Vice President Joseph R. Biden took a swipe Thursday at the Clinton administration — and at possible presidential rival Hillary Rodham Clinton — by saying the middle class declined “all through the ‘90s.”
“The middle class started to get into trouble in the late ‘80s. All through the ‘90s, with the exception of two years, the middle class was declining,” Mr. Biden told an audience of unionized teachers in Washington. “We need to deal with income inequity.”
The vice president, who is considering a third bid for the White House in 2016, also told the gathering that the Obama administration has helped to create manufacturing jobs “more than [at] any time, even the ‘90s.”
A spokesman for Mrs. Clinton didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Economic studies have shown that the income gap between the wealthy and the middle class has been growing since the 1980s.
William A. Sundstrom, an associate professor of economics at Santa Clara University, said that halfway through the Clinton presidency, the hourly wage of a worker at the 10th percentile was $5.17, about 14 percent lower than it had been in 1973 after adjusting for inflation. Meanwhile, a worker at the 90th percentile in 1996 earned $23.01 per hour, an increase of about 6 percent in real terms since 1973.
But that gap has grown even larger during the Obama-Biden administration. Since the recession officially ended in June 2009, 95 percent of the income gains have gone to the top 1 percent. During the economic expansion of the 1990s, the top 1 percent received 45 percent of the income gains.
Last year, the top 1 percent of American households had pretax income above $394,000.
Mr. Biden never mentioned the Clintons by name in his remarks to a summit of the American Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO on workforce development. But the vice president clearly sought to highlight the economic gains during the Obama administration from the depths of the recession in 2007-2009, portraying the recovery as a bigger job than managing the economy during the Clinton years.
“The bridge to the middle class was absolutely blown away by the great recession,” Mr. Biden said. “When we came into office, we knew we had to build the foundation to the middle class just like a bridge. We knew we literally had to rebuild the economy from the ground up.”
As Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, is gaining popularity among progressives with her rhetoric against big banks and income inequality, Mr. Biden is seeking to downplay the growing income disparity of the past six years.
Mrs. Warren, whom some progressives are pushing to run in 2016, got another boost in stature Thursday when Senate Democrats selected her for their leadership team as a liaison to the party’s liberal base.
Jim Dean, chair of the progressive group Democracy for America, said the move recognizes that Mrs. Warren “isn’t just a liaison to a handful of Democratic activists, but the essential leader of the very heart of our party.”
In Mr. Biden’s address Thursday, he said the gap between rich and poor has been growing for decades.
“When you have 24.5 percent of all the income going to 1 percent of the people, and 17 percent of income going to 50 percent of the people, it doesn’t work, man,” Mr. Biden said. “We haven’t seen this since 1921. It’s not anybody’s fault — not like anybody set out to do this. This is not any cabal. It’s just how it’s drifted.”
The history of the word “cabal” to mean a secret conspiratorial group has connotations of anti-Semitism. Mr. Biden got into trouble with the Anti-Defamation League earlier this year for using the word “shylock” — a word with a similar history as a Jewish slur — to describe people who make unfair loans to U.S. service members.
The vice president said Washington needs to address tax reform.
“Why should a hedge fund manager — and by the way, a lot of them support me — gambling with somebody else’s money in New York or anywhere else, making $7 million to $800 million a year, pay 17 percent, when … one of your schoolteachers making $56,000 pays at 24.5 percent,” he said. “I’ve not seen any rationale. We’re going to start to see discussions about it.”
He said of his view that the income gap between rich and poor should be narrowed: “That’s not Joe Biden, progressive Democrat, pro-union guy. That’s coming from the International Monetary Fund, Standard & Poor’s, the Harvard Business Review.”
In a reference that sounded vaguely like former President George W. Bush’s call to “make the pie higher,” Mr. Biden said the middle class needs to gain a larger slice of overall income.
“When ordinary people aren’t making money, the pie does not expand,” he said. “The pie does not expand.”