Obama’s State of the Union address: An empty and reactionary charade
US President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday was,
perhaps even more than his previous addresses, a cynical and
reactionary charade. Empty rhetoric was combined with a complete
disconnect from the reality confronting millions of people and an
assertion of executive power.
29 January 2014
The thrust of the speech was a mixture of pro-business nostrums, militarist jingoism and a jumble of penny-ante proposals. The media’s attempt to promote the speech as a major address on inequality was a deliberate falsification aimed at drumming up interest among a generally indifferent and hostile population.
Instead it was a threadbare attempt to cover over the reality of the past year, a year in which the mask fell off a society riven by historically unprecedented levels of social inequality and mass poverty, overseen by a vast police-state spying apparatus, on the verge of another global war of incalculable consequences and presided over by the most right-wing administration in US history.
Obama himself spoke before the members of the US House of Representatives and the Senate, the majority of them millionaires, as a representative of the financial aristocracy and the military-intelligence apparatus.
He began by painting the US as a country undergoing a booming economic recovery, with “the lowest unemployment rate in over five years,” a “rebounding housing market” and a growing manufacturing sector. He did not mention that the unemployment rate has fallen largely due to millions of people having given up the search for work, or that the very small increase in manufacturing jobs is due to the collapse of wages encouraged by the administration.
On economic policy, Obama began with a call to make things “easier for more companies” through tax breaks. The two parties, he said, were agreed that, “our tax code is riddled with wasteful, complicated loopholes that punish businesses investing here, and reward companies that keep profits abroad.” He called for a lowering of corporate tax rates, with media reports indicating that this might be as much as 7 percentage points.
In the midst of his praise for the supposed resurgence of manufacturing in America, Obama failed to mention that the historical center of American manufacturing, Detroit, is currently in bankruptcy. With the support of the administration, the courts are being utilized to force through deep cuts in pensions and cut off access to culture and other social rights.
Obama did, however, praise the new CEO of GM, Mary Barra, who was invited to the speech as a special guest. Barra, touted as the first female CEO of a major auto company, is planning to accelerate cost cutting in Europe and America in order to increase already surging profits in the auto industry. He also praised Detroit Manufacturing Systems, an auto parts supplier that has worked closely with the unions to hire workers at a fraction of their former wages.
The president, who has done more than any of his predecessors to funnel money into Wall Street, acknowledged that “corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better,” as if the policies of his own administration had nothing to do with it. He quickly claimed, however, that the American people “don’t resent those who, by virtue of their efforts, achieve incredible success.”
Presumably Obama was referring to the likes of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Obama’s favored banker, who, despite the repeated and documented criminal activities of his company, has not only gone unpunished, but last week received a 74 percent pay raise.
Obama made as brief a reference as possible to the fact that at the end of last year, due to the actions of Democrats and Republicans, 1.6 million people were cut off of extended unemployment benefits. At the same time, he called for “reforming unemployment insurance so that it’s more effective in today’s economy,” which could only mean introducing greater restrictions on eligibility.
The president was also silent on the Democrats and Republicans having just agreed to slash $8.7 billion from food stamps, only the second cut in the program since it was founded (the first coming just a few months ago). He touted a right-wing immigration reform and his health care overhaul, an opening shot against all the social programs introduced in the 1930s and 1960s.
The headline proposal from Obama, intended as a sop to the trade unions and the administration’s liberal and pseudo-left supporters, was an executive order to require federal contractors to pay a minimum wage of $10.10. This requirement will only apply to new or renewed contracts, not existing ones.
In the run-up to the speech, there was a concerted effort in the media to paint a picture of partisan gridlock, which Obama was proposing to overcome through executive actions. Given that Obama’s actual proposals amount to nothing, and that the parties are agreed on fundamentals, Obama’s repeated insistence that “I’m going to do” what is required has the distinct and ominous odor of a presidential dictatorship.
It is notable that even though it is an election year, Obama made no call for voters to elect individuals pledged to implement his proposals. Rather the speech was an assertion, from an individual who more than any other has presided over the shredding of large sections of the Constitution, that the president has the power to act regardless of opposition. The target of these actions is the working class.
There was almost no mention of the vast police-state spying apparatus that has been revealed over the past year. The president sits on top of a military-intelligence complex that monitors the communications of virtually the entire planet. The day before Obama’s remarks, the latest information from Edward Snowden revealed that the US and its UK partners collect data from cell phone applications in order to determine the “political alignments” of millions of users worldwide.
Obama’s only reference to the collapse of democratic rights was to defend the “vital work of our intelligence community” while promising token reforms in order to boost “public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.” In fact, these reforms are intended to ensure that the government can go on violating this privacy.
As Obama spoke, Snowden remained in exile in Russia, facing death threats from US military and intelligence officials.
Obama heaped praise on the military, citing a plan for the long-term presence of tens of thousands of US troops in Afghanistan, insisting that the danger from Al Qaeda remains and threatening countries around the world. He welcomed recent moves from the Iranian regime to accommodate the demands of American imperialism and threatened that if Tehran fails to toe the line, war remains an option.
Obama lent support to the protests stoked by the US and European powers in Ukraine, led by extreme nationalist and fascistic forces. He pledged to “continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific,” a reference to the “pivot to Asia” that is aimed at countering China’s rise and threatens to unleash a global conflict.
As has become traditional in such events, Obama singled out individuals in the audience, generally victims of the policies of the ruling class, who are exploited to make various political points. Nowhere was this more sickening than at the end of the speech, when the president heaped praise on a veteran severely maimed by an explosion in Afghanistan.
The assembled congressmen—responsible for wars of aggression that inflicted a similar fate on thousands of Americans, while killing hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis—gave a lengthy standing ovation to one of the victims of their criminal policies. This spectacle was a fitting conclusion to a nauseating political ritual.
30 January 2014President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech was a cynical propaganda piece, filled with fraudulent claims and promises that no one, least of all his audience at the US Capitol, believes in the slightest.
The annual address has long since become an ossified ritual, a kind of national pep rally into which social and political reality seldom intrudes.
With Obama’s speech Tuesday night one had more than ever the sense of the president as chief representative of the financial aristocracy that rules America, speaking to a house filled with millionaire congress members and bought-and-paid-for representatives of big business.
It has more and more come to resemble a political echo chamber, in which the ruling establishment celebrates and talks to itself in utter indifference to the needs and concerns of the country’s working people, the overwhelming majority of the population.
In the run-up to the speech, the media had worked to build up expectations with wild predictions that Obama would use it to launch war on social inequality or, as the Washington Post put it, a “sustained assault on Republicans over a populist economic agenda.” The day after, the old adage, “the mountain labored and brought forth a mouse” came to mind.
According to some accounts, Obama’s speechwriters were instructed to tone down references to social inequality and emphasize the concept of “opportunity”—the old Horatio Alger myth that with perseverance anyone can become a millionaire. This was combined with a reassurance to the Wall Street criminals that “Americans understand that some people will earn more than others, and we don’t resent those who, by virtue of their efforts, achieve incredible success.”
On Wednesday, the New York Times published an editorial entitled “The Diminished State of the Union,” and the Washington Post’s was headlined “Obama’s muted call.” There was no denying that the days of the “audacity of hope” are long gone.
Among the exceptions to this reaction was that of the official trade union apparatus. Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO tweeted at the end of the State of the Union speech, “Best #SOTU to date for @BarackObama. All the right points to lift up middle class but one: collective bargaining.”
Trumka was in the gallery Tuesday night and was shown on national television beaming with joy as Obama congratulated one of his wife Michelle’s “guests”—all of them used as political props for the president’s phony rhetoric—a pizza parlor owner who had raised the salary of his employee from minimum wage to $10 an hour. No doubt Trumka sees this as good for business, salivating over the prospect of benevolent employers allowing him to collect union dues from such workers, pushing their take-home pay back toward the old minimum.
Obama’s move to require federal contractors to pay a minimum wage of $10.10 to employees under new or renewed contracts—not existing ones—was promoted as the boldest of his initiatives.
Expected to affect around 250,000 workers—a tiny handful of the nearly 50 million Americans classified as “working poor”—while still leaving them poor, the proposal is the clearest proof that no section of the ruling establishment has any intention of addressing the scourges of inequality, poverty and mass unemployment.
The reality is that, if the minimum wage had risen apace with the compensation of America’s CEOs, the top 1 percent, the poorest paid worker in the US would now be making more than $33 an hour. If it just kept pace with the increase in productivity, it would be over $22.
The speech included the obligatory reference to the state of the union being “strong” along with an assertion that 2014 can become “a breakthrough year for America.” Who does he think he is kidding? Poll after poll shows that some two-thirds of the population believe the economy is anything but strong, with their well-being declining, the phony indicators cited by Obama notwithstanding. A poll conducted at the end of last month found that over half the population is being forced to reduce their spending, and fully 36 percent are cutting back on food and medicine.
One of the few true statements Obama included in his speech was the observation that “corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better.”
That the president felt compelled to note in the same breath the stagnation of wages, deepening inequality and continuing unemployment is an expression of the growing unease within the ruling establishment that the present conditions are unsustainable and must give rise, sooner rather than later, to social upheavals.
The charity Oxfam issued a report just last week noting that the world’s richest 85 individuals have amassed more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion. In the United States, the most unequal of all the advanced capitalist countries, the 20 wealthiest people possess as much wealth as the poorest 150 million. Under Obama’s presidency, the top 1 percent has monopolized 95 percent of the growth in income, while the bottom 90 percent of the population has only been further impoverished.
To cast the hodgepodge of micro-initiatives and empty promises cobbled together in Obama’s speech as an attempt to confront these staggering levels of inequality would be ludicrous.
More substantive preparations are being made to deal with the political consequences of unprecedented social inequality through the buildup of a totalitarian police-state apparatus, parts of which have been exposed in Edward Snowden’s revelations of massive domestics spying by the National Security Agency. Preparations are being made to counter a challenge from below.
In the final analysis, Obama’s fifth State of the Union address has exposed his presidency as a politically spent force. He will be remembered first as a president who was able to exploit illusions in his phony promises of change to carry out the biggest swindle in history, the Wall Street bailout, which has seen the transfer of trillions of dollars in social wealth from the majority of the population to the banks and the super-rich. Secondly, his legacy will be the buildup of a police state and the shredding of the most basic democratic and constitutional rights.
Obama’s attempt at this late date, in the run-up to the 2014 midterm elections, to cast himself and the Democratic Party as the champions of the poor and crusaders against social inequality will be embraced only by a thin and privileged layer that includes the trade union officialdom and the pseudo-left elements whose personal fortunes are bound up with the fate of the Democrats.
Today’s malignant levels of social inequality are inextricably bound up with the capitalist profit system and the unceasing growth of financial parasitism to which it has given rise. The struggle against it can be mounted only by the working class. It must mobilize its independent strength in an offensive aimed at impounding the ill-gotten fortunes of the Wall Street and corporate oligarchs and reorganizing society on socialist foundations to meet the social needs of the vast majority rather than the profit interests of the few.
Bill Van Auken
“Slowly, Mr. Obama has changed the United States into another country — the Soviet States of America — an authoritarian state where false promises of "hope and change" were used to manipulate the public.”