In a speech last week President Obama sought to change the terms of the debate for the last three years of his term in office.
It will be known as Obama’s inequality speech because of its focus on the economic challenges that he said were “the defining issue of our time,” including the huge gap between rich and poor and declining economic mobility, which robs millions of people of the opportunity to improve their lives. In a hundred ways the nation has been delinquent in maintaining the programs that foster mobility and economic progress for low-earning workers.
Obama wants to set a new course, though he has been trying all along. The watchword at the time of the economic collapse of 2008 was that a crisis was a terrible thing to waste — meaning Obama wanted to use the crisis to justify improvements that would better people’s lives and avert future catastrophes. These included improvements in education, health care, infrastructure, research and development, energy. He still promotes this agenda, but after five years in office, he has a better idea of the limits of his power to achieve those goals because of Republican opposition.
For Republicans the economic collapse was also a crisis they did not intend to waste. They used it to justify a program-slashing, anti-government campaign that was the antithesis of Obama’s agenda. The bugaboo they used to persuade people of their case was the massive debt compiled by the government as it bailed out banks and responded in other ways to the economic crisis. It became conventional wisdom, even shared by Obama, that the government needed to strike a grand bargain that would pare back government spending even as it reformed taxes and reshaped priorities.
Obama no longer shares that conventional wisdom. The crucial sentence in his speech was this: “When it comes to our budget, we should not be stuck in a stale debate from two years ago or three years ago. A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit.”
Where is that deficit of opportunity? At McDonald’s, the corporation is doing OK. But the workers at McDonald’s — and at Walmart and at stores and restaurants across the country — are among the millions of people who are working at or near minimum wage who cannot support themselves. This is the deficit of opportunity the country must focus on, according to Obama. It is the chasm between what our workers need to live a decent life and what their labor is providing for them. It is a widening chasm that can only be addressed by a focus on the reality of their difficult lives.
This reality requires political leaders to challenge the complacent purveyors of conventional wisdom who hold that if we tinker with the system, things will improve down on the lower rungs of the ladder. The administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin had to shake itself free from that sense of complacency early this year when some of its economic proposals aroused an indignant response from legislators who believed Shumlin did not understand the people’s economic challenges.
It is not workable to solve the state’s economic problems by cutting benefits to struggling working-class Vermonters — that is the lesson Shumlin had to learn. At the federal level, movement is growing to increase the minimum wage and to improve the bargaining rights of workers.
One of the great advances in the battle against inequality will be Obama’s greatest legacy — the Affordable Care Act. Before long problems with the website will no longer be an issue. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people are signing up for health care coverage. Until now, illness for many people could swiftly lead to bankruptcy, joblessness and homelessness, amplifying the inequality between the medical-industrial complex and people for whom illness or its threat was a constant and burdensome weight.
As the Vermont Legislature prepares for a new session, it ought to take into account the lesson of Obama’s great inequality speech. Sound fiscal management need not be abandoned. But neither should our awareness of the widening gap between rich and poor and the fact that it cannot be addressed by magical thinking or the trickling down of wealth from the fortunate few. Even the pope of the Roman Catholic Church has set aside the conservative faith in the beneficence of the rich.
Obama may have limited success pushing his agenda through a do-nothing Congress, but by changing the terms of the debate he may have helped create conditions that will lead to a new kind of Congress.MORE IN Perspective
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