CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In a major economic speech Wednesday, Barack Obama pledged to spend the rest of his presidency struggling for the Democratic Party's basic goal: to help middle-class working families gain better futures, and to reduce America's worsening inequality.
"In the period after World War II, the growing middle class was the engine of our prosperity," he said. In those years, as worker productivity rose, so did wages. But that formula disintegrated in the new Information Age. He explained:
"Technology made some jobs obsolete. Global competition sent a lot of jobs overseas. It became harder for unions to fight for the middle class. Washington doled out bigger tax cuts to the very wealthy and smaller minimum wage increases for the working poor .... The link between higher productivity and people's wages was broken .... So the income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, but the typical family's income barely budged."
Obama said the new "winner-take-all economy" hurts America by deepening the gulf between the privileged few and everyone else. "This growing inequality is not just morally wrong, it's bad economics. Because when middle-class families have less to spend -- guess what? -- businesses have fewer customers. When wealth concentrates at the very top, it can inflate unstable bubbles that threaten the economy."
The president acknowledged that Republicans who control the House of Representatives may try to obstruct beneficial changes, but he promised to crusade for several reforms:
• Tax law revisions to punish U.S. firms that send American jobs to low-wage countries, and reward firms that bring jobs back home.
• Increased college aid to help more working-class youths prepare for increasingly complex careers. "If you think education is expensive," Obama said, "wait until you see how much ignorance costs in the 21st century."
• Major spending for infrastructure. "Businesses depend on our transportation system, on our power grids, on our communications networks. And rebuilding them creates good-paying jobs right now that can't be outsourced."
• Passage of "an immigration bill that economists say will boost our economy by more than $1 trillion, strengthen border security, make the system work" -- by offering Hispanics a path to citizenship.
• "Raise the minimum wage, because it's lower right now than it was when Ronald Reagan took office."
Obama also cited other people-helping goals. He plans a speaking tour around America to advocate his rescue-the-middle-class campaign. We hope he and Democrats can muster enough strength to make real headway.