Is Obama equipped to tackle income inequality?

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WASHINGTON -- Even as President Obama continued to cheerlead for his beleaguered health-care insurance law, he pivoted sharply the other day to a broader agenda he says will govern the remaining three years of his presidency: combating income inequality.

In a wide-ranging speech here to a sympathetic audience, he confronted what he called "the elephant in the room." While many would say that pachyderm is his own Obamacare, he called the apparition "the seeming inability to get anything done in Washington these days," especially in helping the middle class.

Acknowledging again his responsibility for the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act, Obama argued it was working much better now. Moving on, he promised an intensified effort to add to his Democratic Party's commitment to bootstrap policies, citing FDR's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and Great Society.

Obama labeled as "the defining challenged of our time ... a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle class America's basic bargain -- that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead." It's a theme that was once embraced by another Oval Office predecessor, Bill Clinton, and represents Obama's own effort to refocus on his party's traditional courting of middle class voters.

Providing health insurance, after all, is part of the same social safety net that since the New Deal years has come to include Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. All are trademark Democratic programs that have sustained lower- and middle-class support for the party over nearly eight decades.

"America built the largest middle class the world has ever known, and for the three decades it was the engine of our prosperity," Obama reminded his audience. "But starting in the late seventies, this social compact began to unravel," he said, with advances in technology and overseas outsourcing dealing a heavy blow to American manufacturing and domestic jobs.

Under a flawed trickle-down ideology in which the rich got richer at the expense of the poor and middle class, he said, education and infrastructure withered, resulting in "an economy that has become profoundly unequal and families that are more insecure."

Making the old "class warfare" argument, Obama noted that today "a family in the top 1 percent has a net worth 288 times higher than the typical family."

It's a familiar Democratic lament, to be sure, but the president's reiteration will be welcomed within his party, and particularly among its most liberal elements, including the Center for American Progress, a sponsor of the event at which he spoke.

Many of its leaders and members have been outspoken in their reservations about Obama's pragmatism as contrasted with his rhetoric. The speech could be taken in a sense as a nod to the rising popularity and prominence of Massachusetts freshman Sen. Elizabeth Warren as a populist Democratic voice against income inequality. Some in this group are touting her as a 2016 presidential prospect, despite her stated disinterest.

As for Obama himself, it makes political sense right now, while continuing to defend his Affordable Care Act, to move on to defending and expanding the social safety net.

In his re-election victory last year, the issue of protecting the poor and middle class was a centerpiece of Obama's success. He owed it in part to Mitt Romney's gaffe in dismissing "the 47 million Americans" who benefited from federal programs, which alienating many voters.

Inasmuch as the Affordable Care Act is perceived as part of the social safety net, its eventual success could be critical to broadening Democratic support looking to the 2014 congressional elections. However, if it crashes, as the Republicans continue to predict and hope, Obama's prize initiative could be his party's albatross.

So no matter how earnestly Obama works to elevate income inequality as the key element in his remaining agenda and a more dominant issue in the national debate, Obamacare could well still be seen as the real elephant in the room as voters go to the polls next year.

(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.)

(c) 2013 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.
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