President Obama's speech at the Center for American Progress today will almost certainly be derided as more socialist claptrap by the crazy right, but you should know they're just running interference for a speech that may be one of the most important he has given yet.
Mediaite's Noah Rothman calls it a "base-rallying speech", but it is far more than that. In a time where we have Third Way "Democrats" attacking Social Security and Medicare, the President sent a strong signal to everyone that income inequality is and will be the primary issue defining all of the debates in Washington, DC.
The key moment came early:
I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American. It’s why I ran for President. It was at the center of last year’s campaign. It drives everything I do in this office. And I know I’ve raised this issue before, and some will ask why I raise the issue again right now. I do it because the outcomes of the debates we’re having right now -- whether it’s health care, or the budget, or reforming our housing and financial systems -- all these things will have real, practical implications for every American. And I am convinced that the decisions we make on these issues over the next few years will determine whether or not our children will grow up in an America where opportunity is real.
“This is a major speech on a topic that American presidents normally stay away from,”Tim Smeeding, an expert on inequality at the University of Wisconsin, tells me, adding that it compares in some ways to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s addresses. “The fact that a sitting president faced with a crowded agenda had the courage to discuss this overarching problem is historic.”
A few key takeaways from the speech: Obama described the decline in economic mobility as a direct consequence of inequality — as opposed to arguing that lack of mobility is itself the problem — and as the product of trends that are decades in the making. He cast the need to ensure that ”opportunity is real” for our children as “the defining issue of our time.”
Obama also argued that current levels of inequality and lack of opportunity as out of sync with the country’s founding values, noting that “the premise that we’re all created equal is the opening line in the American story,” and that the way to preserve that promise is to ensure that “success doesn’t depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit.”
And, crucially, Obama described the overall problem as the result of the rich pulling away from the rest. He noted that the share of the country’s wealth is increasingly going to the top while tax cuts for the wealthiest have cut into investments that benefit the rest, emphasizing that this has made it harder for poor children to escape poverty. Meanwhile middle class incomes have stagnated thanks to technological advances and declining unions. Result: The “basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed.”
“The speech was not just about the top one percent, or about the middle class, or about the poor,” Smeeding says. “It was about the three of them together. It was about all three parts of the distribution — the whole thing.”
Obama even took a moment to praise the Pope:
So the basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed. In fact, this trend towards growing inequality is not unique to America’s market economy. Across the developed world, inequality has increased. Some of you may have seen just last week, the Pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length. “How can it be,” he wrote, “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
Indeed. This speech is one everyone should read and memorize to hold his feet to the fire if he strays from this vow:
So what drives me as a grandson, a son, a father -- as an American -- is to make sure that every striving, hardworking, optimistic kid in America has the same incredible chance that this country gave me. (Applause.) It has been the driving force between everything we’ve done these past five years. And over the course of the next year, and for the rest of my presidency, that’s where you should expect my administration to focus all our efforts.