Listen to enough political speeches, and if you don’t get jaded, you come to appreciate that presidents can be defined as much by words as by actions and inaction.
With words, they evoke the direction of change they hope to steer — if history is kind to them. Thus, a Kennedy counsels: “Ask not what your country can do for you.” A George H.W. Bush yearns for a “kinder, gentler nation” where prosperity’s purpose is to move America forward in an “endless enduring dream and a thousand points of light.” A Clinton conceives of a “New Covenant of government …that offers more empowerment and less entitlement.” An Obama perceives “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America.”
Many who watch the political scene from the sidelines will admit it has been a challenge in recent years to square the harshness of the political discourse with any “vision thing” (in the phrasing of Bush) that may have broad resonance. Whether the argument is about health care, schools, roads and bridges or wages, the instinct is to go for the opponents’ jugular.
It has been nearly 26 years since Bush made his pitch for a “kinder, gentler nation.” I suspect a anyone who thought as he did that the presidency was an opportunity for “gentle persuasion” would be laughed out of the arena today as an unreconstructed softie.
Revisit Bush’s speech, and the concerns behind the plea strike familiar notes: “Some people who are enjoying our prosperity have forgotten what it’s for. But they diminish our triumph when they act as if wealth is an end in itself,” he said. The purpose of prosperity, he continued, is to enable us to pursue “the better angels,” to turn idealism into certain concrete “acts of goodness.”
Bush sought to define his presidency by showing a nation capable of slowing a growing divide between the economically privileged and the working majority. In the end, he was undone by another set of words, an ill-considered “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes.
As the arrows have flown in recent weeks about income inequality and raising the minimum wage, I have wondered how far up the ladder to kinder and gentler we have climbed. If civilizations and the standards of decency evolve (ever upward, I assume), then surely, we must have made some kind of advance on the social justice front in a generation.
If there is one fact this nation can agree on, it is that we have been through an economic wringer the past five or six years. And although economists say the Great Recession lasted only a little less than two years, from 2007 to June 2009, the damage it wrought is anything but a distant memory.
The recession has reshaped the economic landscape in baffling ways. The stock market scales record levels, and many large corporations have recovered nicely, reporting healthy profits. But for millions of young adults, women and minorities, jobs are hard to find. Millions have dropped out of the job market, unable to find work. More workers have been jobless for much longer periods than in earlier recoveries. The national unemployment rate seems stalled at “a new normal” — around 6.7 percent, where 5 percent used to be norm. Foreclosures still haunt families, and cities struggle still to deal with the disaster of vacant and abandoned properties from the collapse of the housing market.
If income inequality and the minimum wage have become the new battleground, the reason is evident in surveys that show the economic recovery remains highly uneven, accelerating the decades-old trend of a growing income gap between high-income households and the middle and working classes.
A 2012 analysis of income data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that in 2008-2010, the average income of the top 5 percent of households was 13.3 times the average income of the bottom 20 percent.
Last week, the research organization reported a new study by the Economic Analysis and Research Network, which found that in every state between 1979 and 2007, the top 1 percent of taxpayers received the largest share of income growth. The trend has continued after the recession, according to the report, with at least half of the income growth in 33 states going to the top 1 percent of taxpayers.
In our take-no-prisoners discourse today, such disclosures are likely to be tagged as “class envy.” A generation ago, Bush saw in such inequality, such a gap in wealth distribution, a reason to call on our better angels, a reason for “prosperity with a purpose.”
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at email@example.com.