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The Inequality Speech That Wasn't

Obama's State of the Union went easy on class rhetoric

Larry Downing/AFP/Getty

Boy, President Obama sure let it rip with the class war rhetoric in his State of the Union address, part of the Democrats’ big plan to talk up poverty and inequality in the midterm elections, which has provoked all manner of condemnation on the right, from a venture capitalist predicting a progressive “Kristallnacht” against the rich to a Wall Street Journal columnist only half-jokingly envisioning a great leveling dystopia with a “Decent Wage Act of 2017, which pegged the minimum wage to the (inflation-adjusted) average hourly wage of 2016“ and the “2018 De Blasio-Waxman CEO Pay Act, which mandated a 9-to-1 ratio between the highest and lowest paid person in any enterprise.”

Obama said:

Right now, because of loopholes and shelters in the tax code, a quarter of all millionaires pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households. Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.

And he said:

It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country — the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like, or who you love.

It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.  

 And this:

Tonight, let’s also recognize that there are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it is virtually impossible to get ahead. Factory towns decimated from years of plants packing up.  Inescapable pockets of poverty, urban and rural, where young adults are still fighting for their first job.  America is not a place where the chance of birth or circumstance should decide our destiny.  And that’s why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them.

Oops, sorry, those passages are all from Obama’s State of the Unions from the past few years. Here is what he actually said:

What I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all — the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead…

Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better.  But average wages have barely budged.  Inequality has deepened.  Upward mobility has stalled.  The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by — let alone get ahead.  And too many still aren’t working at all.

 Our job is to reverse these trends.  It won’t happen right away, and we won’t agree on everything.  But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. 

Yes, he used the dread “i” word — for the first time in one of his State of the Unions, as far as I can tell. And that’s a sign of how much the rhetoric on this front has evolved — until not long ago, income inequality was the talk of policy wonks and liberal scribblers, not the sort of thing that an elected Democrat was often seen rolling off his or her tongue.

But beyond that, it would be awfully hard to distinguish Obama’s lines on economic class divisions tonight from what he’s offered up in years past — in fact, some of the language — “work hard and take responsibility,” “ladders of opportunity” — was borrowed directly from his past State of the Union texts. “Opportunity” in general got a far harder workout than “inequality” — nine mentions to one, which is significant given that "opportunity" is the term that conservatives so prefer to use when talking about class and mobility.

What are we to make of the lack of novelty? Well, for one thing, that Obama’s thoughts and instincts on this issue go back a long ways — his aides like to note that he was talking about it way back in his 2005 commencement address at Knox College, when he railed against the “Social Darwinism” of the “Ownership Society” vision of America, in which it is “every man or woman for him or herself.” And yes, he talked about it again when he told Joe the Plumber in 2008 that "when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody." I remember it also from one of his first press conference as president in 2009, when he gave a tart and vehement defense of his proposal to reduce the size of the charitable tax deductions that the wealthiest can claim: “Now, if it's really a charitable contribution, I'm assuming that [the size of the deduction] shouldn't be the determining factor as to whether you're giving that $100 to the homeless shelter down the street." 

The fact is, Obama does have a healthy dose of basic social democratic instincts when it comes to the question of wealth distribution and economic justice. But they have been expressed in awfully temperate ways in word and deed — the tax increases on the wealthy approved in late 2012 have still left taxes on the rich well below Clinton-administration levels. And as we saw in this week’s speech, the temperate tone will carry forward this year, even as Democratic strategists talk up the minimum wage and unemployment insurance and the like as winning issues for their party. Yes, Obama’s careful framing is in part the work of those same consultants, who worry about stating these matters too baldly. But the fact is, Democrats do have a longer leash to work here than they used to — recent polling on class and inequality has been notable for its populist bent.

No, the real reason that Obama’s tenor on this issue has barely budged over the years is that he’s pretty firmly rooted on it. Pundits should stop expecting him to turn into William Jennings Bryan for the rest of his presidency. And Tom Perkins can probably stop worrying about the floor-to-ceiling windows being smashed at his 5,500 square-foot 60th floor penthouse overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.