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Hillary Clinton slams inequality in populist speech

Hillary Clinton borrowed a page or two from Elizabeth Warren in a speech at the New America Foundation on Friday.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at an event, May 14, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at an event, May 14, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

Hillary Clinton has clearly been reading her Thomas Piketty.

The former Secretary of State sounded a populist note throughout a policy speech at the New America Foundation on Friday, rattling off an array of statistics describing rising inequality and falling economic mobility in America.

“The dream of upward mobility that made this country a model for the world feels further and further out of reach and many Americans understandably feel frustrated, even angry,” Clinton said.

Clinton told the audience that middle class incomes had stagnated over the last decade even as the average worker’s productivity had increased significantly in the same period. She pointed to studies that showed 4 out of 10 children born into the lowest rung on the economic ladder remained there as adults.

She cited troubling statistics indicating that many younger African-American workers were falling out of the middle class. She noted that life expectancies for lower income women were dropping. She warned that news that middle class Canadians now enjoyed better wages, hours, and government benefits than their American counterparts was a “wake-up call." 

“And where is it all going?” Clinton asked. “Economists have documented how the share of income and wealth going to those at the very top, not just the top 1 percent but the top 0.1 percent, the 0.01 percent of the population, has risen sharply over the last generation,” she said. “Some are calling it a throwback to the Gilded Age of the robber barons.”

Clinton’s rhetoric on economic policy has been under the microscope all year as the Democratic base increasingly rallies behind politicians like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren who emphasize inequality and corporate malfeasance in stark terms.

Today’s speech suggested Clinton is working on offering her own variation on the theme, one that mixes her work representing the country abroad into a tough critique of the economy at home.

“As Secretary of State I saw the way extreme inequality has corrupted other societies, hobbled growth and left entire generations alienated and unmoored,” she said. 

She also explicitly contrasted her husband’s record on inequality as president with President George W. Bush. 

“The 1990s taught us that even in the face of difficult long term economic trends it’s possible through smart policies and sound investments to enjoy broad based growth and shared prosperity,” she said.

She denounced the Bush administration for squandering those economic gains as well as a budget surplus in perhaps the toughest terms since she left politics for a non-partisan role as Secretary of State.

“That’s what happens when your only policy prescription is to cut taxes for the wealthy and then to deal with the aftermath of a terrible terrorist attack and two wars without paying for them,” she said. “Regulators neglected their oversight of the financial sector and allowed the evolution of an entire shadow banking system that operated without accountability.”

With Bush’s younger brother, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, openly weighing a presidential bid, it’s not hard to imagine some version of this narrative anchoring a Democratic convention speech.