May 10, 2012
By David Azerrad
If 2008 was all about hope and change, 2012 may well be about ladders. Yes, ladders. President Obama has developed a soft-spot for the “ladder of opportunity” metaphor and he’s running with it.
At a community college in Ohio a few weeks ago, he promised an economy “where there are ladders of opportunity.” At a campaign event in Chicago this January, he called on those who’ve made it to “do a little bit more so that the next generation is able to get on the ladder of success.”
In Osawatomie in December, he gave us the memorable: “And yet, over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart.” Last September, he urged Congress to pass the American Jobs Act to ensure that “low-income Americans who desperately want to work will have more ladders out of poverty.”
Yet for someone who speaks of ladders as much as he does, President Barack Obama doesn’t seem to understand how these rather simple contraptions work. Ladders—whether real or symbolic of opportunity—don’t automatically advance all those who step on them. Only those who put in the effort to climb get to the top.
What President Obama seems to have in mind when he talks about ladders of opportunity and success, are really escalators: everyone just hops on and we all get to the same place with no effort on our behalf.
Perhaps the “escalator of success” would be a more fitting term. Or in keeping with his newfound fixation on fairness, how about “the fairness escalator”? Then again, it doesn’t quite have the same ring as “ladder of opportunity.” So the president has stuck with an expression that instantly resonates with voters.
Conspicuously absent from all this ladder talk, though, is the slightest suggestion that we can perhaps create our own opportunities. Nor will you find any acknowledgment of the virtues necessary to climb one’s way to the top: hard work, perseverance, fortitude, prudence and a real desire to get there. After all, some may fall down and will need to pull themselves back up again.
The focus rather is always on all these poor, ladderless Americans. And on all that the federal government must do—from more spending on infrastructure to more spending on education, not to mention the elusive green jobs—to give each and every one of us the very sturdy ladder we are entitled to. Peppered throughout are warnings about unnamed villains who, having themselves made it to the top, would now pull up the ladder behind them.
Contrast this with how the greatest apostle of upward mobility, Frederick Douglass, described the self-made men he so admired and encouraged others to emulate: “If they have ascended high, they have built their own ladder. From the depths of poverty such as these have often come.”
Douglass had only one message for those who sought to get ahead in life: “WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!! Not transient and fitful effort, but patient, enduring, honest, unremitting and indefatigable work into which the whole heart is put, and which, in both temporal and spiritual affairs, is the true miracle worker.”
Considering the magnitude of the injustice Douglass suffered and the depths from which he rose, it is striking how little he asked of others and how much he demanded from himself.
Nothing could be further from Obama’s message (though not from the way he has lived his life, as he rose to success through talent and perseverance). Rather than embolden us to act, it encourages quietude as we await our government-issued ladders. Rather than draw inspiration from those who have made it, it fosters resentment by recasting success as inequality. How uninspiring a vision for a country known the world over as the land of opportunity.
Even worse is the sad irony that the president who speaks so much of mobility has done nothing to address the looming fiscal crisis that threatens it. He has, however, saddled the next generation with an extra $5 trillion of debt. That’s a mighty heavy load to bear when you’re trying to climb your way to the top.
David Azerrad is the assistant director of the Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation.
First moved on the McClatchy Tribune Wire service
Director, Simon Center
Read More >>
Request an interview >>
Please complete the following form to request an interview with a Heritage expert.
Please note that all fields must be completed.
Heritage's daily Morning Bell e-mail keeps you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.
The subscription is free and delivers you the latest conservative policy perspectives on the news each weekday--straight from Heritage experts.
The Morning Bell is your daily wake-up call offering a fresh, conservative analysis of the news.
More than 200,000 Americans rely on Heritage's Morning Bell to stay up to date on the policy battles that affect them.
Rush Limbaugh says "The Heritage Foundation's Morning Bell is just terrific!"
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) says it's "a great way to start the day for any conservative who wants to get America back on track."
Sign up to start your free subscription today!
The Heritage Foundation is the nation’s most broadly supported public policy research institute, with hundreds of thousands of individual, foundation and corporate donors. Heritage, founded in February 1973, has a staff of 275 and an annual expense budget of $82.4 million.
Our mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. Read More
© 2014, The Heritage Foundation Conservative policy research since 1973