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Obama's Rhetorical Pivot to Opportunity

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In terms of substantive policy, President Barack Obama’s latest State of the Union Address contained little of interest. The President offered up more of the same, tired “concrete, practical proposals” we’ve been hearing for years: raising the minimum wage, creating manufacturing hubs, improving job training, and investing more in early education.

The ambitions expressed were, for this president, quite modest. Not once did he announce the coming of a green jobs revolution, wax lyrical about high-speed railways or call for a push to slash carbon emissions. The grandiose promises of his previous SOTUs—“Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail”—seem like a distant memory.

However, last night’s speech may hopefully mark an important rhetorical shift for Obama. For the first time since his  Osawatomie speech in December 2011, the President made opportunity rather than income inequality his great overarching theme. After more than two years keeping alive the legacy of the now defunct Occupy Wall Street movement by harping about the purported evils of concentrated wealth at the top, this speech—assuming it does indeed signal a rhetorical shift—is a most welcome development.

America is and always has been the Land of Opportunity. As Americans, we should therefore be having a national conversation about opportunity—how to expand it and what it takes to seize it—rather than wasting our time and energy fretting about the distribution of income. What matters is ensuring that all can climb the ladder of opportunity—not that some have climbed so much higher than others.

In this regard, President Obama struck the right note last night. Throughout the address, Obama presented what he called “our opportunity agenda”: proposals to “expand opportunity for more American families” and to “build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class.” “What I believe unites the people of this nation,” he said, “is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all, the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America.”

In his nearly hour-long address, there were, by contrast, only two passing (one could even say furtive) references to income inequality and only one to the gains made by “those at the top.” The President didn’t single out anyone for not paying their “fair share” of taxes. And when he spoke of ladders of opportunity—an old favorite of his—there were no  warnings about unnamed villains who, having themselves made it to the top, would now pull up the ladder behind them. To be sure, two references to inequality is two too many, but given Obama’s track record, it’s a marked improvement.

The President also rightly emphasized the importance of hard work in achieving the American Dream. He talked about “the strength of our work ethic,” “the dignity of work,” families pulling “themselves up through hard work” and even used the now-rarely-heard word “toil”! Given the battered state of our culture of work and the fact that  hard work is the only way to climb the ladder of opportunity, this is a message that Americans need to hear and hear often.

Lest anyone read too much into a single speech, there is no evidence that Obama has experienced a road to Damascus moment. In a speech delivered less than two months ago, he spoke of inequality twenty-six times and threw in several more references to “concentrated wealth at the top,” “those at the top,” the “top 10 percent,” and, of course, the Occupiers’ favorite: “the top 1 percent.” In the same breath, he railed against “growing inequality and lack of upward mobility,” suggesting the former somehow directly caused the latter.

In reality, the increase in inequality is nowhere near as pronounced as alarmists on the Left would have us believe. More importantly, the most comprehensive study of upward mobility ever conducted in the US has just concluded that “a high concentration of income in the top 1% was not highly correlated with mobility patterns” and that “economic mobility has not changed significantly over time.”

Returning to last night’s SOTU, while the President did talk a lot about opportunity, he didn’t retract or correct any of his countless previous claims about the dangers posed by growing inequality. And he once again linked the two: “Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.”

The President also didn’t have anything to say about the one factor that is most closely associated with upward mobility: intact families. Nor did he muster the courage to take on education reform to ensure children really are equipped with the basic skills they need to earn a decent living.

Obama’s rhetorical shift was not accompanied by a policy shift. Whether it’s inequality or mobility, his prescriptions never change: a higher minimum wage, universal pre-K and more job training.

All this to say, the President isn’t about to join the roster of the greatest American champions of hard work and upward mobility. An Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass speech this was not.

For the good of the country, we can however hope that he will stick to the new opportunity message. Our attention should be focused on boosting upward mobility. And while speeches are no substitute for innovative and effective policy proposals, at least they’re a step in the right direction.

 - David Azerrad is Director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Principles and Politics.

Originally appeared in The National Interest

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