If 2008 was all about hope and change, 2012 may well be about ladders. Yes, ladders. President Barack Obama has developed a soft-spot for the “ladder of opportunity” metaphor, and he’s running with it.
At a community college in Ohio a few weeks ago, he promised an economy “where there are ladders of opportunity.” At a campaign event in Chicago this January, he called on those who’ve made it to “do a little bit more so that the next generation is able to get on the ladder of success.”
In Osawatomie in December, he gave us the memorable: “And yet, over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart.” Last September, he urged Congress to pass the American Jobs Act to ensure that “low-income Americans who desperately want to work will have more ladders out of poverty.”
Yet for all his talk of ladders, President Obama doesn’t seem to understand how these rather simple contraptions work. Ladders – whether real or symbolic of opportunity – don’t automatically advance all who step on them. Only those who put in the effort to climb get to the top.
When President Obama talks about ladders of opportunity and success, he actually seems to escalators have in mind: people just hop on, and everyone gets to the same place without effort.
A more fitting term would be the “escalator of success” or, given his fixation on fairness, perhaps “the fairness escalator”? Of course, that doesn’t quite have the same ring as “ladder of opportunity.” So the president has stuck with an image that instantly resonates with voters.
Conspicuously absent from all this ladder talk, though, is the slightest suggestion that we can perhaps create our own opportunities. Nor is there any acknowledgment of the virtues necessary to climb one’s way to the top: hard work, perseverance, fortitude, prudence and a real desire to get there. After all, some may fall down and will need to pull themselves back up again.
The focus rather is always on all these poor, ladderless Americans. And on all that the federal government must do – from more spending on infrastructure to more spending on education, not to mention green jobs – to give each and every one of us the sturdy ladder we are entitled to. Peppered throughout are warnings about unnamed villains who, having made it to the top, would now pull up the ladder behind them.
Contrast this with how the great apostle of upward mobility, Frederick Douglass, described the self-made men he so admired and encouraged others to emulate: “If they have ascended high, they have built their own ladder. From the depths of poverty such as these have often come.”
Douglass had only one message for those who sought to get ahead in life: “WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!! Not transient and fitful effort, but patient, enduring, honest, unremitting and indefatigable work into which the whole heart is put, and which, in both temporal and spiritual affairs, is the true miracle worker.”
Considering the magnitude of the injustice Douglass suffered and the depths from which he rose, it is striking how little he asked of others and how much he demanded from himself.
Nothing could be further from Mr. Obama’s message. Rather than embolden us to act, it encourages quietude as we await our government-issued ladders. Rather than draw inspiration from those who have made it, it fosters resentment by recasting success as inequality. How uninspiring a vision for a country known the world over as the land of opportunity.
Even worse is the sad irony that the president who speaks so much of mobility has done nothing to address the looming fiscal crisis that threatens it. He has, however, saddled the next generation with an extra $5 trillion of debt. That’s a mighty heavy load to bear when you’re trying to climb your way to the top.
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