GALESBURG, Ill. -- In a week when he tried to focus attention on the struggles of the middle class, President Barack Obama said in an interview that he was worried that years of widening income inequality and the lingering effects of the financial crisis had frayed the country's social fabric and undermined Americans' belief in opportunity.
Upward mobility, Mr. Obama said in a 40-minute interview with The New York Times, "was part and parcel of who we were as Americans."
"And that's what's been eroding over the last 20, 30 years, well before the financial crisis," he added.
"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."
A few days after the acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case prompted him to speak about being a black man in America, Mr. Obama said the country's struggle over race would not be eased until the political process in Washington began addressing the fear of many people that financial stability is unattainable.
"Racial tensions won't get better; they may get worse, because people will feel as if they've got to compete with some other group to get scraps from a shrinking pot," Mr. Obama said. "If the economy is growing, everybody feels invested. Everybody feels as if we're rolling in the same direction."
Mr. Obama, who this fall will choose a new chairman of the Federal Reserve to share economic stewardship, expressed confidence that the trends could be reversed with the right policies. The economy is "far stronger" than four years ago, he said, yet many people who write to him still do not feel secure about their future, even as their current situation recovers.
"That's what people sense," he said. "That's why people are anxious. That's why people are frustrated."
Without a shift in Washington to encourage growth over "damaging" austerity, he added, not only would the middle class shrink but in turn contentious issues like trade, climate change and immigration could become harder to address.
Addressing for the first time one of his most anticipated decisions, Mr. Obama said he had narrowed his choice to succeed Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve to "some extraordinary candidates."
The leading Fed candidates are believed to be Lawrence Summers, Mr. Obama's former White House economic adviser and President Bill Clinton's Treasury secretary, and Janet Yellen, the current Fed vice chairwoman and another former Clinton official. The president said he would announce his choice "over the next several months."
More clearly than he did in three speeches on the economy last week -- the next is scheduled for Tuesday in Chattanooga, Tenn. --Mr. Obama in the interview called for an end to the emphasis on budget austerity that Republicans ushered in when they captured control of the House in November 2010.
The priority, he said, should be spending for infrastructure, education, clean energy, science, research and other domestic initiatives of the sort he twice campaigned on.
"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," Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Obama also waved aside persistent Republican criticism of his signature health care, saying that the overhaul would become vastly more popular once "all the nightmare scenarios" from his adversaries proved wrong.
The president accused Republicans of "all kinds of distortions" about the legislation. He said bluntly that his administration had a simple plan to build support for the law, which continues to be viewed with suspicion by large numbers of Americans. "We're going to implement it," he said.
Mr. Obama said he decided to delay a requirement that businesses provide insurance to their employees because of concerns expressed by executives about its administrative burdens. The president said delaying that part of the law for a year would give the Treasury Department and other agencies a chance to make it "a little bit simpler" for companies to comply.
Administration officials have begun an intensive nationwide effort to enroll millions of people in new health insurance marketplaces created by the health care law starting on Oct. 1. That effort could determine how successful the law is in expanding coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.
Mr. Obama conceded that there would be "some glitches" during the rollout of the insurance marketplaces. But he predicted that millions would enroll, and he said that some people who already have insurance would find their insurance premiums going down by "20 percent, 30 percent or 50 percent." He said that would help turn around people's opinions about the law.
Addressing another contentious issue, Mr. Obama said he would evaluate construction of the Keystone XL pipeline on the basis of whether it would significantly contribute carbon to the atmosphere.
But he mocked Republicans' arguments that the approval of the pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, would create many jobs in the United States.
"Republicans have said that this would be a big jobs generator," Mr. Obama said. "There is no evidence that that's true. The most realistic estimates are this might create maybe 2,000 jobs during the construction of the pipeline, which might take a year or two, and then after that we're talking about somewhere between 50 and 100 jobs in an economy of 150 million working people."
He said 2,000 jobs were "a blip relative to the need."
The president also disputed the argument that the pipeline would help lower retail gasoline prices. He said most of the oil would be destined for refineries on the Gulf Coast and then exported. In fact, he said, the pipeline might increase prices somewhat in the Midwest, which would suddenly be able to ship more of its oil to other parts of the world.
But Mr. Obama suggested that he was also open to ways to ease concerns about the pipeline's environmental impact.
In previous remarks, he has said he will approve the pipeline only if it does not "significantly exacerbate" the problem of carbon pollution. In the interview, he said it was possible that Canada could "potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release."
But he said it was not clear whether Canadian efforts would be enough to resolve concerns about pollution. And he reiterated the point that the decision about whether to proceed with the pipeline would be made after a recommendation by Secretary of State John Kerry.