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Obama: ‘When a Few Prosper at the Expense of a Growing Middle Class’

Barack Obama gave his farewell speech as president in Chicago last night. As is customary during an outgoing president’s speech, he touched on many topics, including the state of the nation, his successes as chief executive, and his vision for the future. Somewhat unusually, though, Obama’s speech also contained a call to action for citizens.
obama's farewell speech
Image Credit: Official Whitehouse Photo by Chuck Kennedy/Flickr

“If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing,” Obama said, to cheering crowds. “If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up, dive in, stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose.”

That’s significant, in an election year that showed four states voting to raise their minimum wage after citizen petitions brought measures to state ballots. It’s a good reminder that not every piece of legislation that affects workers originates in Congress or an executive order from the president.

When a Few Prosper

Another theme of the president’s goodbye speech will resonate with workers: income inequality.

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But, for all the real progress that we’ve made, we know it’s not enough. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class, and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class.

That’s the economic argument. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind.

The laid off factory worker, the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills. Convinced that the game is fixed against them. That their government only serves the interest of the powerful. That’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.

Now there’re no quick fixes to this long-term trend. I agree, our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle class jobs obsolete.

Ladders to the Middle Class

So, how can we as a country support a healthy middle class, and make entry accessible for workers who want to join it? Obama’s speech offers a few ideas:

  • Education: Obama advocates “a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need.” In this, POTUS echoes a recent report from his office calling for education as a means of protecting today’s workforce from the encroachment of automation.
  • Stronger unions: “…give workers the power to unionize for better wages.”
  • An updated social safety net: “…to reflect the way we live now.”

See President Obama’s goodbye speech, here:

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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