In a week when he tried to focus attention on the struggles of the middle class, President Obama said in an interview that he was worried that years of widening income inequality and the lingering effects of the financial crisis had frayed the country’s social fabric and undermined Americans’ belief in opportunity.
Upward mobility, Obama said in a 40-minute interview with The New York Times, “was part and parcel of who we were as Americans.”
“And that’s what’s been eroding over the last 20, 30 years, well before the financial crisis,” he added.
“If we don’t do anything, then growth will be slower than it should be. Unemployment will not go down as fast as it should. Income inequality will continue to rise,” he said. “That’s not a future that we should accept.”
A few days after the acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case prompted him to speak about being a black man in America, Obama said the country’s struggle over race would not be eased until the political process in Washington began addressing the fear of many people that financial stability is unattainable.
“Racial tensions won’t get better; they may get worse, because people will feel as if they’ve got to compete with some other group to get scraps from a shrinking pot,” Obama said. “If the economy is growing, everybody feels invested. Everybody feels as if we’re rolling in the same direction.”
Obama, who this fall will choose a new chairman of the Federal Reserve to share economic stewardship, expressed confidence that the trends could be reversed with the right policies.
The economy is “far stronger” than four years ago, he said, yet many people who write to him still do not feel secure about their future, even as their current situation recovers.
“That’s what people sense,” he said. “That’s why people are anxious. That’s why people are frustrated.”
During much of the interview, Mr. Obama was philosophical about historical and economic forces that he said were tearing at communities across the country. He noted at one point that he has in the Oval Office a framed copy of the original program from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
He uses it, he said, to remind people “that was a march for jobs and justice; that there was a massive economic component to that. When you think about