Obama to preview anti-poverty proposals

President Obama will look to promote economic proposals designed to alleviate blight in some of the nation’s poorest communities at an event Thursday at the White House, according to a source familiar with the event.

The president’s remarks are designed to highlight his call to designate so-called “Promise Zones,” where the federal government would provide tax incentives, housing assistance and education grants to fight persistent poverty. The remarks come amid a broader populist push by the White House ahead of the Jan. 28 State of the Union address.

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White House officials have said Obama plans to lay out his ideas for addressing economic inequality and diminishing upward mobility in that speech, and the president appears to be systematically previewing his proposals in the weeks preceding the State of the Union. 

Before leaving for his holiday vacation in Hawaii, Obama pushed Congress to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour. On Tuesday, the president will call on Congress to extend emergency unemployment insurance for 1.3 million Americans at an event in the East Room of the White House.

At the event on Thursday, the president will highlight his proposal, embedded within his 2014 budget, for the “Promise Zone Initiative” — a government program hoping to revitalize persistently impoverished cities across the country.

Obama has proposed $300 million in Department of Education spending in the neighborhoods designed to improve schools and career services in areas with high unemployment. The budget also includes $400 million for the redevelopment of distressed assisted housing in high poverty neighborhoods, and $35 million for criminal justice grants to address crime and violence. 

Under the administration’s proposal, private companies would be provided tax breaks for hiring workers within the designated zones, while federal officials would help local leaders navigate access to government funds.

Before leaving for his holiday vacation in Hawaii, the president declared that 2014 “needs to be a year of action” on improving fortunes for “the middle class and all those who are looking to join the middle class.”

“We’ve got work to do to create more good jobs, to help more Americans earn the skills and education they need to do those jobs and to make sure that those jobs offer the wages and benefits that let families build a little bit of financial security,” Obama said.

On Tuesday, Obama will be joined at his unemployment insurance event by unemployed Americans who have lost their jobless benefits or been aided by the program in the past, according to a White House official. 

Obama is also expected to warn that failing to extend the unemployment program, which helps those who have exhausted their state unemployment benefits, would damage the broader economy.

The president's remarks will come shortly after what is expected to be a tight Senate vote on a crucial procedural motion for bipartisan legislation that would temporarily extend the program by three months. Supporters of the bill say that window would enable negotiators to find a way to offset the cost of a full yearlong extension, but some Republicans say they believe the program hurts the economy. 

Obama might also mark the 50-year anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” State of the Union address on Wednesday. 

At the White House on Monday, Gene Sperling, the director of the National Economic Council, said the president would look to expand on the “important progress” that had been made toward eradicating poverty since Johnson first proposed broadly expanding the government’s role in providing a social safety net.

“Because of measures that have been done over the last 20 years, including President Obama extending the earned income tax credit more for people with three children or more, reducing the marriage penalty and extending those, there’s 6 million people out of poverty,” Sperling said. “When you look at the refundable tax credits and the child tax credit and the ITC together, it may be as many as 9 million people not being in poverty.”

Some Republicans charge that the administration’s renewed focus on income inequality comes in an effort to shift attention from the rollout of the president’s signature health care law, which has battered Obama’s poll numbers. A Gallup poll released earlier this week found that just 41 percent approved of the way the president was handling his job — down some 10 points from the same point a year ago.

But a Hart Research poll released late last month found 55 percent of Americans — and 61 percent of women — say the emergency unemployment program should be extended. A Gallup survey released in November found more than three-quarters of Americans support raising the minimum wage.

Still, former Bush adviser Karl Rove cautioned last month that the White House was “playing with dynamite” with its renewed focus on economic policy.

"In the short run they get some advantage from talking about the minimum wage and the extension of unemployment benefits. But the more this becomes a question of taking from those who have to those that don't have, the more they engage the American people in a very negative way for the administration,” Rove told Fox News.

But on Monday, Sperling denied that the White House was seeking a political advantage in its populist pivot.

“If anybody suggests that somehow we want to fight for the minimum wage or extending emergency unemployment for political reasons as opposed to it being the right thing to do, I have a really good solution:  Let's get them done right now in a bipartisan way,” Sperling said.  “Then everybody can share credit in doing something that’s the right thing for the American people.”