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Obama soft pedals inequality in State of the Union

Published: Thursday, July 2 2015 9:56 p.m. MDT

Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listen as President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Jan. 28, 2014. (Charles Dharapak, Associated Press) Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listen as President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Jan. 28, 2014. (Charles Dharapak, Associated Press)

It was there, but not nearly as forcefully as expected. Tuesday night, President Barack Obama downplayed inequality quite a bit in his State of the Union address, focusing instead on opportunity and mobility.

"Just like he did a year ago, Obama called on legislators to join him in expanding early childhood education while promising to work with local officials if Congress wouldn’t join him," writes David Graham at The Atlantic. "He reprised a call to raise the minimum wage to $10.10. He asked Congress to help close the pay gap between men and women, reform the corporate tax rate by lowering rates and closing loopholes, and help protect the environment. These proposals were part of Obama’s new push on inequality, and he framed them as ways to guarantee 'opportunity for all' and jumpstart social mobility."

And yet, Obama made just three references to inequality in the speech. One dealt with educational opportunity and another with earned income tax credit, while the third reference was to stalled mobility and the faltering growth of good jobs.

"Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better," he said. "But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by; let alone to get ahead. And too many still aren't working at all."

This represents a reversal from last month, where in one speech alone he used the word inequality 26 times.

"Income inequality is out, 'ladders of opportunity' is in," reports Jim Kuhnhenn for the AP. "Eager to dispel claims that President Barack Obama is engaging in "class warfare" as he heads into his State of the Union address next week, the White House is de-emphasizing phrases focusing on economic disparity and turning instead to messages about creating paths of opportunity for the poor and middle class."

"The adjustment reflects an awareness that Obama's earlier language put him at risk of being perceived as divisive and exposed him to criticism that his rhetoric was exploiting the gap between haves and have-nots," Kuhnhenn noted.

One clue that could explain the shift lies in a new Rasmussen poll that suggests that not everyone concerned with inequality trusts the government to fix it.

Rasumussen reported that "69 percent of Likely U.S. Voters consider income inequality at least a somewhat serious problem in the United States today. That includes 45 percent who consider it a Very Serious problem."

That much is not really surprising, but when asked whether more or less government involvement was likely to narrow the gap, 59 percent choose less while 33 percent chose more. In a parallel question, 48 percent said that "society overall would be less fair if the government got more involved in regulating the economy," while 29 percent said it would be more fair.

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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