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Clinton and Bush talked about inequality more than Obama in State of the Union speeches

So President Obama talked a bit about economic inequality Tuesday night. Whenever the subject comes up, there are always going to be certain people who argue that just talking about it is an un-American insult to the graceful efficiency of our capitalist system, or at best, a distraction from more serious problems. Former Know More contributor Ezra Klein took the latter view; for a response, read this item.

But certain people really need to cut Obama some slack. O.K., he talked about the gap between rich and poor at length last night. If you put the president’s speeches in historical perspective, however, he’s no socialist class warrior — far from it, in fact. Time was, economic inequality was an important theme that presidents talked about forthrightly, year in, year out, in their annual addresses to Congress.

The charts above from Oxfam show how frequently presidents have dealt with economic inequality in the annual State of the Union address, measured using a list of 28 words related to poverty, unemployment, and fairness (excluding racial justice). Before last night, these were words that Obama rarely used in his State of the Union address — despite the fact that he took office during the worst crash since the Great Depression. You might think he’d intentionally avoided the theme, worried about what certain people might say. Before last night’s speech, the Associated Press reported, he and his advisers looked for ways to remove the word “inequality” from his text and replace it with the word “opportunity.”

Before the speech, Obama had talked about economic justice in his State of the Union address less than every other modern president with the exceptions of Coolidge and Taft. The speech changed that, but Obama has still devoted less time to the issue in his State of the Union addresses than Clinton or George W. Bush did in theirs.

To be sure, the folks at Oxfam came up with a list of words to measure that is necessarily arbitrary, and since they only examined State of the Union speeches, the analysis isn’t anywhere near comprehensive. Nonetheless, it does confirm what we already know to be true: somehow, the unequal distribution of wealth in the United States has become a taboo. Obama deserves some credit for trying to break it, but words alone won’t be enough to restore equitable economic growth.

Click “Know More” to read the speech.

Max Ehrenfreund | January 29, 2014 at 11:19 am
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