Obama’s Morphing Inequality Narrative

Speaking about American inequality is a big and complex issue. Therefore, when a politician tries to narrow its scope, it is illuminating to see where they focus. In the last few months, President Barack Obama has morphed his national message on inequality from worrying about ‘the lack of upward mobility’ as the ‘defining challenge of our time’ to emphasising the importance of equality of opportunity in the fight against inequality.

Image courtesy Christopher Dilts, © 2012. Some rights reserved.
Image courtesy Christopher Dilts, © 2012. Some rights reserved.

Illustrating this change, in this year’s State of the Union Obama claimed, ‘opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation must be to restore that promise’. For Obama, equal opportunity has rhetorically eclipsed economic inequality. He is now invoking the American narrative that anyone with gumption and a can-do spirit should be able to climb the ladder of success.

In response to this rhetorical restyling, Mike Konczal at Al Jazeera recently wrote a very interesting piece. He was unimpressed with the rhetorical change, bemoaning opportunity’s opaque nature and difficulty of actually being implemented. He went on to say that ‘the whole point of equality of opportunity is about trying to create access for anyone to become an elite. But what if elites are part of the problem?’

This opinion is fraught with assumptions, most of which I disagree with. Can we really assume that the entire purpose, ‘the whole point’ as he states, of equality of opportunity is to usher in an elitist lifestyle? Obama has never spoken on the importance of joining the 1% over that of the middle class. His rhetoric oscillates from the middle class to stressing job creation which can lead to the middle class as well as to the necessity of post-secondary as ‘the gateway to a middle-class life.’

To reclaim a burgeoning American middle class and a prosperous American economy, the US must address educational opportunity. Obama understands this. Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University, recently wrote in the New York Times that, ‘the demise of opportunity through higher education is, fundamentally, a political failure.’ As she astutely points out, ‘[f]or those from the richest fifth, the annual cost of attending a public four-year college has inched up from 6 percent of family income in 1971 to 9 percent in 2011. For everyone else, the change is formidable. For those in the poorest fifth, costs at State U have skyrocketed from 42 percent of family income to 114 percent.’

This is why Obama is prudently moving his national message on inequality from stressing economic redistribution (almost always a losing topic in American politics) to equal opportunity. Americans, conservative and liberal will always agree on this principle. Therefore as mid-terms come around and Democrats are threatened with losing the Senate, it makes sense to identify and utilise a bipartisan theme. Furthermore it doesn’t hurt to harp on a theme which the American youth (a staple of the Democratic base) can resonate with.

Beyond 2014, those Democrats waiting in the wings for the next presidential election would be wise to utilise this narrative during their primaries. Populism within the Democratic Party is having a renaissance of sorts, much like neo-libertarianism in the Republican Party. And as long as college prices continue to increase at unsustainable levels (and for that matter, as long as Democrats refuse to cut or reform Social Security), the youth will be thrust into a world already behind the eight ball. Obama’s focus on opportunity is letting us know that this issue is not in his blind spot.

Interestingly, Obama’s normative 180 degree turn on inequality follows the theoretical claims of John Rawls, arguably the 20th century’s most influential political philosopher on the study of justice. In the ambitiously titled A Theory of Justice, Rawls claimed that there existed two principles of justice: 1) the guarantee of basic rights and liberties, 2a) the equality of opportunity, and 2b) the distribution of wealth and resources to the worst-off in society.

It’s important to understand that Rawls did not arbitrarily order these principles. Rather, he assigned them a ‘lexical order’. This means that absolute priority is given to liberty over equality of opportunity (2a) and these in turn over welfare (2b).

Yet, as the political scholar Charles Taylor noticed, the priority of equality of opportunity over welfare is ‘the most puzzling lacunae in all [Rawls’] work…he fails to offer any justification for this priority rule’ (2011: 175). Putting equality of opportunity over economic redistribution has made Rawls’ theoretical framework subject to attack, just as President Obama’s thematic shift has.

However, the critiques of Taylor and Konczal fail to understand the reality of equality in a democratic society. Obama, like Rawls, understands that a liberal society cannot be an egalitarian society; since individual freedom includes the chance to not only get ahead in life, but to also tumble. As George Watson once wrote (1957: 192) ‘liberals cannot agree to restrict the energetic in the interest of the leisurely’. Thus, instead of trying to redistribute one’s way out of inequality, a government should attempt to ensure equality of opportunity ‘accepting the implication that some who seize opportunities will go faster and farther than those who do not’ (Watson, 1957: 192).

This is the actual inequality reality which faces US society. And we know that Obama has been influenced by perceiving problems through first acknowledging how things are, instead of how things should be. Obama is known to have been influenced by the works of Saul Alinsky, who’s No. 1 rule in political action was to ‘start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be…That means working in the system…We will start with the system because there is no other place to start except from political lunacy’.

Obama didn’t exactly start the conversation of economic inequality in political la-la land. But he certainly began with large thematic brush strokes. As time has gone on, he has realised that a more nuanced approach must be used in order to equalise American society. Equality of opportunity represents this new brush Obama has picked up. It will come with criticism, but changes in style always do.

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