Just the Facts

The Truth About Obama-Era Inequality

The president calls income inequality the ‘defining issue of our time.’ So it seems fair to grade him on his success at addressing it. By any measure, he has failed spectacularly.

12.05.13 10:45 AM ET

Maybe it’s the Christmas season. But when December rolls around, President Obama’s thoughts seem to turn to income inequality.

On December 6, 2011, he gave what the White House billed as a “defining” speech on the subject in Osawatomie, Kansas, site of a historic address by Teddy Roosevelt on “New Nationalism.”

In the 2011 speech, Obama began by painting a portrait of the 1950s and 1960s as an ideal period in American history, highlighting “values” that “gave rise to the largest middle class and the strongest economy that the world has ever known.”

“Every American shared in that pride and in that success,” he added.

It was a remarkable portrait of an American fantasy rooted in Ozzie and Harriet, not history. For a large swath of the country, the president was describing the Jim Crow era, when as an African-American, Obama would have likely found it difficult to vote and his economic prospects severely hindered.

When Obama hailed “the most productive workers” of that period, he was including the Hispanic migrant laborers working for far less than $1 an hour. He also was describing a time when that “glass ceiling” for women like his mother was much lower, and they made just 60 percent of what men made.

The president contrasted that era with today’s “shrinking middle class.” He called income inequality the “defining issue of our time.”

The speech was delivered in front of a largely white, middle-class audience.

Now it’s December 2013, and the president has given another speech on income inequality. This one was in Washington, in front of a liberal group, and this time his vision of history was a bit different. As if criticizing his earlier remarks in front of the Kansas audience, he said:

“Now, we can’t look at the past through rose-colored glasses. The economy didn’t always work for everyone. Racial discrimination locked millions out of poverty—or out of opportunity. Women were too often confined to a handful of often poorly paid professions.”

It’s confusing. Is the past one in which “every American…shared in success” as Obama said in December 2011, or one in which “the economy didn’t work out for everyone,” as he described in December 2013? Whatever the case, one thing has remained the same: He still believes income inequality is the “defining challenge of our time.”

So if income inequality is the standard, it seems fair to grade the president on his success in addressing the problem. By any measure possible—except perhaps the number of speeches given—he has failed. He hasn’t just modestly failed; he’s failed at reducing income inequality more than any president in the modern era.

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In an August article under the headline “Income Gap Grows Wider (And Faster),” The New York Times determined: “Income inequality in the United States has been growing for decades, but the trend appears to have accelerated during the Obama administration.” The Times based its conclusion on an detailed analysis of wages. But the evidence is also clear in the disparity between the stock market and the growing numbers in poverty, including many working poor in part-time jobs.

Whenever the stock market hits a new high, some Obama supporters take great glee in highlighting the gain with a jab at those who attacked him as a “socialist.” It’s true. The rich certainly have gotten richer in the Obama economy. But the poor have gotten poorer and grown in number.

While the stock market has soared, so has poverty. More than 42 million Americans are now in poverty, a record level. Sixteen million more are on food stamps today than when Obama took office. A study by the Southern Education Foundation found that for the first time in 40 years, a majority of public school students in 13 Southern and 4 Western states are living in poverty.

To get out of this slow-speed economy, which is grinding more out of the middle class every day, there must be true economic growth. The country still has a jobs crisis. While the worst of the Great Recession is over, fewer Americans are working full time today than when Obama took office, and at lower wages.

Obama is simply not a jobs-first president. Like many conservatives from a different perspective, he’s more motivated by great sweeping social causes: guns, gay rights, and abortion. His inability to focus on one central issue is highlighted by his lack of attention even to Obamacare, his legacy initiative.

What would a jobs-first presidency look like? Think of what a meat-and-potatoes Democrat like Ed Rendell would do in the job. He’d be meeting constantly with business leaders, governors, and small business owners. He’d be asking one driving question: What does it take to get you to hire more people, start one more small business, expand your company into new areas? He would push and push and push and try to make every change possible to create better jobs. Governors do that every day.

It’s not sexy, but it would be a specific focus on improving the lives of more Americans.

Instead we have an eloquent president who seems strangely disconnected from the problems he describes. In 1967, Bobby Kennedy toured the Mississippi Delta to draw attention to the plight of the poor, especially poor black children. A year later he toured Kentucky’s Appalachia, highlighting the poverty of rural whites. Those images still haunt our national consciousness.

But this president? He spends the days before Thanksgiving raising money for campaigns he’ll never run in the mansions of millionaires. Next December he’ll probably give another speech on income inequality. Then perhaps one more in December 2015 and maybe one final hurrah in 2016.

After that, what will count is not his speeches but his record. Right now he’s on track to be one of America’s worst presidents on a subject he calls “defining.” If so, how will he be defined?