Obama Pivots to Opportunity

A step in the right direction on the economy.

In terms of substantive policy, President Barack Obama’s latest State of the Union Address contained little of interest. The President offered up more of the same, tired “concrete, practical proposals” we’ve been hearing for years: raising the minimum wage, creating manufacturing hubs, improving job training, and investing more in early education.

The ambitions expressed were, for this president, quite modest. Not once did he announce the coming of a green jobs revolution, wax lyrical about high-speed railways or call for a push to slash carbon emissions. The grandiose promises of his previous SOTUs—“Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail”—seem like a distant memory.

However, last night’s speech may hopefully mark an important rhetorical shift for Obama. For the first time since his Osawatomie speech in December 2011, the President made opportunity rather than income inequality his great overarching theme. After more than two years keeping alive the legacy of the now defunct Occupy Wall Street movement by harping about the purported evils of concentrated wealth at the top, this speech—assuming it does indeed signal a rhetorical shift—is a most welcome development.

America is and always has been the Land of Opportunity. As Americans, we should therefore be having a national conversation about opportunity—how to expand it and what it takes to seize it—rather than wasting our time and energy fretting about the distribution of income. What matters is ensuring that all can climb the ladder of opportunity—not that some have climbed so much higher than others.

In this regard, President Obama struck the right note last night. Throughout the address, Obama presented what he called “our opportunity agenda”: proposals to “expand opportunity for more American families” and to “build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class.” “What I believe unites the people of this nation,” he said, “is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all, the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America.”

In his nearly hour-long address, there were, by contrast, only two passing (one could even say furtive) references to income inequality and only one to the gains made by “those at the top.” The President didn’t single out anyone for not paying their “fair share” of taxes. And when he spoke of ladders of opportunity—an old favorite of his—there were no warnings about unnamed villains who, having themselves made it to the top, would now pull up the ladder behind them. To be sure, two references to inequality is two too many, but given Obama’s track record, it’s a marked improvement.

The President also rightly emphasized the importance of hard work in achieving the American Dream. He talked about “the strength of our work ethic,” “the dignity of work,” families pulling “themselves up through hard work” and even used the now-rarely-heard word “toil”! Given the battered state of our culture of work and the fact that hard work is the only way to climb the ladder of opportunity, this is a message that Americans need to hear and hear often.

Lest anyone read too much into a single speech, there is no evidence that Obama has experienced a road to Damascus moment. In a speech delivered less than two months ago, he spoke of inequality twenty-six times and threw in several more references to “concentrated wealth at the top,” “those at the top,” the “top 10 percent,” and, of course, the Occupiers’ favorite: “the top 1 percent.” In the same breath, he railed against “growing inequality and lack of upward mobility,” suggesting the former somehow directly caused the latter.

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