Originally published in The Atlantic. December 12, 2013
They are often thoughtful, nuanced, highly evocative, and exceptionally well-delivered—and worse than inconsequential. They raise expectations—a world without nukes! Ending global warming! Finally curbing gun violence!—but are not followed by much of anything. These barren speeches are one reason the public, and especially the young, are becoming disaffected from politics, bad news for any democracy.
I am not so ambivalent about Obama’s December 4 speech focusing on inequality, though perhaps not in the way one might expect. I hope it gains little traction—though truth be told, his track record means I am not losing much sleep over the matter. The speech's flaw is that it seems to align the president with the Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio wing of the Democratic Party. For though this left wing may be hot during the primaries, it is most unlikely to produce a winning candidate for the 2016 election.
Democrats seem to find it too painful to stay united, sit back, and enjoy the squabbles within the GOP. After briefly standing together to oppose the budget cuts Republicans demanded in exchange for ending the government shutdown and avoiding default, the party has returned to its traditional factional infighting between the left and centrists. The very impressive victory of de Blasio, who ran an openly left-wing campaign for New York mayor; Elizabeth Warren’s election; and several locally successful campaigns to increase the minimum wage have suddenly revived the dispirited liberal branch of the party. (The fact that the usually dour and critical Paul Krugman is rhapsodic about Obama’s inequality speech is another sign of the times.)
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