Obama: Let's focus on growth, not just cuts

President Obama is calling on policymakers to consider new investment in the economy and the middle class, while Republicans continue to hammer on reducing the deficit.

In an interview with The New York Times, Obama said the overwhelming focus on cutting spending and trimming the deficit has been a "damaging framework in Washington," and that there needs to be ample attention given to ensuring upward mobility for all Americans.

"If we don’t do anything, then growth will be slower than it should be. Unemployment will not go down as fast as it should. Income inequality will continue to rise,” he said. "That’s not a future that we should accept."

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In particular, Obama said that workers today, especially in the middle class, feel "anxious" because the types of jobs once available to them have either moved abroad or been made obsolete. 

"They could go get it at the Maytag plant,” he said. “They could go get it with the railroad. It might be hard work, it might be tough work, but they could buy a house with it."

While the economy now is "far stronger" than when he first took office, the president said Washington needed to do more to ensure everyone had a "fair shot."

"I want to make sure that all of us in Washington are investing as much time, as much energy, as much debate on how we grow the economy and grow the middle class as we’ve spent over the last two to three years arguing about how we reduce the deficits," he said.

While Obama hammered on "damaging" austerity pushed by Republicans, he echoed the concerns of the head of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke. The Fed chairman has repeatedly called on Congress to do away with the short-term sequester cuts and tax hikes, and instead pursue more gradual, but more significant deficit reduction over the long term.

Bernanke's term is set to expire at the beginning of 2014, and he is widely expected not to stick around for another one. In the Times interview, Obama declined to weigh in on a potential replacement, beyond saying he has "narrowed it down to some extraordinarily qualified candidates."

Recent reports have suggested that Lawrence Summers, a former top economic adviser to Obama and Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, and Janet Yellen, the vice chair of the Fed, are the two leading candidates. He added that a pick would be coming "over the next several months."

The president also defended his decision to delay implementing a key portion of the healthcare reform law — the employer mandate.

Republicans and others have questioned the president's ability to unilaterally delay that portion of the law, but the president was defiant in defending the move.

"If Congress thinks that what I’ve done is inappropriate or wrong in some fashion, they’re free to make that case," he said. "But there’s not an action that I take that you don’t have some folks in Congress who say that I’m usurping my authority. Some of those folks think I usurp my authority by having the gall to win the presidency.

"Ultimately, I'm not concerned about their opinions — very few of them, by the way, are lawyers, much else constitutional lawyers," he added.

Along the same lines, Obama indicated that he will be willing to move unilaterally again, as much as possible, to achieve his goals if Congress is unwilling to pursue them as well.

"I’m not just going to sit back if the only message from some of these folks is no on everything, and sit around and twiddle my thumbs for the next 1,200 days," he said, accusing some Republicans of having a "kneejerk habit" of opposing anything he supports.