President Obama delivered the sixth State of the Union address of his presidency last week. One of the main themes of this speech consisted of Obama’s vision for the middle class of the United States in the aftermath of the financial collapse that has characterized the national and global economies over the past several years. This sample politics essay will describe and discuss Obama’s vision in this regard in greater depth.
Concept of middle-class economics
Over the years the middle class has felt the pain of the declining American economy the most. In order to define the meaning of middle-class economics itself, it may be a good idea to refer to the following credo articulated by Obama himself:
“That’s what middle-class economics is—the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”
And he proceeds to specify:
“Middle-class economics means helping workers feel more secure in a world of constant change—making it easier to afford childcare, college, paid leave, health care, a home, retirement. Middle-class economics means doing more to help Americans upgrade their skills through opportunities like apprenticeships and two years of free community college” (paragraphs 7-9).
Whether this is an idiosyncratic definition of middle-class economics is a question that can be bracketed for present purposes; the important point here is that this is what the President himself means by middle-class economics, and this is the vision that informed the statements and proposals put forth regarding the middle class in his State of the Union address.
Obama’s middle-class financial strategy and vision
In effect, then, Obama’s middle-class economics vision consists of investing in the large majority of the American people in such a way that they will be able to live financially sustainable and moderately affluent lives, and in such a way that easy access to all relevant social services will become a concrete reality for almost all Americans.
This vision contains an implicit critique of the growing wealth gap within the nation that, for example, informed the Occupy protests a few years ago. The assertion that everyone must play by the same set of rules implies that some people (e.g. the extremely wealthy) are not playing by the same rules as the middle-class and that this problem must be addressed in order to ensure the sustainable prosperity American economics.
Moreover, several of the elements that Obama includes under the rubric of middle-class economics clearly require considerable government spending; in this sense, the vision can be understood as somewhat socialistic in nature, meant not as a political slur but rather in the technical sense of the word.
Obama’s intentions for the middle-class
Obama’s State of the Union address included concrete proposals regarding what he would like to see done in order to implement his vision of middle-class economics. Lee and Nelson, for example, have noted that Obama’s:
“economic agenda also relies on changes in housing and education policies. He proposed making community college free for millions of students and earlier this month announced the Federal Housing Administration would cut annual insurance premiums to help make homeownership more affordable” (paragraph 11).
Both these points are clearly congruent with the concept of middle-class economics delineated above. Education and knowledge-based economics go hand in hand.
Education and economics
Free community college is meant to enable middle-class young adults to obtain the education they will need to meaningfully participate in the contemporary economy without acquiring debts that will cripple their ability to move up the social ladder; and housing reform will enable more people to purchase their own property, which can be understood as one of the primary defining aspects of what it means to belong to the middle class of the nation.
Several other provisions were included by Obama in the State of the Union address as well. As Ydstie has observed:
“One would be providing a new $500 tax credit for families where both spouses are working. Another would be to dramatically expand child care benefits to up to $3,000 a year for each child under five…He’s also pushing a plan to make it easier for workers to save for retirement through their employer” (paragraphs 5 and 7).
Changing middle-class economics takes time
Some of these changes may seem somewhat incremental in nature; however, taken together, they all coherently support the major objectives delineated by Obama in the platform cited above in the present essay. Moreover, all the provisions essentially involve an enhanced regulatory and/or caretaking role for the federal government: the entire vision is premised on the idea that the government of the United States needs to take better care of its people.
Supporters point to the successful programs Obama proposed in his 2012 Democratic National Convention speech. These strategies helped the American economy and brought more social help to the poor. Naturally, this has won Obama the ire of many conservatives within the nation; and this among other things may have implications for the feasibility of the vision as a whole. The following section of the present essay will address this issue in greater depth.
Feasibility of Obama’s vision
As the Online Editors of The Economist have pointed out, the State of the Union address must follow certain “rules”; and among these rules is the one:
“the president never admits that he can implement his agenda only by persuading others to go along with it” (paragraph 1).
In other words, when delivering this address, the President is likely to project greater power and authority than what he pragmatically possesses. Obama would seem to be no exception to this rule.
Indeed, one of the main aspects of the speech last week that the viewer could not fail to miss was the chilly reception that Obama’s vision of middle-class economics received from the Republicans in the chamber and across the nation. Three reasons can be listed for this. The first would be the almost ritualistic one that the opposition party always fulfills the role of not supporting the President’s proposals.
Republican connections to the wealthy
The second is that the Republicans are generally characterized by greater support for the wealthier sectors of the American population and would thus be ideologically opposed to the more populist ethos animating Obama’s vision.
The third reason is that the Republicans have also always been characterized by a strong libertarian streak and that they would thus also be ideologically opposed to the kind of expanded governmental role and paternalism that seems to be implied by Obama’s vision of middle-class economics as expressed in his speech. Many Republicans oppose Obama’s expensive welfare and social support initiatives as too costly on the American people and lack of research into its effectiveness.
Middle-class initiatives lack potential
Moreover, even without this concerted political opposition on the part of the Republicans, it is somewhat unclear whether at least some of Obama’s proposals would be able to produce their intended effects. McKinnon, for instance, has cited a high-quality study that found:
“much of the benefits of Mr. Obama’s plan goes to the lowest-income households. . . . For example, those making between $49,000 and $84,000—the middle quintile of earners—would actually see their taxes go up by an average of $7 under Mr. Obama’s proposals” (paragraphs 7-8).
This average reflects the fact that some of the people in the relevant bracket would get a tax cut of several hundred dollars, while others would actually get a tax increase of several hundred dollars. This analysis would seem to imply that it may be something of a misnomer to classify Obama’s tax proposals as part of middle-class economics, insofar as the real beneficiaries of the vision would be not the middle class per se but rather the lower class.
Of course, there is nothing intrinsically problematic about taking efforts to raise the lower class to the middle class; but this does at the very least change the basic tenor some of the proposals, as well as the intended audience of those proposals.
A sociological perspective of middle-class finances
From a sociological perspective, a concern that can be raised regarding Obama’s middle class economics vision consists of whether such reforms actually are possible within the present economic context, or whether the prevailing economic system is almost by definition designed in such a way that such reforms would be difficult if not impossible.
For example, according to the conflict theory developed by Karl Marx, capitalism will necessarily lead to an increasing polarization of wealth between the haves and the have-nots; and moreover, the system will also produce increasingly severe crises (like the one that rocked the planet a few years ago and which is only in the process of passing right now).
In this context, there may be a basic incongruence between Obama’s vision of providing stability and security for the middle-class on the one hand, and an economic system that is first of all not premised on the ideals of stability and security and second of all is logically driven to abolish anything that could meaningfully be called a middle class.
In this context, it is worth returning to the basic idea that Obama’s proposals are essentially socialistic in nature, in the strict sense that they involve governmental interventions to enhance the quality of life of Americans in a way that the economic system, left to itself, will not naturally accomplish. Or, to put it more bluntly: Obama’s middle-class economics thus consists of the implementation of socialistic controls on capitalism.
At the level of ideology, whether this is commendable depends entirely on one’s own moral and political perspective; in any event, it is clear why the Republicans would vehemently oppose the vision. At the level of pragmatism, it is unclear whether the socialistic controls will in fact work, or whether a more thoroughgoing transformation of the structural logic of the economic system itself would be needed before it would become possible to achieve the objectives delineated by Obama as part of his vision of middle-class economics.
In summary, this essay has consisted of a discussion of Obama’s vision of middle-class economics as delineated in his recent State of the Union address. This essay has described the concept, discussed Obama’s vision for the middle-class, considered the vision’s feasibility, addressed the connections between education and economics, and reflected on the matter from a sociological perspective.
A key conclusion that has emerged is that Obama is seeking not so much enhance the middle class as to save it from degradation, and that his main strategy for doing so consists of placing socialistic controls on an economic system that is by its very nature hostile in the long run to the existence of the middle class.
Lee, Carol E., and Colleen McCain Nelson. “In State of Union, Obama Makes Middle-Class Pitch.” Wall Street Journal. 20 Jan. 2015. Web. 29 Jan. 2015. http://www.wsj.com/articles/in-state-of-the-union-obama-makes-middle-class-pitch-1421805437.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Oxford World Classics, 2008. Print.
McKinnon, John D. “Obama’s Tax Proposals Unlikely to Boost Middle-Class Incomes.” Wall Street Journal. 28 Jan. 2015. Web. 29 Jan. 2015. http://www.wsj.com/articles/obamas-tax-proposals-unlikely-to-boost-middle-class-incomes-1422489195.
Obama, Barack. “Weekly Address: Middle-Class Economics.” White House, 24 Jan. 2015. Web. 29 Jan. 2015. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/24/weekly-address-middle-class-economics.
Online Editors. “Middle-Class Economics.” The Economist. 24 Jan. 2015. Web. 29 Jan. 2015. http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21640351-barack-obama-tries-set-tone- 2016-middle-class-economics.
Searcey, Donne, and Robert Gebeloff. “Middle Class Shrinks Further as More Fall Out Instead of Climbing Up.” New York Times. 25 Jan. 2015. Web. 29 Jan. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/26/business/economy/middle-class-shrinks-further-as-more- fall-out-instead-of-climbing-up.html?_r=0.
Ydstie, John. “Middle Class Economics Dominate Obama’s State of the Union.” NPR. 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 29 Jan. 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/01/21/378905636/middle-class- economics-dominate-obamas-state-of-the-union.