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Obama on income inequality: 'I take this personally'

WASHINGTON – President Obama made a highly personal case for raising the minimum wage and strengthening the social safety net in an address Wednesday recalling the government programs that helped him and his wife get ahead in life.

In a lengthy speech about income inequality in America, Obama declared it the “defining challenge of our time” to make sure the economy works for rich and poor alike.

“I take this personally,” Obama said. “I’m only here because this country educated my grandfather on the GI bill.”

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When his father left and his mom hit hard times trying to raise two children while going to school, he said, “this country helped make sure we didn’t go hungry.”

And when Michelle Obama’s working-class parents wanted to send her to college, he said, “this country helped us afford it until we could pay it back.”

“What drives me as a grandson, a son, a father, as an American,” he said, “is to make sure that every striving, hardworking, optimistic kid in America has the same incredible chance that his country gave me.”

In what sounded at times like a preview of a State of the Union address, Obama spelled out his economic priorities and outlined his approach as he enters negotiations with congressional Republicans over budget and fiscal matters.

He lowered deficit reduction on his administration’s priority list, arguing that slashing government programs doesn’t attack the most serious problems facing the nation’s middle class. A “growing deficit of opportunity” is a greater threat to the country’s future than its “rapidly shrinking” fiscal deficit, he said.

Obama also made clear that he will push publicly for an increase to the minimum wage, an initiative that currently doesn’t stand much of a chance of passage.

In his address to the liberal Center for American Progress, Obama called upon Republicans to help fight the growing gap between rich and poor by either supporting his plans or offering alternatives.

“If Republicans have concrete plans that will actually reduce inequality, build the middle class, provide moral ladders of opportunity to the poor, let's hear them,” Obama said. “I want to know what they are.”

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But as Obama spoke, Republican leaders took issue with the remedies he proposed. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) suggested that Obama’s policies are to blame for the problems he describes.

“He promotes more government instead of more freedom,” Boehner wrote on Twitter. “The American Dream is certainly more in doubt than in decades,” he went on in a linked statement, “but after more than five years in office, the president has no one to blame but himself.”

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christi.parsons@latimes.com

Twitter: @cparsons

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