As Obama Turns

How the president’s political fortunes predict his economic message.

President Obama speaks on economic themes at the Center for American Progress December 4, 2013 in Washington, DC.

President Obama speaks at the Center for American Progress on Dec. 4, 2013, in Washington, D.C. This time around he was speaking about inequality, not global competition.

Photo by Aude Guerrucci/Getty Images

When President Obama said this week that ending income inequality was “this generation’s task,” his aides noted he was consciously echoing themes he’d raised in a speech two years earlier in Osawatomie, Kan. The trail actually goes back even farther than that. The president has given several significant economic speeches since becoming a national politician. The first was a commencement address at Knox College in 2005, five months after he joined the Senate. Two others include a September 2007 speech he gave at Nasdaq and one he gave three years ago Friday at Forsyth Technical Community College

All five of these speeches have been big, strained for historical sweep, and touched on a central theme: the need for government intervention at a time when the economy has gotten out of whack. But they are not all the same in emphasis. In those eight years, Obama has oscillated between two kinds of economic messages based on his most pressing political needs. When appealing to business interests and independent voters, he has addressed the need for collective action to compete in the global marketplace. When appealing to his party’s base, he has addressed the need for collective action to right the inequities of income inequality. 

In 2005 at Knox College, Obama called on the students to do more than strive to make a buck when they graduated. Instead, he called on them to contribute to a national cause: upgrading the economy for the modern age. He told the story of the previous times America had decided to repair the inequities in the market. After the Civil War and during the New Deal, lawmakers set the rules for commerce and the nation thrived. 

Obama said that this was a moral good, but he had a larger point: It was a competitive necessity. His speech was about global competition, not inequality. America had to improve the mix of winners and losers in the economy so it wouldn’t fall behind. He quoted Thomas Friedman and spoke of the quiet revolution in technology and global trade. “Countries like India and China realized this,” he said of the changes. “They understand that they no longer need to be just a source of cheap labor or cheap exports. They can compete with us on a global scale.” He cited statistics showing how China was graduating more engineers than the United States. America needed to upgrade its talent pool in order to compete in the new century.  

Two years later President Obama traveled to Wall Street and told the same story of government intervention. But this time he was not a freshman senator newly famous for his message of uniting red and blue states. He was a presidential candidate competing for base voters in a Democratic primary. He quoted FDR calling for a “reappraisal of values.” He made a moral case for economic tweaking. The worry was not an advancing China or India. Instead, the president said the fundamental challenge for the economy was whether the wealthy few would prosper while everyone else fell further behind, ultimately destroying the American Dream. 

Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat had been quoted approvingly at Knox College in 2005, but now, two years later, the president was using the book in a different way. Describing the concerns of regular people, the candidate said, “Their problem is not that our world is flat. It’s that our playing field isn’t level. It’s that opportunity is no longer equal. And that’s something we cannot accept anymore.” The globalism that Friedman described was no longer the reason to improve the economy. Now the president framed it as almost a distraction, something that had moved the national focus away from making sure that the middle class was surviving.  

Three years later, with his party’s setback in the 2010 election, the president dropped the talk of inequality again. Years of partisan battles with Congress and a hot, slow march toward passing the Affordable Care Act had bruised the president’s political standing. Voters told pollsters he was more liberal than they’d hoped when they voted for him in 2008. He had also damaged his reputation with the business community. So in December 2010, Obama traveled to Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem and spoke of a generational challenge. He said that in the global race for competitiveness the country faced a Sputnik moment. He mentioned China 10 times and India three. He returned to listing statistics that showed how other countries had outpaced America. Instead of talking about inequality, the president talked about trade, tax reform, and investments in education that would allow America to thrive in the world. The speech, given a month before the State of the Union, was a warm-up for that big speech and would be a template for 2011, his aides said at the time. 

By the end of 2011, this generation’s test was no longer global competition but—you guessed it!—confronting inequality. The president was framing the battle for the 2012 presidential election, which the Obama team wanted to be about who would work hardest for the middle class. The speech was an effort to echo his 2007 speech to Wall Street, which several of Obama’s longtime aides considered one of his best, on par with his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. Top political strategist David Axelrod considers it the closest expression of Obama’s true self. It’s a theme the president returned to this week, saying that it would give shape to his remaining years in office.

For Democrats—off their game after two months of healthcare.gov headaches—the tack back to inequality and middle-class woes is a welcome one. Everyone can get back to singing from the same song sheet. It’s a message that worked well for President Obama in 2012. In a non-presidential year, when the party’s base voters play a larger role than in a general election year, it’s music to the party’s most faithful followers. The president is “finally sounding like the progressive many of his supporters thought they were backing in 2008,” said Paul Krugman. 

These two topics are not mutually exclusive—inequality is a problem, and global competition is a reality. But President Obama’s domestic political circumstances seem to be the most determinative of the “generational test” he wants to accentuate. When the president is trying to move the nation to support his economic policies, he can argue it round or flat.