By: David Nather
June 19, 2014
Former President Bill Clinton said Thursday that helping the middle class is more important than reducing income inequality -- a rebuke to populist Democrats that could have repercussions if Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016.
In a speech at the centrist Hamilton Project that focused on anti-poverty policies, Clinton insisted he didn't object to President Barack Obama's focus on fighting income inequality, or to higher taxes for upper-income people. But he said most Americans are more worried about their own incomes than how much rich people are earning.
"You are not going to get rid of poverty until you get rid of middle-class stagnation. Poor people have got to have someplace to move up to," Clinton said. "And the absence of social mobility is a far bigger problem than income inequality."
"Americans don't resent other people's successes -- what they resent is not having a fair chance," Clinton said.
His statement came at the end of an hour-long speech on anti-poverty policies proposed by the think tank, and it has special significance because Hillary Clinton would have to navigate the divide between different factions of Democrats on income issues if she runs in 2016.
Some populist Democrats, such as New York mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have put a greater focus on reducing the growing gap between wealthy Americans and everyone else. And Hillary Clinton herself has been talking more about inequality lately. She referred to the "cancer of inequality" in a Facebook video to promote her book, "Hard Choices," and she gave an entire speech on the subject to the New America Foundation this spring.
But other Democrats -- including the centrist Third Way and Democratic strategist James Carville, the former Clinton adviser -- say that focus is misplaced, because most Americans don't resent rich people's incomes and would rather just earn more money themselves.
The former president sided with the second camp in his remarks Thursday. He stressed, however, that he was not rebuking Obama's policies: "I've got no problem with any of that. We should pay more taxes, those of us in high income groups."
Still, he said, "we should try to create a world in which everyone can be proud to pay taxes because they have good incomes, and they can take care of their kids, and they know what the money is buying, and it's buying a return of the American Dream."