President Obama wants 2014 to be a “year of action” in which the country finally begins to address a wealth gap that has made the term “income inequality” the catchphrase of the moment. And he framed the crisis well in his fifth State of the Union address:
Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by—let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.
But Tuesday night was not the first time that he explained the problem in the right way.
He did precisely that six years ago—speaking specifically about inequality and declaring that government had an ability and a responsibility to address it aggressively and unapologetically.
Obama’s ability to identify the crisis, and his willingness to speak in blunter terms than his political opponents about its repercussions, got him elected president. By a landslide.
Now, after a year of wrangling with an uncooperative Congress and at the start of a critical mid-term election year, Obama is trying to renew the political calculus that convinced Americans he was the right leader for the country—and that it was right to provide him with the solid Democratic majorities in the House and Senate that would allow him to turn rhetoric into action.
As he prepared what could well be the most important State of the Union address of his presidency, most polls suggested that the American people were less confident in Obama, and less inclined to give him the Congress he needs to govern in the final years of his second presidential term.
So can this speech restore the political fortunes of Obama and his party?
It’s going to be difficult, not just because second terms are always challenging, and not just because his political foes have no qualms about gridlocking government if they think it will benefit their electoral ambitions.
There is also the reality that, while he has returned to popular themes and displayed his usual grasp of the issues, the president’s State of the Union message was muddled. Like other presidents before him, Obama sacrificed the opportunity to focus like a laser beam for the option of reading a laundry list. And some of the items on that laundry list undermined rather than enhanced his “year of action” theme.
That was especially true when, against the pleas of the progressive base he must energize, Obama devoted a section of his speech to promoting a free-trade agenda that is as unpopular as it is flawed.
So it was that, what might have been a politically transformational moment, ended up as something less than that.