Politics

 

The Truth About Obama-Era Inequality

The Truth About Obama-Era Inequality

Maybe it’s the Christmas season. But when December rolls around, President Obama’s thoughts seem to turn to income inequality.

On December 6, 2011, he gave what the White House billed as a “defining” speech on the subject in Osawatomie, Kansas, site of a historic address by Teddy Roosevelt on “New Nationalism.”

In the 2011 speech, Obama began by painting a portrait of the 1950s and 1960s as an ideal period in American history, highlighting “values” that “gave rise to the largest middle class and the strongest economy that the world has ever known.”

“Every American shared in that pride and in that success,” he added.

It was a remarkable portrait of an American fantasy rooted in Ozzie and Harriet, not history. For a large swath of the country, the president was describing the Jim Crow era, when as an African-American, Obama would have likely found it difficult to vote and his economic prospects severely hindered.

When Obama hailed “the most productive workers” of that period, he was including the Hispanic migrant laborers working for far less than $1 an hour. He also was describing a time when that “glass ceiling” for women like his mother was much lower, and they made just 60 percent of what men made.

The president contrasted that era with today’s “shrinking middle class.” He called income inequality the “defining issue of our time.”

The speech was delivered in front of a largely white, middle-class audience.

Now it’s December 2013, and the president has given another speech on income inequality. This one was in Washington, in front of a liberal group, and this time his vision of history was a bit different. As if criticizing his earlier remarks in front of the Kansas audience, he said:

“Now, we can’t look at the past through rose-colored glasses. The economy didn’t always work for everyone. Racial discrimination locked millions out of poverty—or out of opportunity. Women were too often confined to a handful of often poorly paid professions.”

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