The Inequality President
There are a few interesting bits in this New York Times interview with President Obama. For one thing, it’s striking to hear how centrally he views combatting inequality to his legacy. For another it’s somewhat remarkable to hear him indicate that he sees economic inequality as a threat to racial and civil equality — a formulation that’s hardly unheard of on the Left, of course, but is less publicly associated with this hyper-cautious and often self-consciously moderate man.
Note the article’s juxtaposition:
“Racial tensions won’t get better; they may get worse, because people will feel as if they’ve got to compete with some other group to get scraps from a shrinking pot,” Mr. Obama said. “If the economy is growing, everybody feels invested. Everybody feels as if we’re rolling in the same direction.”…
During much of the interview, Mr. Obama was philosophical about historical and economic forces that he said were tearing at communities across the country. He noted at one point that he has in the Oval Office a framed copy of the original program from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
He uses it, he said, to remind people “that was a march for jobs and justice; that there was a massive economic component to that. When you think about the coalition that brought about civil rights, it wasn’t just folks who believed in racial equality. It was people who believed in working folks having a fair shot.”
The bit that should make liberals happiest, though, is the way Obama tries to shoehorn his Big Picture concern into the small bore, day-to-day partisan jockeying of Washington, DC.
He does this, chiefly, by proposing a new dichotomy for national politics. Instead of the issue being the deficit and cuts — and instead of the choice before voters being Republicans’ cut a lot vs. Democrats’ cut a lot but don’t do it stupidly — Obama wants to reframe the dichotomy as austerity and inequality on the one hand, social investment and upward mobility on the other. With him, of course, holding the better hand:
Without a shift in Washington to encourage growth over “damaging” austerity, he added, not only would the middle class shrink, but in turn, contentious issues like trade, climate change and immigration could become harder to address….
“I want to make sure that all of us in Washington are investing as much time, as much energy, as much debate on how we grow the economy and grow the middle class as we’ve spent over the last two to three years arguing about how we reduce the deficits,” Mr. Obama said. He called for a shift “away from what I think has been a damaging framework in Washington.”
Now, not all liberals are going to be pleased. Some are going to (not unreasonably) point out that they were telling the president to do this years ago. And that’s true. It shouldn’t have taken so long — and a whole reelection campaign — for the president to get to this point. But you gotta reward good behavior just as assiduously as you punish the bad, I say. There’s no harm in applauding him today while holding fast to your criticism from yesterday.
In any event, reading the piece, you get the impression of a guy already trying to define the way his presidency is interpreted and his immediate post-presidency is understood. I don’t think that’s saying he’s checked out; but I do think we can get glimpses of someone who understands that, with immigration as an outside-chance exception, nothing much is coming through Congress for the remainder of his presidency. If he spends the next few years talking inequality as a result, well, we could do worse.