President Obama used the phrase only once in his economic speech Wednesday at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., when calling for “an economy that grows from the middle out, not the top down.” Though explicitly mentioned only once, the philosophy of middle-out economics informed his entire speech, where he promised to “reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades.”
Middle-out economics, currently trendy among Democratic policymakers and liberal think tanks, emphasizes strengthening the middle class as a driver of economic growth for all Americans. Obama used the phrase “middle class” 28 times in his speech. Middle-out thinking stands in opposition to conservative supply-side economics, which emphasizes wealth trickling down to the middle class from the rich.
The president also focused on dealing with the soaring cost of health care and education. Middle-out thinking sees a role for government to help people with both. Obama spoke repeatedly of the growing inequality in America, something middle-out thinkers detest. They believe that income inequality is a drag on the economy’s growth, and there is a growing body of economic research beginning to back up this thinking.
Middle-out thinking informs a lot of what we hear from Democratic politicians these days, but you don’t hear the phrase much outside political circles. That’s because the philosophy currently lacks a catchy slogan or vivid metaphor, the way “rising tide lifts all boats” clearly explains conservative supply-side economic beliefs.
Politicians in both parties speak about helping the middle class. It’s a mantra as mandatory as “support our troops.” But most Republicans don’t buy into the middle-out idea, primarily because it entails an expansive role for government to help lift more of the poor into the middle class.
Middle out is nothing new to President Obama. This is a return visit to Knox College. He addressed graduates in 2005, in his first major speech as a freshman Senator. Back then, he spoke of a government role in shaping an economy where the middle class can thrive. Administration advisers say themes in that graduation speech have remained important to the president ever since, as the nation has endured waves of economic trouble.
Wednesday’s speech kicked off a series of presidential trips and events spotlighting the economy. Expect to hear more middle out economic philosophy reflected in his speeches and policy moves.
What words did President Obama say the most during his speech?
If you’re a member of your local public radio station, we thank you — because your support helps those stations keep programs like Marketplace on the air. But for Marketplace to continue to grow, we need additional investment from those who care most about what we do: superfans like you.
Your donation — as little as $5 — helps us create more content that matters to you and your community, and to reach more people where they are – whether that’s radio, podcasts or online.
When you contribute directly to Marketplace, you become a partner in that mission: someone who understands that when we all get smarter, everybody wins.