The (Future) State of the Union

Tonight (1/12/2016), Barack Obama delivered his final State of the Union address as President of the United States. It will go down as one of the great speeches in American history, I predict, because some years from now, when the truth about the current “state of the union” is better understood, it will become clear that Obama got it, and that he did the most any President could have done to successfully alert us all to the dangers we face. He was both prophet and cheerleader, cutting through the pettiness of current political discourse like butter and changing his focus — without directly saying so — to what we are going to have to do to survive.

It is well known that the Republicans in Congress have refused to cooperate with his administration ever since Obama was first elected. Mitch O’Connell’s Senate Republicans openly refused to cooperate and work with him on budget and economic issues. Even his appointments have been routinely blocked. At this point, there was no need for Obama to attack: He briefly reviewed his successes, pointing to the high level of private sector job creation and reduced unemployment during his presidency, wryly noting that there would not be a meeting of the minds on health care “any time soon.” He then quickly changed his focus to the future, beyond his presidency and even beyond the next presidency. His speech — as he affirmed explicitly about half way through — was mainly directed at the American people. Here are the major points that are still resonating with me a few hours later:

  1. The American people are losing faith in the political system, and becoming apathetic believing that there is nothing they can do because they are up against immense wealth, and the system is rigged. On this point, Obama said pointedly, we must keep working for change, or we will not have the future we want and need;
  2. For a strong democracy, we must all work together and try to settle our differences. He called for an end to prejudices and reactionary fears, and a re-dedication to constructive problem solving;
  3. He called for an end to denial, pointing out that when Sputnik was launched, inaugurating the space competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, we did not pretend that Sputnik did not exist — we went to work and less than two decades later we had successfully landed astronauts on the moon;
  4. He sketched out a calmer, more constructive approach to international affairs. We are the strongest country in the world, he emphasized, and what people look to us for is leadership. Our great force must be used wisely. He specifically condemned invasions, singling out the Vietnam and Iraq wars for particular condemnation;
  5. He said we have a strong, inventive, and creative economy, and twice emphasized that anyone who says we are in economic decline is not telling the truth;
  6. He emphasized the inequality problem, however, several times. These were mostly fleeting references to the inequality, such as the comment that it is not the average worker that avoids taxation by putting money in offshore accounts;
  7. Although the economy is growing, he emphasized the huge decline in the ability of Americans to afford a college education;
  8. He said we need to strengthen Social Security and Medicare, not weaken them;
  9. Emphasizing the decline of the middle class, he spoke of the need to promote small business;
  10. He spoke forcefully about the importance of combating climate change, but arguing that even if the problem was less severe, American businesses can only gain in the development of alternative energy sources;
  11. In response to the intense progressive opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) he argued that it would put America in a better position to influence growth and development around the world.

This was nothing short of a progressive manifesto, though mostly by implication. Bernie Sanders was interviewed on MSNBC shortly afterwards, and he discounted the idea that Obama was trying to influence the Clinton and Sanders campaigns. But he noted the similarity between Obama’s agenda and his platform. Asked about his assessment of his chances for victory in Iowa and Wisconsin primaries, he expressed optimism.

Here’s the thing: Everyone knows, by now, the rapid growth in Bernie’s popularity among democratic voters, everywhere he goes around the country, and it is becoming clear that people are rallying around his core message that almost all wealth and income growth are concentrating in the top 1%. People understand there is something wrong when this continues to happen, year after year. And those of us who have been around for decades realize just how much the economy has changed.

This is not rocket science, and Obama surely knows it. When people lose their savings, their jobs, and their homes with incredible swiftness, as they did after the Crash of 2008, something is simply wrong. The really remarkable thing about the State of the Union Address, this time, was that the President did not have to assert these matters as if they were debatable questions of fact. This time, it was common knowledge, and the question was whether the American people would take notice and fight back. “I can’t do this by myself,” he said. “No president” can do this alone. We need a functional democracy. This was a call to arms, and a confident one.

Before the speech, the conversation on MSNBC centered around GOP political strategist Steve Schmidt’s argument that Obama would have to deliver an ultimatum to Iran to release the imprisoned U.S. sailors or he would lack credibility as a strong, determined leader. Obama did address the credibility about his determination to deal with terrorism in the speech: “Just ask bin Laden” he suggested. He argued that terror groups are a threat to populations, but not to our existence, and should be dealt with accordingly, and he took pains to distinguish the threats posed by ISIS and Al Qaeda from threats posed by nation states.

After the speech, Schmidt found himself attacking the rest of the panel, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews, etc., for blaming Republicans for the failure of Washington to get things done. He was backed into a corner, at that point, forced to ignore the fact that the Republican constituency (and much of the Democratic constituency as well) consists of wealthy donors. Obama knows this, of course, but his tactic was to empathize with all of Congress for the growing need to raise more and more money just to stay in office. It appears the President covered all the bases, in a speech he has been preparing since November.

Once again, I was inspired again by Obama’s obvious sincerity. He remarked that democracy must be based on trust, and I do trust him. (No one could have faked that effort and pulled it off!) He’s been misled on a few issues, in my opinion, like the impact of the TPP (and his stridency in foreign affairs tends to undercut his arguments supporting internatinal c0operation and good will), but he’s no hypocrite. And how, exactly, was he supposed to play the hand he was dealt? He seems clear that sincerely wants a better world.

My overall sense is that the prospects for America’s economic future and democracy reflect the failure of unfettered capitalism. Corporations now have too much power, and they set up domestic and international trade and banking to benefit the bottom line. They’ve gone way too far, and will not be easy to stop. “It’s hard,” Obama wistfully remarked. 

Bernie Sanders is right that income and wealth are the key issues we need to address. I am heartened by the fact that so many concerned potential voters are rallying to him at this crucial hour in our history. However, what most people don’t realize, quite yet, is just how serious the threat inequality poses of another major depression.  Obama is technically correct — and in the context of this speech he needed to say it — that our economy is not in decline. However, we are learning in the last two years that aggregate income growth has slowed to a near standstill, gradually, even before the Crash, while corporate profits have continued to soar. And it is becoming better known, thanks to the efforts of Bernie Sanders, that more than 80% of the lowest real incomes have actually declined since 1980. We have two economies, one for the rich and one for everyone else. Many analysts are predicting another stock market crash in the next few years.

So, yes, the situation is serious. It’s not about Democrats vs. Republicans. Its still about labor vs. capital, a class warfare that has been obscured by mainstream economics for over a century. The economic/political power of plutocracy and the public psychology behind it have been building for far too long. People now opine that our number one issue is climate change. That’s huge, but what chance is there to address that problem aboard a runaway train that’s headed for another crash? 

What are our chances? If we don’t make it, we’ll have only our own collective apathy to blame. And it will not be for want of a stronger appeal from our outgoing President, Barack Obama.

JMH — 1/12/2016 (ed. 1/13)


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