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Why Obama Will Make a Great Ex-President

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist
The Exchange
U.S. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at the White House Youth Summit on the Affordable Care Act in Washington December 4, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Obama has become the nation’s socioeconomist-in-chief.

In a recent speech billed as a preview of his upcoming State of the Union address, Obama summarized piles of economic research to explain why millions of Americans are falling behind. “The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed,” he said. “The problem is that, alongside increased inequality, we’ve seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years. The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe.”

Obama’s diagnosis is generally correct, and he reeled off statistics that many economists have been citing for years to buttress his case. There’s only one problem: The odds of Washington doing anything to address the hardships Obama has highlighted from the bully pulpit seem vanishingly small. He’d probably get better results if he were an ex-president, like Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, using a high-profile foundation to raise funds and hector movers and shakers into action.

Since Obama’s inequality speech was more like a Ph.D. dissertation than rousing oratory, here’s a very short cheat sheet:

There’s a growing “opportunity gap” in America, Obama insisted. Kids born in wealthy communities are increasingly likely to stay wealthy, while kids born in poor communities are increasingly likely to stay poor. In other words, it’s getting harder to move up the socioeconomic ladder. One problem is too many people lack the right skills to get ahead. Another is the sketchy quality of education. And if you think these problems only affect minorities or inner-city folks, think again, he said: They threaten the middle class everywhere.

Ideas from the liberal playbook

All generally true. To address these problems, Obama proposes a few ideas from the liberal playbook — raising the minimum wage, strengthening collective-bargaining power — but most of his proposals are mainstream recommendations. He wants to make high-quality preschool widely available, for instance, because research has shown it gives kids a running start on education that raises their performance for years and perhaps permanently. Obama favors better technical training to prepare people for jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree, something that has helped Germany remain an economic powerhouse with remarkably low unemployment. And he called for new ways to move people off disability and unemployment rolls and get them back to work faster, which you won’t hear many Republicans disagreeing with.

Obama has proposed most of these ideas before, and they’ve gone precisely nowhere in Congress. The odds of Congressional action may be even lower now, given the botched, very troubled rollout of Obamacare, growing public skepticism about the effectiveness of government programs and Obama’s loss of clout, even among fellow Democrats. Still, Obama says he’ll keep trying to narrow the opportunity gap: “For the rest of my presidency, that’s where you should expect my administration to focus all our efforts.”

In a bipartisan environment, some of these ideas would gain traction and be put into effect. That might even happen if we had a Republican president. But barring a surprise Democratic sweep in next year’s midterm elections, it’s hard to see Obama getting his way on many new government initiatives to boost the economy or help people get ahead.

It may be time to start thinking of ways the private sector can do some of the things Obama wishes the government would do. Obama himself seems to be heading in that direction, since he promised a new program next month, involving some big-company CEOs, meant to “give Americans a fair shot.” Another forthcoming effort will promote “promise zones” meant to help poor kids rise beyond their starter status in dozens of communities.

If Obama can actually figure out new ways to help downtrodden Americans without Obamacare-style programs, it will leave a notable legacy. If not, he shouldn’t give up: The odds of achieving his goals on the economy might improve once he leaves office.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success . Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman .