech, the D.C. Council voted to give preliminary approval to hike the minimum wage to $11.50 an hour, which would be one of the nation's highest.

The president called the growing income gap 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.

He was also in friendly territory, at an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the White House. 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.

But Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., argued that the president's message was undermined by his support for an immigration overhaul which he claimed would hurt workers.

“It is shocking for the President to give a speech about income disparity and falling wages while pushing an immigration plan that will hammer American workers and widen the disparity," he said in a statement.

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" partial 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.

The speech comes amid growing national and international attention to economic disparities -- from the writings of Pope Francis to the protests of fast-food workers in the U.S. The president cited the pope's question of how it isn't news when an elderly homeless person dies from exposure, but news when stock market loses two points.

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.

Obama did not propose any new policy initiatives in the speech.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.