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Obama talks up minimum wage hike, health care law

Fast food workers in 100 cities are expected to walk off the job in protest Thursday. In this file photo from April, a McDonald’s worker chants during a protest for better wages in Harlem. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

President Barack Obama on Wednesday outlined a sweeping populist agenda for the three years he has left in office, making the case that government cannot “stand on the sidelines” when it comes to addressing the issue of economic inequality.

“In fact, that’s our generation’s task — to rebuild America’s economic and civic foundation to continue the expansion of opportunity for this generation and the next generation,” the president said during remarks at an arts and education center in a working-class neighborhood not far from the nation’s capital.

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The address hit similar notes to those in a speech the president gave nearly two years ago in Osawatomie, Kan., where he called restoring economic fairness the “defining issue of our time.”

Mr. Obama’s comments Wednesday were delivered in the face of growing public skepticism about the ability of the government to do big things following the botched rollout of a key part of the health care law. Despite those problems, the president said pushing to reform the country’s healthcare system was the right thing to do.

“More people without insurance have gained insurance — more than 3 million young Americans who have been able to stay on their parents’ plan, the more than half a million Americans and counting who are poised to get covered starting on January 1, some for the very first time,” the president said. “And it is these numbers — not the ones in any poll — that will ultimately determine the fate of this law.”

The president also renewed his call to raise the federal minimum wage ahead of protests planned Thursday in about 100 cities where fast-food workers are expected to walk off the job.

“I’m going to keep pushing until we get a higher minimum wage for hard-working Americans across the entire country,” Mr. Obama said. “It will be good for our economy. It will be good for our families.”

Mr. Obama also took aim at the “elephant in the room” of gridlock in Washington. He said while a divided Congress may never resolve all of its differences, “it is important that we have a serious debate about these issues.”

“For the longer that current trends are allowed to continue, the more it will feed the cynicism and fear that many Americans are feeling right now — that they’ll never be able to repay the debt they took on to go to college, they’ll never be able to save enough to retire, they’ll never see their own children land a good job that supports a family,” he said. Watch the speech in full here.

As we pointed out Wednesday in this space, the White House sees the focus on the middle class and income inequality as a lead-up to the president’s 2014 State of the Union address to Congress.

But it’s worth noting that this marks 10 months since he made similar calls for a minimum wage hike in his 2013 State of the Union address and went on the road to push the idea. And there’s been little movement. House Republicans voted down a proposal in March that would have raised the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour.

The president tackled health care at a second event Wednesday as well, imploring young people to be “smarter than that” when it comes to signing up for health insurance.

“My suspicion is, for a lot of you, between your cable bill, your phone bill, you’re spending more than $100 a month,” he told the White House Youth Summit Wednesday at the White House.

He specifically asked the young leaders to spread the word through their student events and through their social networks. “Post something on your Facebook or Instagram. You can tweet using the hashtag ‘get covered.’ But do whatever it takes to make sure that people have the information they need to make the decision that’s right for them,” Mr. Obama said. Watch the speech in full here.

The comments came as a new poll of 18- to 29-year-olds found the millennial generation is deeply skeptical about the Affordable Care Act. Politics Desk Assistant Aileen Graef summarized the poll here and Judy Woodruff interviewed Harvard University’s Institute of Politics Polling Director John Della Volpe about the trends his survey revealed.

Watch the segment here or below:


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Aileen Graef contributed to this report.

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