Once upon a time, in the middle of the last century, America had a thriving economy in which the middle class was at the center and everyone — poor and rich alike — did better. But then, starting in the late 1970s, a group of self-serving rich people began to sell a promise that if we took better care of them, their wealth would trickle down, and that would help everyone else prosper. The country bought that line. And for three decades both parties yielded to it. The results were great for the very rich — and disastrous for everyone else. Wages stagnated. Inequality became extreme. Mobility slowed. By 2008, things were so upside down and we had so lost our way that the economy collapsed. Out of that ruin, many began to remember the old ways: the truth that lasting growth and shared prosperity come from the middle out and not the top down. Now we are joined in a battle of ideas to see whether middle-out economics can dethrone trickle-down.
This is the contest we are engaged in today. When President Obama frames the issue in this way, as he did down the homestretch of the 2012 campaign, progressives advance and his popularity soars. When he drifts from this narrative, as he has in the sequestration and debt debates of 2013, he gives ground unnecessarily. But make no mistake: The central debate in this country will continue to be about this choice and the true origins of prosperity.