Equality was the North Star in President Obama’s confident and ambitious Inaugural Address this week. But the speech defined the idea around two distinct poles, and his path to progress is much clearer on one than the other.
In his first words, Obama reached back to the Declaration of Independence to anoint as America’s founding and most foundational conviction the belief “that all men are created equal.” The heart of what followed was his argument that this timeless principle contains both an economic and a social dimension—and that collective action through government is essential to realizing both.
In essence, Obama argued that fidelity to America’s founding beliefs requires a widening circle of economic opportunity and social tolerance. His language on the latter front was his most impassioned. If history remembers any single sentiment from this inaugural, it might be the passage where Obama equated gay rights with women’s right to vote and civil rights for African-Americans, celebrating the progression through “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”
Obama’s unreserved endorsement of gay rights had the heavy ring of history. Many legislative and judicial fights remain, but the unmistakable direction of law and attitude point toward greater acceptance and equality for gays and lesbians in the years ahead. (Polls showing that two-thirds of young Americans support gay marriage preview what’s coming.) Historians may record Obama’s speech as the moment consecrating a consensus that has already coalesced.
When Obama defined equality as widening social tolerance, he had the wind of history at his back. The process is often circuitous and, as Obama noted, fiercely contested, but America through its history has consistently razed legal barriers and eventually welcomed the contributions of groups once marginalized or even scorned. That is likely to prove true not only for gays but also for the new Hispanic and Asian-American families remaking communities around the country, just as it was true earlier for African-Americans and for the huddled masses of European immigrants who unsettled many Americans when they arrived in the melting-pot era a century ago. Obama, the first black president, himself symbolizes that process, and on this front he will likely continue to record gains over his second term, with legal equality for gays expanding and Congress possibly approving landmark immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally.
The president’s prospects are much murkier on the other dimension of the challenge that he identified, expanding economic opportunity and reversing inequality. In his speech, Obama vigorously framed the problem: “For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”
But it’s far from clear that the president has developed solutions commensurate to the scale of that problem. And in that, he’s hardly alone. The conservative agenda of tax cuts and deregulation did not reverse these dynamics under President George W. Bush; in an almost unprecedented failing, the median income was lower after his two terms than when he arrived. Nor has any other major industrialized nation entirely tamed the trend toward widening inequality in this age of relentless automation, global competition, and diminishing leverage for workers. The process has been especially fierce here in the U.S. (the Congressional Budget Office has reported that, since 1979, after-tax income has increased more than four times as fast for the top 1 percent as for the middle 60 percent of earners), but the tendency toward pulling apart is worldwide. “The latest trends … show a widening gap between rich and poor not only in some of the already high-inequality countries … but also—for the first time—in traditionally low-inequality countries,” as one international study recently put it.
Obama can claim progress toward strengthening economic security for average families with the passage of his health care law. But expanding opportunity has been more elusive. Like other Democrats, he’s betting most heavily on increasing access to education that will equip more Americans for skilled professions less easily shifted to low-wage countries. More education is better than less, but in a world where even young college graduates are facing stagnant incomes and dreary job prospects, education alone hardly seems a panacea. It’s not evident that either party knows how to restore the broadly shared income growth that Americans enjoyed in the decades after World War II—or that it can be restored at all when workers here are competing with the billions surging into the global market from developing countries.
Obama maintained a majority coalition in 2012 despite little economic progress among the minorities and the millennial generation members at its core, because they shared his views on cultural issues and government’s role. That might work again for his Democratic successor in the 2016 campaign, especially if Republicans continue to lurch to the right on both fronts. But cultural affinity alone can’t substitute for greater economic opportunity if Obama wants to bequeath his party a durable advantage—or meet the soaring standards he established for himself in this week’s speech.
This article appears in the January 26, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as Obama’s Twin Stars.