"It's not much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package, for 30 years, are sitting in this chamber," Obama said to the assemblage of government leaders, calling Social Security and Medicare "more important than ever."
Henry Aaron, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution specializing in health care reform and social programs, said the president's comments on Social Security and Medicare stood out to him. In fact, he told CNBC, the angle of strengthening those programs (however unspecific Obama may have been) reflects a position that the Democrats will want to take on the campaign trail.
"I think the Democrats are going to stick with that, and that's a winning position," Aaron said. "It's hard to find any group in the U.S. who doesn't overwhelmingly support both programs. That includes Bernie Sanders' left and the Tea Party's right."
While calling for America to strengthen those programs, Obama also touted the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare). "Nearly eighteen million have gained coverage so far," he boasted. "Health care inflation has slowed. And our businesses have created jobs every single month since it became law."
Although Obama admitted it was unlikely that lawmakers would agree on health care "anytime soon," he said that there should be other ways for bipartisan efforts to improve economic security. Even if a hardworking American struggles to hold down a job, he or she should still be able to save for retirement — "that's the way we make the new economy work better for everyone," he said.
Obama recognized House Speaker Paul Ryan's interest in tackling poverty, and he said he'd welcome a "serious discussion" about strategies like expanding tax cuts for low-income workers without kids. Whether conservatives will take up the president's offer to work together remains to be seen.
"The president's description of the changes facing the American economy and their effect on workers was good and important. And I applaud the president for focusing so heavily on poverty," reflected Michael Strain, the deputy director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "Whether the president's solutions are best will — hopefully — be the subject of much debate in this year's presidential election."
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Although he expressed his hopes for bipartisan efforts, the president acknowledged that there are areas where agreement is less likely, including the government's role in "making sure the system's not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and biggest corporations." Obama said he believes the private sector is the "lifeblood of our economy," adding that there are outdated regulations and red tape that should be cut, but he called for stricter regulations in some regards.
"After years of record corporate profits, working families won't get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at the expense of everyone else; or by allowing attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered," he said. "Food stamp recipients didn't cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did."
Obama doubled down on his criticism of corporations and financial firms while also hinting at others' campaign talking points, saying "immigrants aren't the reason wages haven't gone up enough; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns."
"It's sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts," he added.
The president said he plans to "lift up" businesses who are "doing right by their workers" over the next year, spreading those practices across the country.
Assessing the economic portion of Obama's speech, David Wessel, director at the Brookings Institution's Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy, said the president "raised the right issues."
"He is referring to very tough challenges, the sort that aren't solved by a single new government program," Wessel said. "I thought his plea at the end for 'a better politics' was well put and inspiring: Obama at his best."
Andy Green, managing director for economic policy at the Center for American Progress also applauded the president's speech, saying Obama "really captured the mood of the nation when he emphasized how far too many Americans feel that the system is rigged in favor of the wealthiest and large corporations."
"Ultimately, whether it's the lack of accountability from the 2008 financial crisis, the almost daily attacks on collective bargaining rights, or the seemingly never-ending search for tax loopholes, giveaways, and offshore havens, the public's feeling that the system is rigged is a deep and serious threat to the trust so essential to the proper functioning of our democratic system," Green said, adding that the president was "absolutely right" in emphasizing that "recklessness" on Wall Street led to the financial crisis.
"It's a problem that has been years in the making and will requires years to address, but accountability in the face of massive distortions of wealth and power must continue to be a priority for this president and whoever comes next," Green said.