For his fifth State of the Union Address, and arguably the most politically fraught moment of his presidency, Barack Obama offered what he called “a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity.”
“Ladders of opportunity” is a go-to phrase of Obama’s. It not only predates his presidency, but also his career in politics: you can hear him (a “civil rights lawyer”) use it here, in this 1994 NPR commentary warning against Charles Murray and Richard Hernnstein’s The Bell Curve.
It’s more than a go-to phrase, actually; it captures something fundamental about his assumptions about government and markets. He does not believe that the outcomes of the latter are morally authoritative. Hard work does not always pay. Discipline is not always rewarded. Consequently, it takes a thumb on the scale to break up—not necessarily equalize—patterns of wealth distribution, to ensure that there are rungs on the “ladder” and not just a pretty view of the mansion on the hill. And it requires a central government to promote a healthy ecosystem of the future, where things like the DOD-hatched proto-internet, the Air Force-administered GPS, and biomedicine can grow fruit.
In the back-and-forthing of State of the Union addresses, this debate is typically reduced to Democrats arguing for things like, well, an increase in the minimum wage, more spending on early-childhood education, job training assistance, an extension of unemployment insurance, new infrastructure spending—all of which Obama called for tonight—and Republicans responding that Democrats believe in “equality of outcome” and government’s picking economic winners and losers.
In short, Barack Obama is the keeper of a shriveling post-WWII consensus about economic development and countercyclical strategy.
And quite frankly, he picked a terrible time to be president. Trust in government, whether to manage the national economy or protect the “privacy of ordinary people” (as he put it in tonight’s address), is miserably low. Indeed, if there’s an issue on which he truly enjoys the will of the people at this back, it’s in his insistence on preventing direct U.S. government involvement (to put it cheekily) on foreign soil.
As I see it, there’s a tension within Obama’s (and mainstream Democrats’) stubborn clinging to the old consensus. The fact is, they don’t just want to create “ladders of opportunity.” They want a strong safety net that extends from early-childhood through to retirement. You could hear this in the speech’s section on financial security:
Let’s do more to help Americans save for retirement. Today, most workers don’t have a pension. A Social Security check often isn’t enough on its own. And while the stock market has doubled over the last five years, that doesn’t help folks who don’t have 401(k)s.
And probably the most potent appeal of Obama’s mention of the Affordable Care Act was its link to financial security: you will not go bankrupt if you get sick.
As a strong-government conservative, I’ll cop to this: I’m sympathetic to the old consensus. But I’m equally sympathetic to the Republican critique of an agenda that doesn’t seek to just equalize opportunity, but rather a cradle-to-grave latticework of care and feeding.
To be sure, there are compelling Rawlsian social-justice arguments for the latter—but they should not be confused with the former. Dollars spent on the old are dollars not spent on the young and underprivileged. This is not a summons to throw grandma over the cliff. It’s simply an acknowledgment of a finite budget.
Say this for Obama: he seemed upbeat, despite low polling and talk of lame-duck-ery spreading like wildfire. If nothing else, he seems aware of the fact that there will be no more major legislative accomplishments of his administration. (Count me in the camp that immigration reform remains a long shot.) If he does nothing else than push the boulder of his approval rating a few points up the hill, and thereby maintain Democratic control of the Senate, he will maintain a semblance of relevance for the last three years of his presidency.