The Inequality Agenda: A Theme for Obama's Second Term

By presenting a vision and an agenda that seeks to lower social inequality, the president can begin to build a legacy that will pay dividends for generations, help rebuild the shattered middle class and restore the American Dream.
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Now that the election has concluded, it is time to get to the business of planning what the next four years could look like politically. Addressing the devastation of the Northeast from Sandy should certainly take the highest priority, and the fiscal cliff should follow right after but beyond that, there is a looming issue that was rarely discussed throughout the campaign. While one of President Obama's economic advisors gave a speech in early 2012 that suggested that a theme of the president's reelection campaign was going to be rising economic inequality, and Governor Romney believed that such issues should only be discussed in quiet rooms (apparently, he forgot to clarify that those conversations should occur only in quiet rooms with no audio recorder present), during the campaign season, the candidates rarely addressed the growing national problem of economic inequality in this country, one that threatens to hamstring any potential recovery and continue to widen the gap between the haves and the have nots, building resentment, deepening divides and reducing trust. In the Obama Administration's next term, combating inequality should be front and center; indeed, addressing inequality could be the unifying theme of the president's remaining years in office.

Throughout American history, great advances in reducing inequality have been sought by grassroots agitation, but also championed by presidents. Lincoln fought for slavery's abolition. Theodore Roosevelt battled the trusts and advocated for a progressive income tax (such a tax was ultimately adopted after Roosevelt left office through the Sixteenth Amendment, which effectively overturned a decision of the Supreme Court holding such a tax unconstitutional). Franklin Roosevelt advanced a range of social programs, including social security and the G.I. Bill, both of which helped to make great strides in reducing social inequality. Lyndon Johnson championed the cause of civil rights and racial equality.

President Obama has the chance to join this roster of presidents that combated inequality in its many different forms. And such an effort can serve as a unifying theme to his second term, presenting clarity and coherence in a range of policy areas.

Although he was able to parry much of the unlimited dark money that flowed into the election, devising strategies to address the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United must be top on the list in his second term. But starting with pressing for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision may not be the best strategy. It is likely to fail unless a groundswell can develop to support such an effort over the long term and through a sustained, state-by-state battle for ratification.

The president must remember the first rule of organizing: small victories help lead to bigger ones. They build confidence, give a movement a sense of accomplishment and whet the appetite for more action. With such an approach in mind, the president should advocate for small steps to bring about real campaign finance reform: like disclosure laws that force groups spending millions to influence elections to reveal their donors: and not the corporate shells and pass-through entities, but the actual individuals. In fact, the Supreme Court signaled that such an approach would not run afoul of the First Amendment.

Similarly, other areas where inequality can be back on the table are tax reform and fiscal policy. Although the fiscal cliff must be addressed, Obama should negotiate a pass, for now. Make a compromise on some key issues to delay the worst consequences of the cliff, and then start pushing for tax reform in small steps: raise taxes for millionaires and close the carried interest loophole. Borrow a page from Romney's campaign and offer to cap the tax deductions of the wealthy. Take the matter to the public should he face resistance in Congress. Tell the nation that some of their representatives would rather defend low tax rates for investment bankers and tax cuts for millionaires than promote the nation's fiscal health.

If the president is looking for an overarching theme for his second term, combating inequality can serve in that role. In these areas and others -- like an infrastructure stimulus to help shore up our coasts and flood plains while creating good jobs for the unemployed, or support for expanding opportunities in higher education and worker retraining -- there can be a coherence to the Obama agenda, and one that sounds notes that resonate with a wide swath of the American people. When polled, Americans want to live in a society that is more equal than the one we have now and yet, at the same time, believe ours is more equal than it is. By presenting a vision and an agenda that seeks to lower social inequality, the president can begin to build a legacy that will pay dividends for generations, help rebuild the shattered middle class and restore the American Dream.

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