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Obama eyes his economic legacy, offers advice for next president

President Obama, with an eye toward his legacy and the future of the U.S. economy, wrote about the unfinished business of his presidency and what he sees as the economic challenges his successor should tackle.

His essay, published in The Economist Thursday, opened with a slap at the far left and far right for the new strain of “anti-immigrant, anti-innovation protectionism.” The president harshly criticized both for embracing “a crude populism that promises a return to a past that is not possible to restore—and that, for most Americans, never existed at all.”

Then, taking aim more directly at GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump (though without naming him), Mr. Obama derided “the anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment expressed by some Americans today” that he said “echoes nativist lurches of the past—the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the Know-Nothings of the mid-1800s, the anti-Asian sentiment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and any number of eras in which Americans were told they could restore past glory if they just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control.”

However, the president acknowledged that some of the sentiment stems from legitimate concerns about economic forces of globalization and automation that have irrefutably changed the workforce, making it more difficult for lower and middle class families to thrive. But those same forces have also resulted in wages that are rising more quickly than they have in decades and in greater prosperity, he wrote.

Mr. Obama argued for broad-based capitalism, saying, as he has in the past, that “a capitalism shaped by the few and unaccountable to the many is a threat to all. Economies are more successful when we close the gap between rich and poor and growth is broadly based.”

While he touted the accomplishments of his administration -- recovery from the financial crisis, Wall Street reform, and the Affordable Care Act, among others -- he referred to the presidency as “a relay race,” and suggested he’s preparing to hand off to his successor.

But first he sought to give a little direction, pointing to four major structural challenges to surmount: “boosting productivity growth, combating rising inequality, ensuring that everyone who wants a job can get one and building a resilient economy that’s primed for future growth.” 

Closing the gap between rich and poor and creating a broad-based economy, he argued, will mean less fragility in growth and fewer recessions. “Concentrated wealth at the top means less of the broad-based consumer spending that drives market economies,” he wrote.

The president also made an argument for trade at a time when the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal he has been touting has been under fire by both nominees. He wrote, “Trade has helped our economy much more than it has hurt. Exports helped lead us out of the recession,” adding that “American firms that export pay their workers up to 18 percent more on average than companies that do not.”  

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