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Obama's muted, forgettable State of the Union

January 29, 2014: 2:27 PM ET

Tuesday evening's address reflected the trimmed ambitions of a chief executive protecting accomplishments already on the books.

By Tory Newmyer

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FORTUNE -- Yes, President Obama's State of the Union address was kind of a yawn. It reflected the trimmed ambitions of a chief executive protecting accomplishments already on the books while implicitly acknowledging shrinking bandwidth to add significant new ones.

As such, the speech may have been as notable for what it didn't include as what it did. Gone was the sharper populist edge that characterized Obama on the stump as he sought reelection in 2012. In place of rhetoric about "inequality," he deliberately substituted talk about "opportunity," a Clintonian buzzword aimed at jamming GOP counterattacks on Democratic class warfare.

MORE: Inequality: America's great destroyer

In truth, Obama has been worrying over wage stagnation for a decade. In The Audacity of Hope, he writes of two trips he took back in 2004 -- one to the gleaming Google (GOOG) campus in Mountain View, another shortly thereafter to a downsizing Maytag plant in western Illinois -- that brought the challenge into stark relief. Our technological revolution has been accelerating wealth concentration at the top while hollowing out the middle class. A hands-off response from policymakers, he wrote, wouldn't doom us to collapse. But it would give us a country "in which an increasingly prosperous knowledge class, living in exclusive enclaves, will be able to purchase whatever they want on the marketplace -- private schools, private health care, private security, and private jets -- while a growing number of their fellow citizens are consigned to low-paying service jobs, vulnerable to dislocation, pressed to work longer hours, dependent on an underfunded, overburdened, and underperforming public sector for their health care, their retirement, and their children's education ... It will mean an America that's more politically polarized and more politically unstable, as economic frustration boils over and leads people to turn on each other."

Heavy stuff! Sounds almost like an early treatment for Elysium. In fact, there's an open debate among economists about how severe our economic immobility actually is and whether it's getting worse. But five years into his presidency, it's tough to identify anything Obama's done that qualifies as the kind of radical corrective that surely stalks Tom Perkins through his nightmares. It's true, for example, that the Affordable Care Act is redistributive, though to precisely what end we don't yet know (and in the meantime, the White House regards the characterization as politically toxic and shuns it).

There is one significant policy change Obama accomplished between winning a second term and Tuesday night's address that might help explain the shift in tone. In the fiscal cliff debate that immediately followed his reelection, the President wrested from Republicans a tax increase on the personal incomes of families taking home $450,000 or more, restoring Clinton-era rates for the wealthiest. Many in his party believe he could've gotten more -- he'd just won the election pledging to oppose anything that didn't apply the same rates down to $250,000 incomes. But the White House declared victory.

At a roundtable with reporters Wednesday morning, Obama pollster Joel Benenson planted a flag in that accomplishment to explain why the President's rhetoric shed its harder corners in his speech. "We corrected the tax code and got rid of the Bush tax cuts, which was one of the fundamental pillars of getting people to pay their fair share," Benenson said at the event, hosted by the moderate Democratic think tank Third Way. He noted Obama also talked up corporate tax reform and closing loopholes to fund lower rates -- an idea with strong notional support from Democrats, Republicans, and corporate leaders. Stiffer partisan winds await his promised push to raise the federal minimum wage and restore expired jobless benefits.

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It may be that Obama's emphasis on expanding opportunity for the working and middle class is simply a new framing device, steering the debate away from the zero-sum formulation that jangles nerves on the income ladder's upper ends. But his substantively moderated appeal -- along with Benenson's assertion that the administration already tackled the problem in the tax fight -- signals the President will be happy enough working at inequality's margins for the remainder of his term.

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