On Wednesday morning, President Obama left the White House and made a six-mile drive from the center of the richest city in America to the east side of the Anacostia River, where nearly half of the children are poor. It was an appropriate location for a speech on the American economy, and in particular for Obama’s announcement that he would devote the remaining three years of his presidency to income inequality and declining social mobility, which he called “the defining challenge of our time.”
“The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough,” the president said. “But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care or a community that views her future as their own—that should offend all of us. And it should compel us to action.”
The actions Obama laid out included several progressive policies (although none of them new), including an increase in the minimum wage. The speech was another indicator that inequality will be the issue that animates Democratic Party politics in coming election cycles.
Contrary to what John Cowan and Jim Kessler of the dubiously Democratic think tank Third Way say, there are many signs that economic populism is the right message. However, it’s one thing to assume the language; it’s another to live up to its demands. As many others have pointed out in recent weeks, confronting economic inequality exposes the dilemmas of a party that has grown close to business interests.
To really reverse the cycle of economic and social stratification, to significantly increase investment in schools, infrastructure and institutions, means big changes to the tax code—way bigger than closing loopholes in exchange for lower corporate tax rates, as Obama proposed in his speech. It means taking on Wall Street, not promoting bills written by banks to undercut financial reform. It means reconciling the lip service Democrats pay to labor and education with attacks on teachers and, broadly, the undermining of the public education system. It means a firmer rejection of austerity. It means, in effect, stabbing the Big Money that all politicians have come to rely on in the post—Citizens United era in the back.
Obama’s speech exemplified some of the quandaries within his party. He called for several specific progressive policies that have broad Democratic support, including a raise in federal minimum wage, universal pre-K, the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, extending long-term unemployment insurance and ensuring that women are paid equal wages for equal work. He called for stronger collective bargaining laws “so unions have a level playing field to organize…for a better deal for workers and better wages for the middle class.” All of these policies are needed, and overdue. They’re also popular among voters, and the fact that congressional Republicans are likely to prevent them from being enacted is fodder for Democratic candidates.