Obama gave a great speech today, focused on reversing rising income inequality, which he called "the defining challenge of our time." It's been a dispiriting autumn, and as Obama's returned to the bully pulpit in recent days I've thought that maybe I'm past getting keyed up as he cranks up the rhetoric. But he didn't do that. He offered new thinking and reframed our political discourse. He expanded and refocused the narrative he's been developing throughout his political career.
The outlines of that narrative were familiar. Throughout its history, the United States has thrived because it's periodically widened the circles of opportunity, extended the means to pursue happiness to previously excluded groups, made new investments in shared prosperity. Around 1980, though, the country took a wrong turn, and the American dream is fraying. As president, he will channel popularly willed recommitment to shared prosperity.
This time around, though, there were several differences. The stylized, compressed precis of U.S. history that's an Obama speech staple was focused more sharply on economic turning points. The wrong turn of the last 30-plus years was ascribed in large part to global economic forces, in a sense depoliticized. The faith that political action will right the ship was tempered by a warning that rising inequality, unchecked, could take us to a point of no return.
Finally, an economic argument that sustainable prosperity depends on reversing the widening wealth gap was more fleshed out than ever before. I have never read a presidential speech that cited as many economic studies. Those studies and a battery of stats were deployed to make several key points: that inequality is at an historic high point; that the U.S. lags other wealthy countries in economic mobility; that those born in poverty in the U.S. today are likely to remain locked in; that poverty is not just a "minority" problem but touches more than half of Americans at some point in their lives; and that rising inequality is a drag on growth.
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