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What Can A State Of The Union Address Do For Income Inequality?

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Tuesday night is the State of the Union address, and as is my wont, I'll remind you that the whole exercise is basically America's greatest Nothingburger tradition and that the oration is largely a dumping ground for microwaved sentimentality and policy proposals that have about a snowball's chance in Satan's crotch of being enacted by this House of Representatives in the next two years. None of which seems to subtract from the starry-eyed wonderment of the pundit class, who will use the speech as a vehicle for their traditional game of "Who's the savviest mope in the room?" one-upmanship. So it goes.

There are a set of frequently asked questions about State of the Union addresses that are worth dispensing with up front. Can the speech improve the president’s job approval ratings? Does it ever help persuade people to support policies that aren’t already broadly popular? Can the speech nudge reluctant opponents of the president in his direction? The answers are "never,” "no," and "LOL." Can the speech be read as the president indicating that he has priorities on which he’s interested in negotiating? Yes. But as for your Green Lantern Theories of Presidential Super-Magicks, the relevant political science says, resoundingly, “Bin 'em, chumps.”

This time around, though, the State of the Union has a different flavor that's worthy of interest. The word on the street is that the primary focus of tonight's spiel will be the topic of income inequality. That’s a pretty bummer topic for a speech! I'll admit to being curious as to how President Barack Obama will transition from a "the State of our Union is sound" pronouncement at the top of the speech to a lengthy discourse on how the vast majority of Americans aren’t making it in America anymore without a warp-core meltdown in the president's cognitive dissonance engine.

Over at the renowned depository of sensible political discussion known as The Washington Post's Monkey Cage, the indispensable John Sides notes that research undertaken by political scientist Jeffrey Cohen, who examined four decades' worth of State of the Union addresses, "found that the more a president emphasized certain issues ... the more Americans thought those were important issues" -- though that uptick in public recognition was found to be relatively short-lived. And so, to Sides' mind, the "open question for this year's address is whether Obama's anticipated attention to inequality will make the problem seem more urgent."

Sides goes on to note that in order to generate that urgency, Obama is likely to need assistance from a super-unhelpful source:

Americans can even learn things from the SOTU address. Political scientist Jason Barabas has found that the public can correctly answer factual questions about the policies discussed in the speech, but only to the extent that the news media devote attention to those policies. So Obama’s success on this dimension is largely out of his control. If the media focus more on the theatrics of the occasion -- "You lie!" "Not true" -- and less on the substance of his speech, then Americans may not learn much.

That's bad news. Between the Beltway media's hopeless obsession with the superficial and their sneering contempt for struggling, ordinary human-Americans, Obama's income inequality at-bat starts with an 0-2 count.

The thing about income inequality is that while the president has been road-testing his material for a little while, he's not exactly on the vanguard of the issue. (Neither are most of the members of Congress he'll be addressing, for that matter.) But the fact that Obama is a Johnny-come-lately to the topic has an upside -- he won't have to be the one desperately trying to point out the problem. If Obama's smart, he’ll avail himself of some giants' shoulders to stand upon, and he'll do so in front of a public for whom ameliorating the predicament of income inequality already has popular resonance. Obama won't be driving the discussion -- the discussion has driven him to this point. And here's the environment in which he's working, courtesy of The Washington Post:

A large majority of Americans want Congress to substantially increase the minimum wage as part of an effort to reduce the nation's expanding economic inequality, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

As a growing share of the country's income flows to the very wealthiest, the poll found that 57 percent of Americans say lawmakers should pursue policies aimed at balancing an economic system they think is out of whack. Nearly two in three say federal policy is tilted toward helping the rich over Americans who are less well-off, according to the survey.

Remember: What can presidential speeches achieve? They can "facilitate change in favorable environments." And a favorable environment happens to be at hand, right on time. "Facilitating change in a favorable environment" is typically not sexy enough to impress the dedicated Leadership Surrealists -- but then, neither does working to alleviate income inequality! But in this case, at this moment, for the people who deserve it, it could just do the trick.

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