President Obama advocated many of the right things in his State of the Union address.
He demanded real action on climate change, voting rights for minorities, immigration reform, equal pay for equal work, the minimum wage, and tax policies that benefit the middle class and not just the wealthy.
And his decision to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors will bring real money to people’s wallets soon.
But the speech failed to focus enough attention on the growing inequality in our country and the dire consequences that are leading us to a caste system where opportunity is defined at birth.
Obama does seem to understand how serious this is. He told the New Yorker recently: “I will measure myself at the end of my presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class.”
That is a big goal that demands big thinking.
Underneath the president’s lofty rhetoric and charm, he could have thought bigger.
Inequality isn’t just about income; it’s about wealth. Savings and assets make all the difference when you lose your job or face an unexpected illness. And here the gap is not only huge, but it also has a stark racial dimension.
According to the U.S. census, for every dollar a white family in the United States has, the median Asian-American family has 81 cents, the median Latino family has about 7 cents, and the median black family has less than 6 cents. In a country where communities of color will be the majority by 2042, this is simply not sustainable.
But addressing it requires grappling with race, a subject Obama approaches cautiously and ignored in his speech.
In the New Yorker, he noted that marijuana laws fall more harshly on blacks and Latinos, but the big picture was missing. We need a president bold enough to say that the drug war was racist from its beginnings 140 years ago and still devastates Americans of color — saddling millions with criminal records that make them nearly unemployable — while utterly failing to prevent the real harm drug abuse causes.
We need a president bold enough to call for a more inclusive economy in which people of color are not disproportionately confined to the basement or kitchen.
We need a president who acknowledges that minority-owned businesses get less than 3 percent of contracts from Fortune 500 companies and that the federal government itself doesn’t do a good job hiring minority-owned businesses.
We need big ideas and bold initiatives.
True, Congress is unlikely to act on these issues. But with a Congress unwilling to do anything but vote against Obamacare, the president had an opportunity to dream.
“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why,” Robert F. Kennedy said. “I dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”
Dream, Mr. President. It’s not too late.