WASHINGTON — Declaring America's middle class is "under assault," President Barack Obama unveiled plans Monday to help hurting families pay their bills, save for retirement and care for their kids and aging parents. His comments previewed Wednesday's State of the Union address to Congress.
The White House has promised a sharper focus on jobs and the economy as the dust settles from the punishing loss of the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts. Republicans won the seat for the first time in decades and took away Democrats' 60-vote majority in the Senate, which Obama's party had needed to bypass Republicans' tactics to stall legislation.
Democrats are trying to regroup to head off more populist anger and stem more losses of congressional seats in November elections. Obama's poll numbers are also off — primarily because of the slow economic recovery and double-digit unemployment. A majority of Americans also have turned against health care reform, the president's signature legislative effort now in jeopardy.
Obama's proposals will not create jobs, but he said they could "re-establish some of the security that has slipped away." His remarks aimed to lift the dour U.S. mood and show he is in touch with the daily struggles of millions of Americans as resentment runs high about lost jobs and the economy.
The initiatives amount to a package of tax credits, spending expansions and new mandates on employers to encourage retirement savings by workers. Most of them will be included in Obama's budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, and they will require approval from Congress. Obama will release that budget Feb. 1.
The president's latest rollout of ideas served as a preview of his prime time State of the Union address. The economic elements of that speech will also cover Obama's plans to boost job creation and reduce swelling budget deficits — areas of concern to the public.
Among the president's ideas:
— Nearly doubling the tax credit that families making under $85,000 can receive for child care costs, with some help for families earning up to $115,000.
— Capping the size of periodic federal college loan repayments at 10 percent of borrowers' discretionary income to make payments more affordable.
— Spending more than $100 million to help people care for their elderly parents and get support for themselves as well.
The White House maintained that its imperative still is to create jobs. Unemployment remains in double digits, and the economy is the public's top concern. Yet Obama said that squeezed families need help in other ways, too: paying for child care, helping out aging parents, saving for retirement, paying off college debt.
What matters ultimately to people, Obama said, is "whether they see some progress in their own lives. So we're going to keep fighting to rebuild our economy so that hard work is once again rewarded, wages and incomes are once again rising, the middle class is once again growing."
Less clear was how much the programs would cost or where the money would come from.
Officials deferred comment until the release of the budget.
Obama, whose poll numbers are off, is trying to sharpen his economic message in a way that shows people he is on their side. White House officials say they know people have been turned off by the long, messy fight for health insurance reform. Plus, there is a perception that families have gotten far less help than big banks.
The economy is growing, but not fast enough to bring down widespread joblessness. The unemployment rate is at 10 percent and most economists say it could take until at least 2015 for it to return to more normal levels.