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Column: Obama All Too Familiar With Powerlessness

Listening to President Obama’s powerful speech on income inequality, it was impossible not to be struck — and saddened — by the poignant mismatch between the loftiness of his aims and the skimpiness of his capacity to achieve them.

The speech had a certain elegiac quality. The president proclaimed that addressing the country’s “dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility” is “the defining challenge of our time.” Still, Obama acknowledged “the elephant in the room here, which is the seeming inability to get anything done in Washington these days.” The president’s policy prescriptions — reforming the corporate tax code and promoting trade; making higher education affordable and preschool available to all; raising the minimum wage and strengthening collective bargaining — are mired in the Washington muck. Yet progress seems frozen even in areas — corporate tax reform, for instance — of mutual interest.

But to be chastened by the chasm between rhetoric and reality is not to say that the president’s words were wasted. He made two particularly timely points: on the central role of government, and on the Republican response, fallacious on some points and absent on others.

At the same time, and this omission was both disappointing and predictable, the president spurned the chance to challenge his own party on government debt and spiraling entitlement spending, and the degree to which those entwined phenomena conspire to frustrate progressive solutions.

The role of government — specifically, whether government is up to the task at hand — was the second elephant in the room Wednesday. No thinking liberal can look at the debacle of the Obamacare rollout and fail to wonder whether those of us who believe in the capacity of government to tackle huge societal problems have deluded ourselves. After all, the administration itself, in reporting on progress fixing the website, crowed that its “team is operating with private-sector velocity and effectiveness.” So the president’s invocation of the country’s rich history of effective government programs — Abraham Lincoln’s land grant universities; Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security and unemployment insurance; Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid — was a timely reminder that private-sector velocity must be harnessed to governmental commitment.

As to the missing Republican agenda, Obama usefully zeroed in on Paul Ryan’s hammock — the Wisconsin Republican’s conviction that safety net programs threaten to become “a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.” Obama’s retort: “The point is these programs are not typically hammocks for people to just lie back and relax. These programs are almost always temporary means for hardworking people to stay afloat while they try to find a new job or go into school to retrain themselves for the jobs that are out there, or sometimes just to cope with a bout of bad luck.” Half of all Americans will experience poverty at some point in their lives, he said.

Keep that point in mind, and brace yourself for more hammock talk, as Congress takes up cuts to food stamps and the question of whether to extend emergency unemployment benefits. Keep in mind, as well, the president’s challenge to Republicans: What’s your plan?

Now for the tough love. On the debt and entitlement spending, Obama did not only miss an opportunity — he kicked it in the teeth. “When it comes to our budget, we should not be stuck in a stale debate from two years ago or three years ago,” he said. “A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit.” Yes, the deficit is shrinking, but Obama’s snappy language evades the bigger point: dealing with the long-term debt and entitlement spending should be a progressive goal. Over time, a debt of such magnitude slows the economic growth that the president correctly identifies as an essential element of solving the inequality problem. It diverts scarce resources from investing in America’s future to paying interest to foreigners.

And speaking of resources, the growing claims on the budget of programs for the elderly inevitably pit the nation’s most vulnerable children — the very ones that the president worries are being denied the American Dream — against its seniors. Curtailing Medicare and Social Security costs in a way that protects the neediest beneficiaries ought to be a national priority.

Too bad the president couldn’t — wouldn’t — rouse himself to say so. Speaking truth to power is easier when the power is not in your own party, and when your own power is at such a low ebb.