Obama’s State of the Union: Year one of a corporate presidency

By Billy Wharton

January 27, 2010 -- From the start, Barack Obama’s presidency has seemed like one big public relations campaign. Tonight’s State of the Union address did little to dissuade one from this view. Sagging under the weight of depressed dreams of hope and change, he desperately needed to appear as though he was doing something to address the growing needs of the US people. Emphasis was on “appearances”, since Obama’s speech delivered more of the same from his first year in office: high rhetoric with little substance.

The clear emphasis of the speech was the US economy. This was a double-edged sword. In the first part, Obama presented his bank bailout as an unpopular, but necessary measure – “We all hated the bank bailout… I hated it… promised I wouldn’t just do what was popular, I would do what is necessary.” Yet, brushing off the bailout as a necessary evil misses important points.

First, the economic crisis created a historic opportunity to create a banking system that could serve the US people. Placing these failed institutions into public control might have allowed for the creation of a highly regulated public banking sector. Second, the more than US$700 billion in taxpayers' funds was employed by the banks as insurance for further speculation. It might have been better used on a real domestic stimulus plan that addressed the needs of working people.

The financial system continues to fail the US people – the small businesses, homeowners and working people – yet all Obama proposes is a few new bank fees. We need a financial system that works for people not for profit.

Spending freeze -- but not for the military

This leads into the second part of his domestic economic agenda. “Families”, Obama argued, “are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.” The president’s further comments on deficit reduction – including a three-year freeze in discretionary spending – signal an important shift from stimulus programs – albeit in favour of large corporations and banks – to austerity programs. The Socialist Party USA believes in the need to resist these cutbacks whether they occur at the federal, state or local levels. We need to build a movement to defend public programs. They should be expanded not cut back.

Despite the call for cuts, Obama pledged to maintain funding for national security, including a military budget that remains a major drain on the US economy. Estimates of the military’s share in the budget – including payments for current and past wars – amounts to nearly 51% of annual budget expenditures or nearly $1.2 trillion in tax funds. These taxpayers’ funds could be more productively put to work in the domestic economy to create jobs, provide healthcare and fund poverty relief or internationally to advance a peace agenda. This is why the Socialist Party USA calls for an immediate 50% reduction in the military budget.

Unemployment, health

Austerity programs and budget freezing give the impression that the economic crisis has ended. Yet millions still suffer from unemployment as a result of the greatest crisis in capitalism since the 1930s. Obama referenced the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) U-3 unemployment number of 10%. However, the more comprehensive U-6 figure released by the BLS that counts the discouraged and underemployed has risen to 17.3%. That is why the Socialist Party USA supports the creation of a full employment policy that offers the public sector as a means to create employment for all who wish to work.

Similarly, President Obama has dropped the ball on healthcare reform. The more than 2000 page legislation he supports in the House of Representaives and Senate has been shaped by major health insurers and pharmaceutical companies. Though he decried the influence of lobbyists on Washington politics, he failed to mention the sweetheart deal his office cut with the pharmaceutical industry prior to the healthcare deliberations that began this summer. Near the end of his talk on healthcare, Obama cynically asked, “if anyone from either party has a better plan… let me know.” The Socialist Party USA has a better healthcare plan that can be implemented immediately. We support the creation of a single-payer National Healthcare Program that will act as an important first step toward a fully socialised healthcare system, where healthcare is treated as a human right, not a commodity sold to the highest bidder.

Wars and occupation

Finally, Obama commented on the current wars and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. As thousands of new troops are poured into the quagmire of Afghanistan, he provided the impression that the United States’ military adventures are winding down. Yet, he neglected to speak about his aggressive stance and outright military intervention in Yemen and the threats he delivered to Iran.

Though there was no “evil-doer” list, Obama did little to dissuade fears of further military intervention. Further, there was no mention of his, as yet unfulfilled, promise to shut down the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. The Socialist Party USA calls for the immediate removal of all US military troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the closing of Guantanamo Bay and all secret prisons and the closure of the more than 700 military bases throughout the world.

The time has come to bring substance back to politics, and everyday people are the only force capable of doing so. Democratic socialism offers hope for the future – a future with jobs, with healthcare and a future in which regular people gain control over their everyday lives. More than anything, ours is a struggle over values.

Where capitalism offers isolated individualism, we propose social solidarity. Where we find the cruelty of the market economy, we present compassionate alternatives. And wherever injustice lies we mobilise to create a more just society.

The time for slick public relations campaigns has ended – the time for building our grassroots movements is more urgent than ever. The Socialist Party USA stands ready to join in such a political revitalisation.

[Billy Wharton is the co-chair of the Socialist Party USA and the editor of The Socialist and the Socialist WebZine.]

Why substance? We have charisma! I couldn't stand to watch the speech last night, but apparently he's so charming that a whole lot of people who were getting sick of his corporate policies are now expecting him to "change" so as to meet his rhetoric... any minute now, right!?

The political narrative in America is strong and many people are so detached from the suffering caused by our policies, or they are actually direct beneficiaries of it, that they're quite unlikely to push for any sort of drift from the true status quo.


Eight days before Howard Zinn died he gave an extended audio interview, done by Bill Bigelow of Rethinking Schools: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/topshelf/2010/01/19/howard-zinn-on-a-peoples-history-of-the-united-sta

Howard would agree "the time for building our grassroots movements is more urgent than ever," and he was optimistic that ever more Americans are ending the Era of Eyes Wide Shut. Listen to Howard's last public words at the link above, and his responses to phone-in questions.

A lot jibes well with robust radical thinking inside the SPUSA. Howard was a social anarchist to the core, like Emma Goldman. But probably would have felt at home in the SPUSA if he'd been looking for an organized party structure with a wide potential inclusive radical appeal, and no-nonsense lean language that ordinary people can understand.