WASHINGTON -- In almost every major speech during his first term, President Barack Obama has lamented that the American Dream -- in his view, the promise of a good life in return for hard work -- is under threat.
In his second inauguration speech on Monday, Obama evoked the threat by pointing to income inequality, tying the woes of the middle class to the gains of the super rich.
"For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it," the president said. "We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class."
Incomes grew 275 percent for the richest 1 percent of Americans from 1979 until 2007, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and less than 40 percent for the middle class. It's the issue that launched the Occupy Wall Street protest movement in 2011, and it's exactly the kind of talk that makes Republicans cry "class warfare."
As HuffPost reported in its series on Obama's second term, the decades-long trend of inequality has grown starker in the aftermath of the Great Recession that technically ended halfway through 2009, as most of the jobs created since then have been low-wage ones. The president suggested Monday that America can't succeed when hard work doesn't bring a decent living.
"We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship," Obama said. "We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own."
Obama's remark on the "shrinking few" one of the many moments during the inaugural speech that suggested the president will be more willing to confront his opponents during his next four years. But without being confrontational, Obama used the broadest possible terms to outline policy goals for returning the middle class to prosperity. He noted that unnamed "outworn programs" aren't up to the task (though he made it clear that he did not have in mind Social Security or Medicare).
"So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher," the president said. "But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed."