Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Obama, the pain and fear must be named

By Eric Liu
January 28, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
HIDE CAPTION
Quotes from State of the Union speeches
Quotes from State of the Union speeches
Quotes from State of the Union speeches
Quotes from State of the Union speeches
Quotes from State of the Union speeches
Quotes from State of the Union speeches
Quotes from State of the Union speeches
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Liu: President Obama must do more than list policy fixes for inequality at SOTU
  • Liu: He needs to reckon with those who have mixed emotions about "falling behind"
  • He says the heart must be acknowledged and its pain and fear must be named
  • Liu: Obama must tell those who feel shame for being poor to do away with self-blame

Editor's note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the author of several books, including "The Gardens of Democracy" and "The Accidental Asian." He served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter @ericpliu

(CNN) -- In Tuesday night's State of the Union address, President Obama is expected to focus on the crisis of widening inequality in America.

This is good. And it's no surprise. Over the last few years, he has tried to draw attention to the decimation of the middle class over recent decades. He's explained the scope of the problem -- that the severity of today's inequality is akin to what preceded the Great Depression. He's adopted a catchphrase -- prosperity from the "middle out" -- and forced Republicans to talk about the issue. And he's proposed policies to address it.

But in his SOTU speech, and in the bigger scope of his presidency, Obama must do more than unfurl a list of policy remedies. He first has to acknowledge and then reckon with the conflicting emotions Americans have about "falling behind."

Eric Liu
Eric Liu

To be clear, policy matters. Raising the federal minimum wage would be an effective way to lift people out of poverty. Doing what New York's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, proposes -- raising taxes on the highest earners to pay for universal pre-K -- would help alleviate the effects of wage stagnation and wealth concentration.

But outside the reliably liberal precincts of cities like New York, most people aren't ready to jump straight to policy fixes. Something blocks them -- a set of stories Americans have learned to tell themselves about success and struggle. These self-scripts influence the entire inequality debate:

-- If I'm struggling, it's my own fault (and complaining about it is for losers).

Pres. Obama preps for State of the Union
Rep. says minimum wage should drift away
Obama sets some minimum wages at $10.10

-- I may be struggling, but I work hard and I don't want people who don't work hard as I do to get handouts.

-- If someone else is getting rich, it's just sour grapes for me to complain that they have too much. It's unbecoming, maybe even un-American.

-- I may be struggling, but there's nothing to be done -- it's out of my control, and I don't trust anyone, especially government, to help me. I'm on my own.

To point out these self-scripts isn't to validate divisive right-wing rhetoric about "makers and takers," or the over-the-top comments by a prominent venture capitalist arguing that critiques of the 1% feel like Nazi persecution of Jews. It's simply to describe a political and psychological reality.

Millions of Americans have internalized these beliefs, which are woven into our culture and go back at least as far as the Depression.

Each script has an emotional core: shame, pride, inadequacy, helplessness. And so before he gets to the minimum wage or any other proposal, Obama would do well to speak directly to such emotions and neutralize them with a set of counter-scripts. He's got to say things like:

"If you feel the middle class has fallen out of reach and you need help, it's not because you are a lazy moocher. It's because sometimes we all need help, and there is no shame in that."

"There's no substitute for hard work and grit. But some of the hardest working people in America are poor or barely hanging on to the middle class. We've got to resist the temptation to kick the guy one rung below us on the ladder just to make us feel like we're climbing...."

"Envy is an ugly thing. But so is bullying. And when people use words like "socialist" or "class warfare" to shut down a conversation about whether our wealthiest citizens owe more to the society that helped to create their wealth, well, that's bullying..."

"Franklin Roosevelt told us we have nothing to fear but fear itself. In this age, nothing breeds helplessness like believing you are helpless. We can turn this around together -- if we remember no man is an island and no community can improve its lot without using government wisely and well."

I'm not calling for Obama to channel former President Bill Clinton and conspicuously "feel our pain." Obama just has to be Obama -- the author who acutely sensed and articulated the cross currents of ambition and anxiety around him; the organizer who could navigate the unspoken tensions of identity that influence politics. Obama knows well that before the head can engage on a complex issue, the heart must be acknowledged and its pain and fear must be named.

Whether Obama can get House Republicans to take action on inequality is not a matter of his willpower or assertiveness; the most forceful president cannot force Congress to enact a thing. What Obama can do is build public pressure on Congress to act. And the best way he can do that is to make more people feel truly heard.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eric Liu.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT