Jules Witcover: Is Obama equipped to tackle income inequality?

BY JULES WITCOVER Published: December 7, 2013
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Even as President Obama continued to cheerlead for his beleaguered health care insurance law, he pivoted sharply the other day to a broader agenda he says will govern the remaining three years of his presidency: combating income inequality.

In a wide-ranging speech here to a sympathetic audience, he confronted what he called “the elephant in the room.” While many would say that pachyderm is his own Obamacare, he called the apparition “the seeming inability to get anything done in Washington these days,” especially in helping the middle class.

Acknowledging again his responsibility for the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act, Obama argued it was working much better now. Moving on, he promised an intensified effort to add to his Democratic Party's commitment to bootstrap policies, citing FDR's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and Great Society.

Obama labeled as “the defining challenged of our time … a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle class America's basic bargain — that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.” It's a theme that was once embraced by another Oval Office predecessor, Bill Clinton, and represents Obama's own effort to refocus on his party's traditional courting of middle-class voters.

Providing health insurance, after all, is part of the same social safety net that since the New Deal years has come to include Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. All are trademark Democratic programs that have sustained lower- and middle-class support for the party over nearly eight decades.

“America built the largest middle class the world has ever known, and for the three decades it was the engine of our prosperity,” Obama reminded his audience. “But starting in the late '70s, this social compact began to unravel,” he said, with advances in technology and overseas outsourcing dealing a heavy blow to American manufacturing and domestic jobs.

Under a flawed trickle-down ideology in which the rich got richer at the expense of the poor and middle class, he said, education and infrastructure withered, resulting in “an economy that has become profoundly unequal and families that are more insecure.”