In the weeks leading up to his State of the Union address, President Obama appeared deeply concerned with income inequality.
On December 4, Obama gave a speech at the Center for American Progress in which he called the combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility a “fundamental threat to the American dream, our way of life and what we stand for around the globe.” He used the word “inequality” 26 times, and “poverty” 13 times.
That progressive, populist outrage was missing Tuesday night when Obama stood before Congress to address the nation.
Instead of inequality, the President talked about “opportunity,” a poll-tested alternative Obama deployed 14 times during the 65 minute speech. “Inequality” was mentioned three times—once as a generalized problem, and twice as an issue affecting “hardworking” students and families “that pull themselves up through hard work.”
Poverty, a condition affecting more than 40 million Americans, was mentioned only twice—both times as something “no one who works full-time” should have to experience. Social mobility was hardly mentioned at all.
Plutocrats also got a pass from Obama. Nowhere did the President call for the wealthy to pay their “fair share,” a common refrain during his 2012 campaign. Nowhere did he criticize the big banks that helped cause the financial crisis, or the corporations making record profits at workers' expense.
Instead, Obama blamed the disappearance of good, middle-class jobs on “shifts in technology and global competition”—an impersonal and inevitable force. He recommended new investments in early childhood education and better job training programs to “set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life.”
Of course, Obama's centrist rhetoric represents a political strategy, not an ideological shift. The policies the President promoted in his State of the Union—expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour—remain as progressive as ever. But the calculated decision to emphasize opportunity over inequality is telling.
Someone should remind the President that it's hard to climb a “ladder of opportunity” when the rungs keep moving further apart.