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The Wall Street Journal was not impressed by President Obama’s December speech on economic inequality. Echoing the sentiments of free-market conservatives everywhere, the paper’s editorialists thought Obama’s call for a higher minimum wage, among other liberal aspirations, was political theater, an empty gesture meant to rally the base. “Many Democrats are as dismayed as Republicans at Obamacare’s rollout, so the White House wants to change the subject and give MSNBC viewers something else to debate,” the editorial declared.
The Journal wasn’t alone in taking Obama’s remarks with salt. In The American Prospect, Paul Waldman felt the speech was among the most progressive statements Obama has made, but he questioned whether the president could make good on it. “I don’t doubt for a moment that the president sincerely wants and intends to reverse these trends,” Waldman wrote. “What will matter are the results. And he’s got a lot of work to do.”
So is Obama just changing the subject to appease liberals? Is he a progressive who lacks the will or ability to make progressive change? The answer is neither.
His speech wasn’t a bone to liberals because it wasn’t all that liberal. The Journal thinks he was “posing as Robin Hood,” but the only redistribution Obama discussed was a small minimum wage hike supported even by a majority of Republicans. Otherwise, as Walter Shapiro later noted in the Prospect, Obama “mostly repeated the same long-term goals that Democrats have been articulating since the early days of Bill Clinton. How many times in the last two decades have you heard a Democrat talk about the need to ‘empower more Americans with the skills and education they need to compete in a highly competitive global economy’?”
Obama never raised the issue of unequal or unjust distribution of income. He didn’t talk about the role of federal tax policy in redistributing wealth and income upward. He said nothing about the capacity of government spending to spur job creation. He did, however, talk about streamlining regulations, reducing long-term deficits, and maintaining a pro-growth agenda. He shied away from taxes, but he used the words “opportunity” and “mobility” more than thirty times. These words matter to progressives, but they matter to conservatives too. All in all, this is not the vocabulary of a man who is itching to rob from the rich to give to the poor.
In explaining why economic inequality is important, Obama attempted to speak to everyone, not just progressive voters. Inequality is everyone’s problem, he argued, because it touches everything: our economy, society, and democracy. Because this problem affects everyone, everyone has a stake in its resolution. As Obama said, “people get the bad taste that the system is rigged, and that increases cynicism and polarization, and it decreases the political participation that is a requisite part of our system of self-government.”
If Obama were as leftist as the Journal’s editorialists and other conservatives claim he is, he’d push for a massive fiscal stimulus to create jobs, and he’d pay for it with progressive taxation that targets the 1 percent. Instead he advocates a small role for the government in expanding opportunity and increasing mobility, and he hopes that the 1 percent will see that all this is good for them too.
Why so modest? According to Gary Dorrien, an ethicist at Union Theological Seminary and author of The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective (2012), Obama is not ideologically driven to redistribute. Rather than pushing progressive aims, he “advocates, and exemplifies, the communitarian approach of pulling people together to advance the common good.”
Obama’s thinking, Dorrien writes, was shaped in the late 1980s and early 1990s by theoretical debates over America’s two dominant political traditions, liberalism and conservatism. At the time, many communitarians believed that both traditions were guilty of privileging the rights of individuals over the rights of “families, communities, and nations” and of rationalizing “the assaults of global capitalism on communities, mediating institutions, and the environment.”
There are modes of communitarianism that are conservative (stressing authority and social cohesion), progressive (emphasizing social justice and environmental protection), and moderate (balancing rights with duties). That may be why Obama sounds conservative to liberals opposed to authoritarianism and why he sounds socialist to conservatives opposed to collectivism. In fact, Obama bends communitarian principles toward the middle where national elections are won.
Obama’s inequality speech is rife with communitarian motifs. Group trust, for example. “Rising inequality and declining mobility are . . . bad for our families and social cohesion,” he said, “not just because we tend to trust our institutions less, but studies show we actually tend to trust each other less when there’s greater inequality.” His notion of community is expansive: “The decades-long shifts in the economy have hurt all groups: poor and middle class, inner city and rural folks, men and women, and Americans of all races. And as a consequence, some of the social patterns that contribute to declining mobility that were once attributed to the urban poor—that’s a particular problem for the inner city: single-parent households or drug abuse—it turns out now we’re seeing that pop up everywhere.”
Set in the context of inequality, Obama’s communitarianism might be seen as a move away from the atomizing identity politics of the 1980s and 1990s that pitted blacks against whites even if they shared economic hardships, and a return to the politics of the postwar era, when prosperity was widely shared thanks to New Deal policies that distributed opportunity and wealth.
The question for progressives is whether communitarianism can achieve redistributive ends. In The Problems of Communitarian Politics (1999), the political theorist Elizabeth Frazer argues that communitarians put a high value on participation and inclusivity and so try “to evade questions about redistribution and conflict by emphasizing a harmony‐based social policy.”
That is Obama’s problem. Mark Schmitt of the Roosevelt Institute has noted, “Obama’s passion has always seemed to be more for a richer and more collaborative form of politics than for any particular vision of economic justice.” More precisely, this is the problem with Obama’s speech. The president wants to talk about a crime but not a criminal. FDR had no such reservation when he welcomed the bile and hate of “economic royalists.”
Demanding that Obama call out the 1 percent might be too much to ask of a technocrat already buffeted from all sides. But that doesn’t mean nothing will come of his more moderate communitarian approach. Inequality is inherently about a small minority of people making economic decisions that negatively affect the lives of a large majority. A political vocabulary of the common good serves the interests of one of these groups and not the other. That is why even talking about inequality will raise the backs of those responsible for it.
But they needn’t fear much as long as the debate stays there. They will, however, have something to fear if the debate turns to injustice—if, that is, Obama proves in his final years in office to be the leftist his opponents have always accused him of being.
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