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White House Economics: Growing 'From The Middle Class Out'

CELESTE HEADLEE: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the president says the country needs a calm, sober discussion about race, but we'll talk to a guy who says what we really need is less patience and politeness and more profanity. That's in a few minutes. But first we turn to politics.

President Obama is on the road this week for a series of speeches on the economy. Democrats say the speeches will offer some substantive shifts on economic policy, and new ideas on how to bridge the income gap. But critics say, we've heard it all before. To explain, we're joined by Cecilia Munoz; she's the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and she joins us from the White House. Thank you so much for joining us.

CECILIA MUNOZ: Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: So Cecilia, the president spoke in broad terms yesterday, pretty broad terms, about the need to address income inequality. What specifically does he think will do that?

MUNOZ: Essentially, the principle is that we need to make sure that our economy is on a track to strengthen and sustain the middle class, that we need to be growing it from the middle class out, and that we need to keep our eye on creating ladders of opportunity for folks who are still struggling to get to the middle class.

So that's about making sure that people can have a secure job that pays enough to support a middle-class life, ability to get a good education, a home that is not at risk of being taken away, a retirement free of worry with financial security and secure health care with decent benefits. I mean, this is kind of the essence of the American dream and it's the essence of what the president is fighting for, and what he's doing with these speeches is helping to refocus Washington on what matters most and on what our job really is.

HEADLEE: Let me play you just a clip from Obama's remarks yesterday.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The key is to break through the tendency in Washington to just bounce from crisis to crisis. What we need is not a three-month plan or even a three-year plan. We need a long-term American strategy based on steady, persistent effort to reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades. That has to be our project.

HEADLEE: You know, Cecilia, that sounds like the kind of language people use when they look back to the financial reform laws passed after the Great Depression. So I wonder if that sort of package, which is also similar to the priorities you just talked about, is something that he would support.

MUNOZ: That is exactly what he's talking about, is essentially making sure that we are on track to grow the economy. That, you know, we've seen a lot of progress in the last four and a half years. I mean, as you remember we were in an epic financial crisis when the president took office. Under his guidance, we've created more than 7 million jobs in the last 40 months. The housing market has gotten stronger.

There are lots of good signs that we're making progress. But he would be, and is the first to say, we have so much more to do. And that this is what Americans have a right to expect from their policymakers, is that they be focused on this and that we keep our eye on the ball, particularly of strengthening the middle class.

That, you know, these are folks that have been pummeled by, you know, the various economic winds for the last several decades, and it takes deliberate, concentrated work to make sure that we are lifting up the middle class and creating avenues for opportunity and economic growth that really benefit them, and this is his North Star. This is what he asks his team to think about, quite literally, as we wake up every morning and as we go to bed every night. And he is trying to focus Washington's attention on what matters most here.

HEADLEE: He did say yesterday that there were some things that would require Congress and some he would pursue on his own. What kind of things can the president accomplish without the help of Congress?

MUNOZ: Well, I'll give you an example in the education context, where the Elementary-Secondary Education Act - the act that governs K-12 education - is up for reauthorization. Congress has failed to do it in the last Congress. They're struggling with it and have huge differences in this Congress. The president and Secretary Duncan took action to give the states waivers under the existing law to make sure that they're setting high standards, that they're being held accountable, that they're moving things forward.

That's an example of an executive action, which the law allows the executive branch to take, which allows us to move the ball forward and meet some of our goals even when Congress fails to act. This has been a focus of the president all along because, you know, as you might imagine, he has a real sense of urgency about making sure we are advancing education in this country and making sure that we're, you know, doing everything we can to be creating jobs and making sure people are prepared for those jobs.

HEADLEE: He emphasized several times that he has just over 1,200 days left in which to accomplish that, but, you know, many of the things he wants to get done will require the help of Congress, which is, quite famously, in gridlock right now. How does he bring the House, especially, into the party?

MUNOZ: I'll give you another example. Yesterday, the Senate passed a compromise on the student loan question, an incredibly important compromise, with a very strong bipartisan vote. Eighty-one votes to make sure that the student loan rates, which doubled on July 1st, go back down to a reasonable level immediately. And there are strong signals in the House that this bill has an easy path and a bipartisan path, and it's going to get done and the president's going to be able to sign this into law.

So there are signs of life. Progress is possible in a bipartisan way. The immigration bill, which just passed the Senate, is another example that, you know, when people work together towards a common goal and a common vision, bipartisanship is still possible. And the president's view is, there is almost nothing more important here than our economic growth, and making sure that that economic growth benefits the middle class. And he continues to believe that - not just that bipartisanship is possible; it's a necessity. You know, this is what we are here for and this is what we should be doing.

HEADLEE: Cecilia Munoz is the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Thank you so much for joining us.

MUNOZ: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.