Did President Obama Just Realize Income Inequality Is a Problem

Given the extraordinary amount of hope and optimism that many progressives felt when President Obama was elected in 2008, it was probably inevitable that his presidency would be a disappointment to many. Nonetheless, there are times when disappointment is not a strong enough word to describe the feelings brought about by something the President says or does. Incredulity might be a more fitting description of how progressives might feel regarding Obama's recent speech about income inequality.

Obviously, it is good that the President saw fit to address this very serious issue, but it is, frankly, outrageous that it took him almost five years into his presidency to address an issue that has been a growing problem in the US for decades and that was brought unmistakably to the fore by events that occurred in the last months of the 2008 campaign. While it is interesting that Obama quoted the Pope in his speech, it is almost as if Obama waited for some kind of political cover from the Pope before publicly addressing the issue of income inequality; either that or the depth and impact of the problem had not occurred to him until the Pope tweeted about it.

Obama's fears of the political impact of even recognizing that inequalities of wealth or income are problems would lead to attacks and red baiting from Republican adversaries are likely behind this lag. These fears are legitimate as the Republicans have called Obama a socialist for things like supporting a Republican health care policy and returning tax rates to levels not seen since the Reagan administration. Giving in to these fears in a country where throughout the years of Obama's presidency the struggles of the poor seeking to keep up and survive in today's economy, has been a mistake and demonstrated once again the basic timidity of Obama has brought to his presidency. It has also demonstrated a striking lack of leadership.

The speech, as might be expected, was good. Had it come early in Obama's presidency linked to a legislative agenda to which the President was committed, it would have been an important speech, but now it is not. Income and wealth inequality is not only a critical issue for millions of poor and middle class Americans struggling to make it from day to day and week to week, but it is also an issue that goes to the absolute heart of much of political life. A major legislative effort to address this issue will therefore make the health care debates look like a discussion in congress about whether or not to rename a bridge.

Five years into his presidency, with the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives and unlikely to lose that control in the 2014 midterm election, Obama has almost no possibility of passing meaningful legislation addressing income inequality. In a strange way, this is why he is speaking about it now. By raising the issue now, Obama has nothing to lose because their is almost no expectation that he will be able to change anything. However, by speaking about it, he will get some credit for noting the problem and seeking to draw attention to it.

While it is an advance for a president, for the first time since probably Lyndon Johnson, to recognize that income and wealth inequality can cause problems for the country, it is only a modest advance. This is not an issue on which the president can exhibit moral leadership or urge others to change their behaviors, but is one that requires strong legislative solutions.

It is likely that during the remaining three years of the Obama presidency little will be done, although possibly a lot more will be said, about income inequality. The problem will only grow worse as stories of food drives for the working poor, full time workers receiving government assistance or families with two working parents raising their children in cars and homeless shelters, which still have some power to shock, will seem like the new normal. Correspondingly, the beneficiaries of this income inequality will seek to further concretize their gains by investing in more money anti-worker and anti-labor legislation and strategies.

Focusing on income inequality at this time is not timely, as it comes when, according to some, income inequality is the US is the most extreme of any developed country and is getting worse. It may in fact be too late. The potentially devastating impact of growing income inequality on the country and its democratic fabric cannot be overstated. Obviously this did not begin with Obama or even his predecessor, but it has reached new proportions in recent years. It is good that Obama is speaking about this now, but his relative silence on the issue over the last five years is more significant and more than just disappointing.