President Obama said Thursday that his State of the Union address later this month would look to "mobilize the country" around a "national mission" ensuring that every person who worked hard had "a fair shot at success."
Speaking at an event announcing federal aid to a set of persistently impoverished communities across the country, the president offered new details about the themes of his coming address — and messaging efforts the White House plans to undertake in the coming weeks.
Obama said, despite "a rancorous political year," he believed a populist push to address economic inequality was "not a partisan issue," adding that he could tap into a "sense of neighborliness that's inherent in the American people."
"Anybody in this country who works hard should have a fair shot at success, period," Obama said. "It doesn't matter where they come from, what region of the country, what they look like, what their last name is, they should be able to succeed."
The president also announced that he would join with companies and colleges to promote high-tech manufacturing programs during a trip to North Carolina on Wednesday.
Obama added he would host business executives twice in the coming weeks at the White House. At one event, the president and CEOs would lay out specific steps to help workers "earn the skills that they need for today's new job." At the second, Obama and corporate leaders would announce partnerships to help the long-term unemployed find work.
The series of events comes as the White House is looking to highlight its efforts to address economic inequality in the new year.
During a speech at the White House earlier this week, the president asked Congress to pass legislation that would restore emergency unemployment benefits to 1.3 million people. In the speech, Obama said victims of the recession needed a helping hand as they coped with the aftermath of the economic crisis.
On Thursday, Obama announced five "promise zones" — communities suffering from persistent blight and poverty where the government hopes to encourage economic mobility through public and private investment. San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma were the first of 20 areas that will ultimately receive the federal assistance.
In his speech, the president said that the push was personal. He noted that out of college, he worked to partner businesses and churches with government programs to help Chicago communities that had been decimated by the departure of industry.
He also said he empathized with a group of Harlem schoolchildren attending the event who had benefited from a similar government grant.
"There was a period of time in my life where I was goofing off. I was raised by a single mom; I didn't know my dad. The only difference between me and [one of the students] was my environment was more forgiving than his," Obama said.
In addition to mayors and officials from the selected cities, Obama was joined at the event by prominent Republican lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
Following the event, Paul said that the president's "motives are in the right place" and said it was important to "figure out what works and doesn't work" with the federal investment.
Both Kentucky Republicans have said they instead favor "economic freedom zones" that would dramatically reduce federal regulations and taxes in impoverished areas.
Paul said he was concerned Obama's proposal "is not enough, and it's not different from what we're doing enough."