It's hard times in the White House. Barack Obama's approval ratings are at an all time low. The roll out of the Affordable Care Act's health insurance marketplace – upon which Obama staked much of his presidency – was a flop. People are none too pleased that the National Security Agency is collecting massive troves of our personal data, either.
Thus, for this year's State of the Union, the president returned to an old stalwart, a subject that formed a major focus of both his 2008 and 2012 campaigns and which more than two thirds of Americans say they are concerned about today; economic inequality. After all, unless you are super-rich – in which case you've gobbled up 95% of the economic gains made since 2009 – it's tough times all over Obama's America.
The majority of U.S. college graduates had $29,400 worth of debt hanging over their heads last year and the job market they are entering is abysmal. Unemployment dipped below 7% in December, but only because more people gave up looking. For those who have jobs, checks are getting skinnier. Low-income payrolls have surged by 58% since the recession, while medium-income employment accounted for 60% of jobs lost. The median U.S. household income is also in steady decline. Black and Hispanic families have it hardest, taking in about $23,700 and $18,000 less than their white counterparts, respectively.
Speaking before Congress Tuesday, half of whom are millionaires, Obama acknowledged our pain. "[T]hose at the top have never done better," the president said, "But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened."
(If only America had elected a president who pledged to do something about that.)
For students, Obama gave a shout out to his 2011 executive order capping loan repayments to 10% of incomes, but that measure only applies to loans from 2012 onward and not everyone qualifies. An analysis from The Atlantic's Daniel Indiviglio found Obama's order saves most students between just $4 and $8 a month. The president also said he was willing to work with Congress to institute further reforms (everybody knows they don't get along) and would reach out to "leading foundations and corporations. . . to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential."
For low-wage workers, Obama offered a government-sponsored retirement program tied to treasury bonds. He also announced a decision to raise the minimum wage for federally contracted employees from $7.25 an hour – the current national minimum – to $10.10. However, were lowest possible wages tied to inflation – a 2008 campaign pledge of the president's – they would stand at $10.52 an hour, tied to U.S. productivity that figure would be $21.72.
Observers will no doubt point to the obstructionist Congress as the reason why the man who entered the White House in 2009 telling us that the "success of our economy" depends upon "the reach of our prosperity" can't make good on his lofty words. But Obama turned his back upon the mandate for change he was given by voters once in office. Millions of homeowners were left to sink underwater while he continued the Bush Administration's Wall Street bailout. Obama's signature health care legislation was crafted by a former insurance company executive.
"People call me a socialist sometimes – but no, you've got to meet real socialists," Obama told a room of CEO's at a Wall Street Journal-sponsored shindig in November. "I'm talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace. The stock market is looking pretty good last time I checked."
While the White House offered tepid reforms Tuesday evening, those on the ground fighting for a higher standard of living have raised their own expectations. In two high-profile national campaigns, workers at Walmart are campaigning for $25,000 a year and fast food workers are demanding $15 an hour with a collective bargaining agreement to boot.
In an email to supporters Tuesday night, New York City KFC worker Naquasia LeGrand praised Obama for pledging to raise wages among federally contracted workers, but noted "[I]t's not $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. That's what we're fighting for, and we won't stop until we get there."
Perhaps its through this popular groundswell where hope and change lie. After all grassroots activism helped sweep Obama into the White House in 2008 and two years later propelled an emboldened Tea Party into office.