Obama’s State of the Union shift: From ‘Social Darwinism’ to ‘opportunity’

Olivier Knox, Yahoo News
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U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 12, 2013. (REUTERS/Charles Dharapak/Pool)

Tune in to President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night, and you won’t hear him recycle his denunciation of Republican economic policies as heartless “Social Darwinism.” He won’t remind Americans of his annoyance with “fat-cat bankers on Wall Street.”

But he will declare that the American Dream "has suffered some serious blows" and left middle-class Americans reeling. Restoring the promise of economic opportunity is "the defining project of our generation," Obama will say, according to excerpts released by the White House.

Stagnant wages? A wider gap between rich and poor? Stubbornly high unemployment? "Our job is to reverse these tides," the president says.

Obama seems poised to take a page from Bill Clinton’s January 1998 address — one of the few successful State of the Union speeches in the modern era. And that means framing his message as a question of ensuring equality of opportunity, not outcome, to avoid charges of “class warfare.”

“It’s not about equalizing outcomes. It’s about promoting opportunity,” a White House official told Yahoo News, anticipating the likely Republican rejoinder. An early White House fact sheet about his minimum wage plans bore the slogan “opportunity for all.”

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the theme of income inequality would be the “organizing principle” of the speech — the thread tying together Obamacare, a defense of the social safety net, Obama’s push for making college more accessible to low-income students and other policies.

The president hasn’t always talked that way.

Six months into his brief Senate career, Obama went to Knox College in June 2005 to deliver what aides still regard as his seminal speech about Americans’ struggle in the new global economy.

America’s military might arose from “individual initiative and belief in the free market” tempered by the idea “that we're all in it together and everybody's got a shot at opportunity,” he argued.

Americans face a choice between a Democratic aim to “build a community where, at the very least, everyone has a chance to work hard, get ahead and reach their dreams” and a Republican approach in which “chance of birth or circumstance decides life’s big winners and losers,” he warned.

“In our past there has been another term for it — Social Darwinism, every man and woman for him or herself. It's a tempting idea, because it doesn't require much thought or ingenuity,” Obama said.

Not quite a year after taking office, Obama trained his rhetorical fire on the world of finance.

"I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat-cat bankers on Wall Street," Obama said in a late 2009 interview with "60 Minutes.”

The “fat cats” returned when Obama campaigned for Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley during her 2010 Senate bid.

And less than one year ago, the White House was plotting income inequality on a “Great Gatsby Curve” — exploiting a symbol of morally bankrupt material excess. (The book, however, remains a must-read classic).

Obama again appears to be sanding off the rougher, more partisan edges of his rhetoric in response to a unique focus group, as the New Yorker recently reported — one whose voices he listens to when he wants to take the long view:

In 2011, at an annual dinner he holds at the White House with American historians, he asked the group to help him find a language in which he could address the problem of growing inequality without being accused of class warfare.

“I’d like to give voice to an impression I think a lot of Americans have, which is it’s harder to make it now if you are just the average citizen who’s willing to work hard and has good values, and wasn’t born with huge advantages or having enjoyed extraordinary luck — that the ground is less secure under your feet.”

The reported concern about “class warfare” was put on hold between that dinner and the 2014 State of the Union to make room for the intervening re-election fight.

Obama spent the 2012 campaign pounding Republican rival Mitt Romney as an out of touch millionaire directly responsible for the misery of laid-off factory workers.

Current and former aides say that the president’s underlying concerns have always been about the have-nots being able to transform into haves through education and hard work (along with a bit of help from the government to make the former easier to get and the latter more rewarding).

But it’s easy to wonder whether the orator who so often believed his soaring words could change political reality is tailoring his rhetoric to the difficult circumstances of his battered second term. Or whether he’s channeling Clinton.

It has to be at least a little tempting. Clinton’s January 1998 State of the Union is one of the few in the modern era to have made much of an improvement in a president’s standing — a 10-point bounce, to be precise.

And Obama recently brought aboard former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta as part of a second-term course correction that may include a change in tone.

“One of the first things I learned when I became a speechwriter for President Clinton in the fall of 1998 was to include, in almost every set of remarks I prepared, three magic words: opportunity, responsibility, community,” former White House wordsmith Paul Glastris recalled in 2012.

The 1998 State of the Union speech is a classic of the genre. Clinton talked about “widening the circle of opportunity” — and said signing new trade deals, raising the minimum wage and making college as “universal” as high school would help.

Obama will walk into the House of Representatives chamber on Tuesday with his second term facing serious headwinds.

His job approval numbers have edged up from his personal worst back in late 2013, but he’s still below the 50 percent mark. Last year was among the toughest of his tenure, with virtually no legislative achievements, the NSA leaks story poisoning relations with key allies like Germany, the Republican-driven defeat of his push for a modest tightening of access to guns in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, and other setbacks.

Public opinion polls show broad agreement that the wealth gap has widened — 2 out of 3 Americans say so, according to a recent study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

But the poll also shows a stark divide on how to bridge the chasm. Nine out of 10 Democrats say the government should do “a lot” or “some.” Just 45 percent of Republicans agree — and 48 percent say government should do “not much” or “nothing at all.”

Aides are mindful that the State of the Union typically gives a president his largest audience of the year. Obama will likely never recapture the 52.4 million people who watched his speech to a joint session of Congress in early 2009. But his audience of 33.5 million for the State of the Union in 2013 isn’t a paltry figure.

Another Pew poll finds 52 percent of Americans believe Democrats are more in tune “with the needs of people like me,” against 32 percent for Republicans.

But the GOP has an inside-the-margin-of-error edge on who could better handle the economy, and a wider advantage on who can better deal with the budget deficit.

Obama will challenge Congress to act on big-ticket legislative items — chief among them comprehensive immigration reform. But he will warn (as he has in the past) that where they will not act, he can and he will.

Exhibit A: The White House announced that the president will use an executive order to raise the hourly minimum wage for some federal government contractors and service workers to $10.10 — while still pushing Congress to do the same for all workers.

Republicans are up in arms. But the White House’s approach has detractors among Democrats, too.

“The White House is falling back on the only play it really understands — a quarterback sneak,” according to a senior aide to a Democratic senator.

“You get a few yards and the fans are behind you, but it's tough to win games if you only get one or two yards on each play,” said the aide, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, “and the populist offensive line is not as strong as it once was.”

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