If 2008 was all about hope and change, 2012 may well be about ladders. Yes, ladders. President Barack Obama has developed a soft-spot for the “ladder of opportunity” metaphor, and he’s running with it.

At a community college in Ohio a few weeks ago, he promised an economy “where there are ladders of opportunity.” At a campaign event in Chicago this January, he called on those who’ve made it to “do a little bit more so that the next generation is able to get on the ladder of success.”

In Osawatomie in December, he gave us the memorable: “And yet, over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart.” Last September, he urged Congress to pass the American Jobs Act to ensure that “low-income Americans who desperately want to work will have more ladders out of poverty.”

Yet for all his talk of ladders, President Obama doesn’t seem to understand how these rather simple contraptions work. Ladders – whether real or symbolic of opportunity – don’t automatically advance all who step on them. Only those who put in the effort to climb get to the top.

When President Obama talks about ladders of opportunity and success, he actually seems to have escalators in mind: people just hop on, and everyone gets to the same place without effort.

A more fitting term would be the “escalator of success” or, given his fixation on fairness, perhaps “the fairness escalator”? Of course, that doesn’t quite have the same ring as “ladder of opportunity.” So the president has stuck with an image that instantly resonates with voters.

Conspicuously absent from all this ladder talk, though, is the slightest suggestion that we can perhaps create our own opportunities. Nor is there any acknowledgment of the virtues necessary to climb one’s way to the top: hard work, perseverance, fortitude, prudence and a real desire to get there. After all, some may fall down and will need to pull themselves back up again.

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