When President Obama said in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night that “when Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes,
it’s not because they envy the rich,” it was the first time he’d used the word “rich” in a State of the Union speech. And when he said, a few minutes later, that when Americans put on the uniform of our military, “it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian or Latino; conservative or liberal; rich or poor,” it was the first time he’d used the word “poor” on such an occasion.
Over four State of the Union addresses, including his “unofficial” SOTU in February 2009, the president had never used either term before.
In fact, one has to go back thirteen years, to President Clinton’s call in his final SOTU in 2000 for “a constructive effort to meet the challenge that is presented to our planet by the huge gulf between rich and poor,” to hear a president use the R-word in that way in a State of the Union. (Clinton referred to the poor several other times in that speech, as did George W Bush on a few occasions, most recently in 2008.)
I don’t want to make too much out of terminology. Presidents, including Obama himself, have used such phrases as “the wealthiest” in past SOTU speeches, and speaking and acting are of course two very different things too.
But the blunt language of rich and poor, previously absent, is absent no more.
Update | A friend points out another difference:
2011 SOTU: “If we truly care about our deficit, we simply can’t afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Before we take money away from our schools or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break. It’s not a matter of punishing their success. It’s about promoting America’s success.”
2012 SOTU: “If you make under $250,000 a year, like 98 percent of American families, your taxes shouldn’t go up. You’re the ones struggling with rising costs and stagnant wages. You’re the ones who need relief. Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”
The change is unmistakeable.