Mr. Obama laid out a disturbing — and, unfortunately, all too accurate — vision of an America losing touch with its own ideals, an erstwhile land of opportunity becoming a class-ridden society. Not only do we have an ever-growing gap between a wealthy minority and the rest of the nation; we also, he declared, have declining mobility, as it becomes harder and harder for the poor and even the middle class to move up the economic ladder. And he linked rising inequality with falling mobility, asserting that Horatio Alger stories are becoming rare precisely because the rich and the rest are now so far apart.
This isn’t entirely new terrain for Mr. Obama. What struck me about this speech, however, was what he had to say about the sources of rising inequality. Much of our political and pundit class remains devoted to the notion that rising inequality, to the extent that it’s an issue at all, is all about workers lacking the right skills and education. But the president now seems to accept progressive arguments that education is at best one of a number of concerns, that America’s growing class inequality largely reflects political choices, like the failure to raise the minimum wage along with inflation and productivity.
And because the president was willing to assign much of the blame for rising inequality to bad policy, he was also more forthcoming than in the past about ways to change the nation’s trajectory, including a rise in the minimum wage, restoring labor’s bargaining power, and strengthening, not weakening, the safety net.
...ideas matter, even if they can’t be turned into legislation overnight. The wrong turn we’ve taken in economic policy — our obsession with debt and “entitlements,” when we should have been focused on jobs and opportunity — was, of course, driven in part by the power of wealthy vested interests. But it wasn’t just raw power. The fiscal scolds also benefited from a sort of ideological monopoly: for several years you just weren’t considered serious in Washington unless you worshipped at the altar of Simpson and Bowles.
Now, however, we have the president of the United States breaking ranks, finally sounding like the progressive many of his supporters thought they were backing in 2008. This is going to change the discourse — and, eventually, I believe, actual policy.
So don’t believe the cynics. This was an important speech by a president who can still make a very big difference.