- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
In a speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, a month and a half ago, President Obama identified inequality as the “defining issue of our time.” Tuesday night, President Obama, in what may be his final State of the Union address, drew back from that theme, and was silent on that issue.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama said that America is a country where everyone American has a chance to succeed – to “raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little way for retirement.” He then asserted that “the defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive.”
In Osawatomie, the President tied the philosophy de-regulation and market fundamentalism to the massive inequality and exploitation of the Gilded Age. Both the theme of his speech and the location, harkened back to President Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive era solutions to the Gilded Age. He chided those who would rely on market and trickle down economic solutions, and made the case for careful government intervention to build infrastructure and support research and technology.
The President made the argument that our current level of inequality, which he noted was the worst since the Great Depression, harms everyone. But he also showed how it distorts our democracy, giving a disproportionate voice and influence to the very rich through unlimited campaign contributions and access.
In Osawatomie, the President said all of this and more. He made the case for investing in our nation, reducing inequality, and improving the lot of most Americans. In the State of the Union, the President reversed course. His emphasis on reducing inequality was replaced with a call for higher taxes on the rich. Absent was the explanation that inequality distorts our democracy and reduces opportunity.
Whether the President will revive those themes remains to be seen, but he seems to be heeding the advice of political strategists like William Galston, who believe that the populist tone the President struck in Osawatomie was a losing argument. On the contrary, it’s a message that the American people haven’t heard, but need to hear. If, as Mr. Galston concedes, the President was right on the facts, he’s also right on the message. Let’s hope the State of the Union doesn’t signal a reversal of course much as the President’s famous Philadelphia race speech marked the last time the President courageously took up that subject with the American people.