Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Now is Not the Time for a Major Initiative on Inequality

Timothy Sherratt


By Timothy Sherratt

January 10, 2014

Ever since a speech President Obama gave at the Center for American Progress in December, journalists have predicted that he would seek to boost his party’s chances in November by wrapping several related items into a major initiative on income inequality, akin to President Johnson’s War on Poverty. If the president does so, the State of the Union address later this month will be the likely setting. But in his White House speech on extending unemployment benefits earlier this week, President Obama concentrated on the human face of unemployment, made only a passing reference to inequality, and he offered little criticism of his Republican opponents. I think the president would be wise to hold his present course.

This first full week of the New Year, American media outlets are suddenly abuzz with the 2014 elections. From St. Louis, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Denver to Washington, New York, and Boston, staff writers for the major newspapers play variations on a common theme. They address salient Congressional deadlines, the schedule of primary elections, the prospects for extending long-term unemployment benefits, and raising the minimum wage. They anticipate a looming debt ceiling deadline and the chances that some kind of immigration reform may pass. Will the implementation of the Affordable Care Act prove as troubled as the initial rollout of the website? Or can the president draw enough attention to the law’s beneficiaries to reward his own party at November’s polls?

To be sure, the president faces a daunting set of challenges. With major initiatives stalled, he must choose among politically risky options. Will taking to the bully pulpit to defend the ACA only draw more of the wrong attention to the law? What sort of concessions is he prepared to negotiate with the G.O.P. to make progress on immigration? Will extending unemployment benefits shame the Republicans or unite them in advance of the midterms, which if traditional patterns hold, will be low turnout elections in which only the motivated participate? Will a hike in the minimum wage carry the same risk? And will a major initiative to tackle economic inequality amount to a concession that the president must resort to the law to secure what his economic policy could not? 

Were he to launch a grand initiative on income inequality, President Obama would only ramp up ideological conflict at a time when the Republicans have recovered from the government shutdown and Speaker Boehner has recovered much of his power. Boehner’s much-noted chastising of ultra-conservative groups came at just the right time. They will no longer force his hand, nor will his own right wing indulge their destructive tactics in 2014.

Even if President Obama succeeds in using such an initiative to motivate liberal Democrats for the fall elections, he risks becoming a political liability for those Democrats who must run in conservative states and districts.

The president may do better to address inequality piecemeal and to discard the ideologically charged language of inequality, which carries with it the whiff of class warfare. Instead, he should concentrate on the individual issues in all their ground-level complexity. For example, on the extension of long-term unemployment benefits, it would be prudent to acknowledge that an extension has only a limited economic stimulus effect and will induce some Americans to postpone employment. The president should then argue that this cost, along with the overall price tag, should be borne for the sake of those Americans whom the extension will keep from economic disaster. Proposals of this kind have no clean, cost-free, or abuse-free solutions. A modest extension will do some good and buy some time, no more and no less. If Republicans and Democrats could agree to discuss unemployment benefits in this manner, they could pass them and move on, even in an election year. The minimum wage deserves the same kind of treatment.

 Ironically, neither Speaker Boehner nor President Obama is an ideologue. The Speaker has recovered his commonsense equilibrium. Now is not the time for President Obama to abandon his.

-  Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and a Sabbatical Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.

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