Why Obama Punted On Railing Against Income Inequality

Obama reviews his speech. CREDIT: WHITE HOUSE/PETE SOUZA
Obama reviews his speech. CREDIT: WHITE HOUSE/PETE SOUZA

President Obama hammered home the message of expanding opportunity in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, but ducked the more strident indictment of income inequality and economic injustice that many prominent politicians have recently embraced.

The White House signaled ahead of the speech that Obama would frame the politically loaded idea of income inequality through the more positive lens of promoting individual opportunity at the bottom of the ladder.

On the practical level, the president championed several progressive causes that could go a long way toward addressing income inequality, such as universal pre-k, paid family leave, and a higher minimum wage.

But he was careful to avoid demanding too much from business leaders or the wealthiest Americans to change this paradigm, simply noting he’s “been asking CEOs to give more long-term unemployed workers a fair shot at new jobs, a new chance to support their families.”

The speech tried to bring a new, measured tone to the normally fiery debate over inequality as formulated by the Occupy movement and populist heroes like New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio (D) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Those politicians have gained enormous popularity by taking a blunter approach to inequality, assailing an unfair system that offers breaks to the wealthy while allowing corporations to take advantage of the poor.

Ahead of the speech, reports indicated that the White House chose the message of expanded opportunity because tough talk on inequality is less palatable to a national audience. “What you want to do is focus on the aspirational side of this, lifting people up, not on just complaining about a lack of fairness or inequality,” Paul Begala, a former top adviser to President Bill Clinton, told the Associated Press.

“Last night, what I really thought was that the president was relying on poll data to frame the issue. Income inequality doesn’t test well, that’s what the smart people tell us,” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told ThinkProgress.

“There’s a lot of people who went to Ivy League schools in the White House, so they’re probably more in tune with what’s happening with the regular people than I am,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), the other Progressive Caucus co-chair, deadpanned to reporters a few hours before the speech.

“There is wage disparity. There is income inequality. We have more poor people than we used to have. I don’t think those are things that you can nicely package,” Grijalva continued.

But do Americans really need a nice package to make the inequality crisis resonate with them? Some recent polling suggests that there is a hunger for even more direct discussion of income inequality. Two-thirds of Americans are dissatisfied with the distribution of wealth, and roughly the same percentage believe there are strong conflicts between the rich and poor.

Perhaps sensing this rising feeling of economic injustice, the Tea Party, which has struggled to reconcile its populist message with its corporate backers, gave a State of the Union response clearly intended to tap into Americans’ frustration. At times hitting the same themes as some of his left-wing counterparts, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) blasted “cronyist privilege at the top” and even argued, “If we’re going to reform welfare, we really should start with corporate welfare.”

Much of Obama’s speech focused on the problem of economic mobility, which has actually remained flat for two decades. The gap between the rich and the poor, meanwhile, has ballooned, and CEO pay has risen 127 times faster than worker pay over the past 30 years.

Whether it’s called inequality or opportunity, growing outrage over the problem has become harder to write off as the politics of envy.

“Our idea of who we are — a country of equal opportunity, of the chance to move ahead, a country about possibility…that’s what we see when we look in the mirror,” Ellison explained. “And yet that’s not true for so many people. For so many people it’s a country of stagnation. I think [Obama] tried to speak to that issue.”

“I don’t care what you call it…I’m going to keep on saying income inequality because I think it’s clear,” Ellison said. “When I say it in my district, they know what I mean.”