Saturday will mark the second time a sitting U.S. president delivers an address at UC Irvine. The first was Lyndon Johnson, who dedicated the site of the future University of California institution on June 20, 1964.
The University of California system had purchased UCI's site, a 1,000-acre cattle-grazing parcel, from the Irvine Co. a few years earlier. The price for this prime cut of real estate was $1. And even that laughable price was assessed only because a company rule prohibited it from giving the land away. But with the university rising on the property, the company's surrounding real estate value skyrocketed and the city of Irvine was born. Big business calls this "playing by the rules." Rule No. 1: The rich get richer.
"I have come to California to ask you to throw off your doubts about America," President Johnson said to the 15,000 people assembled on the Irvine campus. "Help us demonstrate to the world that people of compassion and commitment can free their fellow citizens from the bonds of injustice, the prisons of poverty and the chains of ignorance."
Although injustice, poverty and ignorance are the manacles of humanity, political speechifiers often do nothing to unlock their grip. To his credit, Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act a month later, and the War on Poverty was on. He was reelected in a landslide that November.
Fifty years later, President Obama will speak to the Irvine campus. I use the word "to" and not "at" because Obama will not actually be "at" UCI. He'll be on a bigger stage (literally the Big A) — a Major League Baseball stadium with optimum seating capacity, easier security management and about 15 miles away (global warming be damned).
In his speech, the president will probably commemorate the 50 years that have passed since UCI was dedicated and Johnson asked us to cast off our doubts. With this being an important election year again, I'm sure Obama will celebrate the progress we've made in throwing off the manacles of injustice, poverty and ignorance.
But are we free from the bonds of injustice? We've made some strides toward racial equality. This is not to say that we're post-racial, but that, on a good day, we are generally free to use a drinking fountain, hold a job, play ball, elect presidents and host embarrassing TV shows regardless of our race, creed or color.
Are we free from the prisons of poverty? The improvements to the lives of those living below the poverty line have been purchased largely by the middle class. But Obama is the leader of a nation where capital is continually moving away from labor and social justice toward corporations and bottom-line investors. The president is making a bid to increase the federal minimum wage for the first time since 2009, from its current $7.25 to $10.10 an hour over the next three years. But in inflation-adjusted dollars, this "raise" is below the 1968 minimum wage.
Are we free from the chains of ignorance? It depends on what you mean by intelligence. In the last 100 years, Americans' average IQ has been rising. On the other hand, median SAT scores peaked in 1964. Of course, there are ways other than testing to track intelligence. Looking out at UCI's Class of 2014, half of which are first-generation university graduates, Obama no doubt will speak about this generation's promise.
Have we thrown off our doubts about America? Since LBJ dedicated the university, we've seen the rich grow embarrassingly richer. According to Oxfam International, the percentage of income held by the richest 1% in America has grown nearly 150% from 1980 through 2012. That 1% received 95% of the wealth created since 2009, after the Wall Street bailout, while the bottom 90% of Americans have lost income.
If Obama wants to show the world that we are, as Johnson asked us to be, people of compassion and commitment able to free our fellow citizens from injustice, poverty and ignorance, we need a new set of rules. It is time for the poor and middle classes to have a fair share in our country's wealth.
Nathan Callahan, the host of "Weekly Signals" at KUCI-FM, a public affairs program broadcasting from the campus of UCI, graduated from the university in 1971.