As Beltway pundits staged imaginary 2016 presidential nomination cat-fights pitting progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren against former Secretary of State (and suspected DLCer!) Hillary Clinton and wanked prurient about “A Party in Turmoil,” actual President Barack Obama was preparing a progressive speech on income inequality, which he delivered yesterday:
On Wednesday, in one of his strongest economic speeches, President Obama pushed past all the distractions of his opponents and addressed the core of those fears. He will spend the rest of his presidency, he said, on “the defining challenge of our time:” reducing economic inequality and improving upward mobility.
“I am convinced that the decisions we make on these issues over the next few years,” he said, “will determine whether or not our children will grow up in an America where opportunity is real.”
An American child born into the lowest 20 percent income level has a less than a 1-in-20 chance of making it to the top, as Mr. Obama pointed out. But one born in the top 20 percent has a 2-in-3 chance of staying there. And the top 10 percent now takes half of the national income, up from a third in 1979. That’s a level of inequality on par with Jamaica and Argentina, and such concentrated wealth leads to more frequent recessions, higher household debt and growing cynicism and despondency.
You can read the speech transcript here. Mr. Obama has addressed income inequality all along, of course: Astute observers will recall that it got him in some trouble in 2008 via an encounter with a bullet-headed plumber’s assistant who is still desperately trying to extend his 15 minutes of political fame five years later — anything to delay the inevitable moment when he must grasp the plunger and earn an honest living again.
Despite hyperventilation about the ACA being a tongue-kiss to the insurance companies, it actually represents a significant transfer of wealth downward — primarily through the expansion of Medicaid — and it’s about damn time that income flow was reversed, even by just a trickle. It’s a start.
Mr. Obama is right: Economic inequality is the defining challenge of our time, and by focusing on it for the remainder of his term, the president can not only do more to fulfill his vision of a more just and equitable society, he can set a new narrative — like progressive forebears LBJ and FDR did. That would be good for him, good for us and good for the Democratic Party.