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The Missing Link in Obama's Liberalism | The Nation

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The Missing Link in Obama's Liberalism

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(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Consensus! Left and right agree that Barack Obama not only gave a powerfully liberal inaugural address, but that he touched on all the important bases. “In effect, Mr. Obama endorsed the entire liberal agenda as the guiding star of his next four years in the White House,” wrote Fred Barnes in The Wall Street Journal. New Yorker editor David Remnick called it “Barack Obama without apology—a liberal emboldened by political victory and a desire to enter the history books with a progressive agenda.” 

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Curiously, the so-called “center” appeared to be more upset about this than conservatives. While the latter at least grasped the concept of having been defeated in an election, the punditocracy’s wise men wanted to pretend it never happened. National Journal pundit (and Karl Rove e-mail buddy) Ron Fournier bemoaned what he termed Obama’s “sad capitulation to the times. It is as if Obama threw up his hands in (understandable) disgust with his polarizing rivals and declared, ‘If I can’t beat ’em, I’ll join ’em.’” He blamed the president for “raising expectations—this time for combat over a liberal agenda that will save the planet, fortify the middle class, protect entitlements, regulate guns and extend gay rights.” (Actually, Obama didn’t mention gun control, but never mind…) Looking for a wing-man, Fournier cited his fellow punditocracy pooh-bah, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, who insisted “the country needs a president who can do more than advance, incrementally, a partisan agenda”; instead, he should “somehow rally the country to restructure Medicare and Social Security.” (Emphasis, one assumes, on the word “somehow.”) David Brooks, meanwhile, rather bizarrely imagined Obama and congressional Democrats working to kill the GOP by “invit[ing] a series of confrontations with Republicans over things like the debt ceiling—make them look like wackos willing to endanger the entire global economy.” (“I’m sorry, officer. Something I said must have inspired that gentleman to embark on a rampage of rape and murder.”) 

I’m happy to admit that the delusional “Can’t we all just get along?” spirit of Obama’s first term didn’t prepare me for the strong speech he gave starting his second. Like most liberals, I was moved by the poetry of inclusion. I was especially pleased by the marker he laid down on climate change. And I loved the way he stuck it to conservatives not only politically, but philosophically—like Ronald Reagan, but in reverse.

What troubled me was not so much the speech itself but the reaction it inspired. For if this is the sum total of contemporary liberalism, it has an awfully big hole in the middle. Sure, we liberals love gay rights, women’s rights and civil rights, but that is supposed to be—at most—only half the story. Liberalism’s social and cultural agendas shone brightly in the inaugural day sun; its economic component, not so much. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy noticed this, explaining: “In a world of tight budgets and congressional gridlock, one of the advantages of emphasizing civil rights is that it doesn’t cost any money.” 

Obama cannot be said to have ignored the plight of the poor and the middle class; indeed, some of the poetry of the address came on exactly this topic, as when he asserted that “the commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” But the crisis of inequality that threatens not only our economic recovery but also our democracy went almost entirely unmentioned. You’ve heard the statistics: household income in 2011 fell to its lowest level in sixteen years, while the gap between rich and poor is now larger than it has been in the past forty. As corporate profits rose to their biggest share of the national income in seventy years, workers’ wages fell to their smallest share in the same period. And wealth is even more concentrated at the top than income. The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans now own more than 35 percent of the nation’s household wealth, and 38 percent of the nation’s financial assets.

Remember, we live in a country in which the Supreme Court defines money as speech. Political campaigns, whether official or Rove-ian, are funded by the wealthiest 0.05 percent. And their power can be measured by the ability of corporate lobbyists to force members of Congress to dance to their tune or risk unemployment themselves. 

Previous progressive presidents, at least since Franklin Roosevelt, could have looked to a strong union movement to help narrow these gaps, both politically and economically. But thanks in part to a vicious campaign to change labor law in favor of corporations as well as a national shakedown of workers aided by “free trade” agreements like NAFTA and GATT, our national unionization rate is just about one-third what it was when Dwight Eisenhower put his hand on the Bible sixty years ago. (The labor movement, too, went unrecognized in the inaugural address, as it has in almost every Obama speech, despite the relentless assault it faces in Michigan, Wisconsin and, of course, Congress.)  

If liberals really are ready to give up on fighting inequality, then while you may be able to marry your same-sex partner anywhere in the country one day, you had better be wealthy if you want your children to have any hope of going to college or making a decent life for themselves. Already, according to a Pew report last year, we know that nearly three-quarters of children raised in the bottom 20 percent of income brackets remain stuck below the middle of those brackets in the future, while a mere 4 percent can expect to make it to the top 20 percent. Figures like those spell the end of the American dream, whether it’s defined economically, socially or politically. And if Barack Obama would prefer to focus on other causes, however worthy, we had better find a way to change his mind.

Sam Pizzigati and Chuck Collins chart the decline of the progressive income tax and the rise of inequality.

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