By Jessica Weisberg
Last week, five days after Black Friday’s Walmart strike and the day before a nationwide fast-food workers strike, President Obama delivered a speech at the Center for American Progress about economic disparity and low wages. The president didn’t mention the strikers, but his talking points weren’t so different from their rallying cries—he called for a higher minimum wage and supported the right to organize. His speech was too sweeping, too ambitious to focus on the week’s news. He spoke about Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, education and the tax code; he provided statistic after statistic about the severity of inequality in the United States. The thread that tied all these points together was “economic mobility.” (“President Speaks on Economic Mobility,” the banner of the White House website read.) The president may have been speaking to a room full of liberals, but his focus on mobility rather than inequality seemed especially marketed to conservatives. It was Obama at his campaign finest, recasting himself as the great uniter between the two parties. “The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough,” the president said, “But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or healt care, or a community that views her future as their own, that should offend all of us and it should compel us to action.” Poverty, in other words, is a sad but inevitable consequence of a competitive economy—it’s “heartbreaking,” but so it goes—while mobility is essential to the American mission. Children, we can all agree, should at least be given the bootstraps by which they can pull themselves up.
The word “inequality” makes conservatives uncomfortable, as if it invokes class struggle, the 99 percent versus the 1. They much prefer “mobility,” which connotes a purely aspirational relationship to wealth and the wealthy. As Representative Paul Ryan writes on the Budget Committee’s website, “The question for policymakers is not how best to redistribute a shrinking economic pie. The focus ought to be on increasing living standards, expanding the pie of economic opportunity, and promoting upward mobility for all.” (Italics his) “Our job here is not to divide the American people,” Speaker John Boehner has said. “It’s to help every American have a fair shot at the American dream.”