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Who Are You Calling a Liberal?

If Obama is liberalism's standard bearer, liberalism's in bad shape

Contrary to what everyone who loved—or hated—his inaugural address seems to think, President Obama has yet to demonstrate that he is determined to launch a new liberal era.

The big speech did gesture in that direction. Obama declared, in the style of FDR, that “our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” The line about equality being “the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” was a welcome salute to three of the most prominent civil rights movements in American history. And not since Lyndon Johnson has a president spoken about poverty with such apparent conviction and specificity: “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

But to believe that Obama has truly revived the great tradition of egalitarian reform is to neglect the distinction between two species of modern liberalism: that which promotes the equality of rights and that which works toward a greater equality of opportunity and wealth. The latter, the social variety, emerged from the class tumult of the Gilded Age and inspired such key New Deal measures as Social Security, the WPA, and the National Labor Relations Act. The former harks back to the abolitionists and early feminists; it demands that the promise of individual liberty be extended to every American, regardless of their skin color, national origin, gender, or whom they happen to love.

Most contemporary liberals support both types. But since the 1950s, they have devoted more time and passion to fighting for individual rightsand American society has gradually warmed up to the idea as well. Liberal politicians, spurred by mass movements, did away with legal segregation and immigration quotas created by “Nordic” supremacists back in the 1920s, abolished the barrier between male occupations and female ones, won access for disabled Americans, and are moving ever closer to legalizing same-sex marriage. The scrapping of overt job discrimination did help boost the fortunes of non-whites and women of all races, of course.

Yet the goal of economic equity for the majority of working Americans now seems farther away than at any time since the Great Depression. Anyone who follows the news knows the basics: beginning in the late 1970s, productivity has shot far ahead of wages, the lion’s share of wealth growth has gone to the one percent while the wealth of the bottom sixty percent has declined, the real value of the minimum wage is lower than it was during the Carter administation, and the percentage of union members in the private sector is roughly where it was when William McKinley was president. The real unemployment rate is well above ten percent, while the poverty rate is sixteen percent, the highest it has been since LBJ declared a “war” on poverty almost half-a-century ago. Only federal entitlement programs keep it from rising much further.

What does Obama intend to say or do about these festering failures of politics and policy? Very little, it seems.

In his inaugural speech, Obama wisely observed that “individual freedoms ultimately require collective action.” But in touting his second-term agenda, he has so far said little about what sort of collective action he has in mind. It's striking how seldom he mentions labor unions, the only collective institution through which workers can act on their own to improve their lot. Conspicuously missing from that trio of freedom movement locations evoked in the inaugural was a reference to any one of the union triumphs that enabled millions of Americans, many without a high-school degree, to develop “the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.Perhaps Obama just decided that “San Francisco” (as in the 1934 general strike) or “Flint” (as in the 1936 sit-down strike which established the United Auto Workers) would disrupt the polished cadence of his address. But nor has he made any protest against the attempt by conservatives, in the courts and Congress, to stop the National Labor Relations Board from functioning at all.

What the president did say about helping the poor was beautiful. But he seems to have no plan to fulfill the hope he raised for an initiative, however modest, that could lift “that little girl” and millions of children like her out of poverty. Absent a hike in the minimum wage, or a jobs program for the long-term unemployed, or funding for failing public school systems, Obama's rhetoric will soon be just a faint, sour memory. Right now, the best opportunity for the impoverished girl cited by Obama to emerge from the ranks of the poor would be to join the military when she turns 17. It’s not quite what LBJ meant by a “war on poverty.”

I realize the political barriers to enacting any measures to reduce economic inequality are high. Nearly every Republican in Congress would vote against both a hike in the minimum wage and a new stimulus bill that aimed to create jobs for some of the unemployed. The current GOP views the protection of union rights, once hailed by such GOP leaders as Richard Nixon and George Romney, as akin to “class warfare.” Since the collapse of the Occupy movement, there is no viable, visible grassroots movement to advocate the cause of “the 99 percent.”

But Obama and the Democrats are championing other issues that will be no easier to win. The farther we get from the date of the Newtown massacre, the harder it will be to pass a sweeping ban on assault weapons. The president devoted eight solid sentences to climate change in his inaugural address. But if a carbon tax gets a vote in either house of Congress while Obama’s in the White House, it will be a major achievement.

Last week, in TNR, Alan Brinkley observed, “for many years, liberals ignored economic and social inequality—certain that their efforts would fail. As in the nineteenth century, the twenty-first century has produced the greatest inequality in the history of our nation. That is why Obama’s speech sent many people talking about liberalism again—happily for many, outraged for others.” I am glad liberals are now confident enough to reclaim their good name. But we shouldn’t be happy until they embrace and act on the full meaning of their creed.

Michael Kazin’s most recent book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He is co-editor of Dissent and teaches history at Georgetown University.