Speeches alone cannot accomplish it, and he faces a divided Congress that is in no mood and has no apparent ability to overhaul the tax code. The president spoke bravely -- opponents and some allies believe he spoke dangerously -- of unilateral executive action, saying that “wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
But even his most dramatic action, an executive order to raise the minimum wage for some government contract workers, would have little effect and carries substantial risk. Of all the divisions in American political life -- between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, young and old, working and retired -- none is nearly as important nor as enduring as the division between the legislative and executive branches.
By declaring the Congress not merely inconvenient but unnecessary, Obama displayed the audacity of political hopelessness rather than the audacity of hope he once celebrated -- and it is an audacity that will make cringe even some Democratic lawmakers who support the president.
These Democrats, many of whom are not retiring in January 2017, know that Obama eventually will be succeeded by a Republican president who may use the Obama precedents in ways they will revile. Obama’s actions may be remembered as opportunism in service of opportunity.
Though the term “opportunity society” has bipartisan appeal, it has Republican roots and both reflects and causes deep partisan rancor. Liberals and conservatives agree that economic opportunity should be a central element of American politics and of the American identity. They differ bitterly on how to achieve it, and on fundamental questions:
Should opportunity be measured at the beginning or at the end of the process? Should politics focus on whether Americans receive relatively equal opportunities to launch their lives, or whether Americans have relatively equal outcomes during and at the end of their lives?
The president may have thought he was addressing a basic issue in American life during Tuesday’s speech. He has in fact rekindled a basic American debate. The legacy of the Obama years, and the opportunities offered to those born in the Obama years, depends on how that debate is conducted and whether it is concluded.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.