WASHINGTON (AP) — Income inequality is out, "ladders of opportunity" is in.
Eager to dispel claims that President Barack Obama is engaging in "class warfare" as he heads into his State of the Union address next week, the White House is de-emphasizing phrases focusing on economic disparity and turning instead to messages about creating paths of opportunity for the poor and middle class.
The adjustment reflects an awareness that Obama's earlier language put him at risk of being perceived as divisive and exposed him to criticism that his rhetoric was exploiting the gap between haves and have-nots.
On Dec. 4 Obama delivered a sweeping economic address where he declared that "increasing inequality is most pronounced in our country, and it challenges the very essence of who we are as a people." He used the word "inequality" 26 times in his speech that day.
A month later the word has all but disappeared at the White House. In his most recent remarks about his economic agenda, the president made no mention of chasms between rich and poor. Rather, he stressed policies that help move low income people into the middle class.
"We have to make sure that there are new ladders of opportunity into the middle class, and that those ladders — the rungs on those ladders are solid and accessible for more people," Obama said last week, expanding a metaphor from his 2013 State of the Union address.
The modification in language does not represent a shift from Obama's underlying economic message, which White House officials note has been a consistent and prominent theme of his political life.
One senior White House official said the December speech and its attention to economic inequality was designed to highlight one symptom associated with shrinking opportunities for the middle class. But the official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the strategy behind the economic message, said the president's overarching message has been his desire to reverse that trend and expand opportunities.
"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," said Paul Begala, a former top adviser to President Bill Clinton who consults with White House officials. "Watch the State of the Union, I'd be surprised if he uses phrases like inequality, which suggests a leveling down. If you talk about the middle class, it suggests a lifting up."