In a Politically Charged Speech, Obama Says He's No Class Warrior

Obama lays out a case for his re-election, but the policy solutions he proposes fall short of the challenges America faces.


In a veiled plea for reelection, President Obama presented his formal response to Republicans accusing him dividing the nation by economic class. His answer, delivered in a politically charged State of the Union address on Tuesday night, amounted to this:

Hell yes, we're divided. Now what are you going to do about it?

With the nation's unemployment rate at 8.5 percent and his presidency at stake, Obama doubled down on a full-throated populist message: The gap between the rich and poor is widening, he said, and the uniquely American promise of a "fair shot" for all its citizens is disappearing.

"We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by," Obama said. "Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules."

He proposed, among other things, imposing a minimum 30 percent tax on millionaires and dubbed it the "Buffett Rule" -- after billionaire Warren Buffett, who said he shouldn't pay taxes at a lower rate than his secretary, Debbie Bosanek. She was a guest of Obama's at the address.

"Now," Obama said, anticipating the GOP criticism, "you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense."

Such rhetoric drives Republicans crazy.

"Our president has divided the nation, engaged in class warfare, and attacked the free-enterprise system that has made America the economic envy of the world," GOP presidential rival Mitt Romney said recently.

"As Republicans, our first concern is for those waiting tonight to begin or resume the climb up life's ladder," said Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who delivered the official GOP response to Obama. "We do not accept that ours will ever be a nation of haves and have-nots; we must always be a nation of haves and soon-to-haves."

On that, we can all agree. The problem, gentlemen, is that Obama is right: The promise of upward mobility is dying in America, and no amount of political demagoguery will fix it. It's a bit unfair to accuse Obama of dividing the nation when the facts show that it already is.

And it's a tad disappointing to recognize that the president's agenda pales in comparison to the challenge he laid out. The facts, after all, are on Obama's side: Over the last several decades, the United States has become more stratified economically, with the wealthiest Americans accruing an increasingly large amount of the nation's riches.

  • The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans raked in 8 percent of the nation's income in 1980. By 2008, that number more than doubled, to 18 percent, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
  • The gap between the richest 10 percent and the poorest 10 percent has widened by a third, the OECD says -- even though low-earning workers are working 20 percent more hours today than they were a few decades ago.
  • The Census Bureau reports that in 2010, the median household income in the United States dipped to $49,445 -- the lowest it has been, adjusting for inflation, since 1997.
  • The poorest 20 percent of Americans earned less in 2010 than in any year since 1994. But since 1994, the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans have seen their incomes rise by more than 10 percent.

"Let's never forget: Millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a government and a financial system that do the same," Obama said. "It's time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: No bailouts, no handouts, and no cop-outs. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everyone."

For a man who has compared himself to Theodore Roosevelt and the nation's challenges to those of the Gilded Age, Obama put forward a tepid agenda. His blueprint included many proposals previously requested by the White House, including extension of the payroll-tax cut; extension and reform of unemployment compensation; comprehensive immigration reform; and the imposition of a millionaires' tax to prevent the wealthiest Americans from paying lower tax rates than the middle class.

He did unveil some new proposals. These include the call for a minimum tax on corporate profits that would be imposed on U.S. companies that move their business overseas in search of lower taxes. He proposed new tax incentives for companies creating jobs domestically, urged creation of a new trade enforcement unit, and promised several measures aimed at controlling college tuition costs and reining in student-loan interest rates.

The address picked up where Obama left off on Dec. 6, when he delivered a searing and historically poignant account of the greatest challenge of the American experiment: How do we give every citizen, rich or poor, a path to the good life?

The Osawatomie, Kan., speech echoed one delivered by Theodore Roosevelt a century ago, when the man who built the presidential "bully pulpit" called for a broad range of social and political reforms. Roosevelt sought a national health service, social insurance for the elderly, a minimum wage, an eight-hour workday, workers' compensation for worked-related injuries, a graduated federal income tax, and the right for women to vote.

Roosevelt also railed against the influence of special interests on politics, calling for strict limits and disclosure of campaign donations and the registration of lobbyists.

Obama called for a broad range of political reforms: Ban insider trading by members of Congress, limit elected officials from owning stocks in industries they impact, and forbid people who bundle large amounts of political donations from lobbying Congress.

The loudest echo of Roosevelt's era revolved, like much about TR himself, around war: Obama referred to the assassination of Osama bin Laden twice in the address -- at both the opening and close.

He recalled watching the operation against bin Laden from the White House, joined in singular purpose with George W. Bush's defense secretary, Robert Gates, and Obama's intra-party rival, Hillary Clinton. "All that mattered that day was the mission," Obama said.

He told viewers about a conversation he had with one of the young men involved in the raid. The soldier told his commander-in-chief that the mission succeeded because everybody in the unit did their jobs and trusted one another. "Because," Obama said, "you can't charge up those chairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there's someone behind you watching your back."

"So it is," he said, "with America." If only it was so in Washington.

Jim Tankersley and Julia Edwards contributed

Image: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters