What's really necessary to overcome America's catastrophic inequality

Last night's State of the Union failed to address some of the most crucial elements of a program to end inequality

Published January 29, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address, January 28, 2014,            (Jeffrey Malet, maletphoto.com)
Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address, January 28, 2014, (Jeffrey Malet, maletphoto.com)

This article originally appeared on Alternet.

AlterNet And… action! There he is, tall and lean, his pleasant face composed in an expression at once cheerful and slightly supercilious. It's our president, looking painfully aware of the inauthenticity of political spectacle, but resigned to it, because, whatever. Yet, as disenchantment has settled over his presidency, the Enchanter in Chief must get an enthusiastic vibe going. Which is to say that the wonky incrementalist must pass himself off as a man of big vision and jump over a giant believability gap that has opened in the last six years.

The State of the Union, we’re told, is his last big chance.

The SOTU was born out of a vague mandate in the Constitution that the President check in with Congress from “time to time.” Jefferson didn’t like the spoken delivery, feeling it too imperial, but Wilson brought the custom back. Truman turned the address into a televised spectacle, and Bill Clinton brought it to the web.

So now we’re stuck with it. Officially, Congress is the audience. But the real audience is the American public. Just now, that particular public is not overly thrilled with President Obama, whose job approval rating stands at 43 percent.

Does the SOTU matter? To pundits who need to pundicate, sure. To the public, not so much. The public has a point. Obama talked about a lot of stuff in his 2013 SOTU, like a new jobs program and new gun controls, and Congress pretty much ignored him. He told those pesky politicians to set aside partisanship and work together to pass a budget. Several months later, the government shut down over a budget impasse. And so on.

Now, we're led to believe that the president has big plans, yes, big plans indeed. He will even thumb his nose at Congress to get them done if need be. His plans include include raising wages to $10.10 for people making a miserly $7.25, the current Dickensian minimum. Oh, wait, he's only talking about federal contract wages. OK, really only some of them. And only the new ones.

An income of $10.10 per hour falls short of a living wage. The plan does not even match the boldness of conservative California businessman Ron Unz, who wants to raise the minimum to $12 because he doesn’t like having to pay for all the social welfare programs people have to rely on when they get paid squat.

If you were wanting something bold and butt-kicking, something that takes on inequality in America the way Lyndon B. Johnson took on poverty in his 1964 State of the Union address, you did not find it tonight.

You didn’t hear about expanding Social Security, a sensible plan supported by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others. You didn't hear about getting to full employment (but you did hear some conservative rhetoric about how unemployment is really about workers not having the right skills, which has been repeatedly debunked). You didn't hear about bringing justice to criminal bankers who prey on hard-working Americas. You didn't hear about asking the rich to pay their fair share in taxes, or putting a financial transaction tax on Wall Street, or backing off the grotesque Trans-Pacific Partnership, or ending too-big-to-fail, or taking real action to get the money out of politics.

Instead of tapping into the full power of the federal government to tackle our most urgent problems, Obama meekly suggested that government might, in certain cases, be obligated to do something. A little something. At some point.

He mentioned a new retirement savings proposal. If your employer doesn’t offer a retirement plan, which nowadays, usually consists of an inadequate 401(k), then you would be able to deduct a percentage of your paycheck to purchase Treasury bonds and eventually turn your account into an IRA. Congratulations. You are now stuck with a do-it-yourself retirement plan of the sort that has been not working out ever since somebody got the bright idea that ordinary people could transform themselves into sophisticated money managers. The Economic Policy Institute recently released a study proving that do-it-yourself retirement is driving economic inequality, leaving regular Americans further behind than ever. But never mind.

Brian Graff, CEO of American Society of Pension Professionals & Actuaries, who has spoken with Treasury about the president's retirement plan, shared his view with Politico: “It’s not what I would describe as an earth-shattering move." You can say that again.

Meanwhile, half the entire population is living at or near the poverty line, while the rich have never had it so good in America. But no biggie.

Obama’s theme tonight was America as the Land of Opportunity. “Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise.”

OK, maybe not big opportunity. How about small opportunity? For some folks. Um, not really. Well, what did you want, a pony?

By Lynn Stuart Parramore