The White House is sensitive to the notion that the president could be called a “redistributionist” — an idea that fuels the animosity of Obama’s conservative opponents but also stirs uncomfortable feelings among many Americans who generally approve of greater fairness but object to programs that look like mere government handouts. “The idea was to promote opportunity and mobility and not equality of outcomes,” Jared Bernstein, a former White House economic adviser, told me in a conversation about Obama’s approach. “Where inequality came into the mix is the recognition that we’ve gotten to the point that inequality is blocking opportunity.”
Faced with a divided Congress that imposes significant limits on what he hopes to accomplish, it may seem, in 20 years, that Obama only tinkered at the margins. Several of the nation’s leading experts on inequality say that although he has pushed in the right direction, he may have to push much harder if he wants to make a significant mark. As University of Arizona sociologist Lane Kenworthy has written, that may mean universal child-care and preschool programs, designed to start children on an early path to the skills they will need to succeed while freeing parents to earn more. At the other end of the educational spectrum, Obama would need to go further to reduce the escalating cost of college. Either measure would require substantially more tax revenue, which would presumably be collected from the wealthy.