Tonight’s State of the Union address is expected to focus on income inequality in America, a defining charge for President Barack Obama’s second term and a rallying cry for his party in this year’s elections.
Georgia Democrats are not pushing proposals, such as in New York, for new taxes. But talk of inequality will animate Georgia’s top political races in key ways, from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter’s call to change education funding to Senate hopeful Michelle Nunn’s support for increasing the minimum wage.
Democratic candidates have to strike a tricky balance to avoid appearing too close to Obama, lest his unpopularity rub off in a state he lost in 2012. At the same time, they want to use the inequality theme to energize their base and renew a call for a Medicaid expansion.
While incomes for top earners have risen in recent years, middle- and lower-income Americans have seen stagnant wages. The dynamic has been exacerbated during the economic recovery as the stock market has soared with unemployment still high.
“They’re going to have to walk a careful line,” said Tharon Johnson, who ran Obama’s re-election campaign in the South and has long been active in Georgia Democratic politics. “And what I mean by that is, they’ll need to appeal to more affluent and conservative Democrats, but realize that income inequality is a real issue for a large part of our base.”
Nunn, competing for an open Senate seat vacated by Republican Saxby Chambliss, so far has endorsed largely uncontroversial efforts to bring more transparency to Washington. But she’s aligned herself with her party on income inequality.
“I support raising the minimum wage, but we need to do it in concert with business leaders to limit any unintended consequences,” she said at a recent appearance in Athens. “We need to ensure Georgia is a place of great opportunity so people can work their way out of poverty.”
She added: “I think the income inequality is an important set of issues, and it will be a part of one of the priorities I’m talking about: Jobs and the economy. Everyone knows jobs and employment are the best way to grow the economy.”
Carter, who is challenging Gov. Nathan Deal, has made income inequality a central plank of his bid. He cites statistics that show the average Georgia family makes $6,000 less than it did a decade ago when adjusted for inflation and that one of four Georgia kids lives below the poverty line.
“That’s a real pay cut and it means that middle-class income has dropped twice as fast in Georgia as it has in the rest of the country,” said Carter, adding: “I believe in creating a strong climate for business. But you can’t have a strong economy if you leave the middle class and small business behind.”
Those Georgians’ stances aren’t nearly as aggressive as ones by Democrats in places such as New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio is proposing a new tax on the rich to fund universal pre-school.
Yet Republicans think the scaled-back strategy in Georgia will still fall flat. Many GOP strategists portray the elections as a referendum on the shaky rollout of Obama’s health care overhaul, and see talk about income inequality as a distraction.
“One, I think they want to talk about anything other than Obamacare, that’s what’s going on,” said Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. “Secondly, they’re trying to cater to their base.”
Isakson said Republican-pushed welfare reforms in the 1990s have been successful in fighting poverty, and further expansion of government to combat inequality will not prove popular.
“The free enterprise system and capitalism is all about competition, self-worth, individual productivity,” Isakson said earlier this month, as debate raged in the Senate about extending long-term unemployment benefits. “And unless you change the philosophy of the average American from capitalism to some form of socialism, I don’t think it will work.”
The Democrat-led U.S. Senate will be a battleground for policies designed to tackle inequality, including increasing the federal minimum wage, which has been $7.25 since 2009. Obama last year proposed making it $9. Several states have higher minimum wages, but Georgia is not among them.
Conservative economists say increasing the minimum wage will increase unemployment, as companies will simply higher fewer people. And Republican pollster Matt Towery, of InsiderAdvantage, said the issue won’t resonate among Georgia voters.
“When you use ‘minimum wage’ in Georgia, it’s almost code for, ‘Hey, I’m liberal,’ ” Towery said. “Georgia will not be a state where you can come off as being an extraordinary redistribution-of-wealth candidate. But you can use inequality with regard to gender and resource allocation for public institutions like education.”
To prevail statewide, Democrats must rally their core of black voters — a tougher task without Obama on the ballot in a midterm year — while courting moderates. Some strategists hope that using Deal’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the new health care law could help do both.
At a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebration at Ebenezer Baptist Church last week, the prominent Democrats and Republicans in the audience witnessed just how enticing that argument can be. The Rev. Raphael Warnock blasted Deal, who had slipped out by then, for his stance on Medicaid.
“There is no reason not to expand Medicaid, ” Warnock said. “It is ours, not for the taking. We gave the money. Let the money come back.”
The crowd responded with its loudest roar of the day.
To head off criticism about stagnant teachers’ pay, Deal has proposed an education funding increase that could lead to pay raises — and attempt to neutralize an income-inequality push by Democrats focused on public employees. Georgia GOP consultant Joel McElhannon said the hike will inoculate Republicans from accusations that they are attacking public education.
“It’s the classic attack that Democrats bring out every single year that Republicans haven’t done enough on education, Republicans have cut education,” McElhannon said. “And the practical reality is they won’t answer the question of: If they want to spend all this money on education, where it comes from?”
Across the state’s 14 congressional districts, the inequality argument plays out in vastly different ways.
Augusta Democratic Rep. John Barrow of the 12th District, who has survived repeated challenges by often breaking party lines, was one of only a handful of House Democrats to vote against a minimum wage increase last year.
Yet both Democratic candidates dueling for a seat in the Fourth District, an overwhelmingly Democratic east Atlanta district, strongly advocate a minimum wage increase.
“No one can deny that a just and reasonable starting-point test is whether workers are paid an honest wage for an honest day’s work,” said DeKalb Sheriff Tom Brown, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson. “And I worry that we fall short of that test.”
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