United States: Obama out of touch with the people, State of the Union shows
"What a distance from the White House to the unemployment line. From the Rose Garden to the food pantry."
By Billy Wharton
January 25, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The 2011 State of the Union speech revealed just how far out of touch US President Barack Obama is from the reality of working people in the United States. What a distance from the White House to the unemployment line. From the Rose Garden to the food pantry.
Tonight’s State of the Union sent the message one final time that the Obama presidency was and is designed to protect the privileges accrued by the richest 5% in society. Obama lived up to the characterisation of him as a “hedge-fund Democrat”, a politician assigned the task of deflecting the real demands of the people for a society and economy based on solidarity, peace and justice.
A call for more corporate globalisation
The president’s focus on “out competing” other countries, such as China and India, is a thinly veiled attempt to appeal to national patriotism made in order to disguise his desire to continue policies of corporate globalisation. China and India are not the problem.
The problem is that people in the US are forced to live inside of an economy where the richest 5% of the population control 85% of the wealth. As a result, Obama’s claim to be creating a “more competitive America” doesn’t mean creating good living-wage jobs for working people. Instead, it means continuing the same policies that are tailored to protect the wealth accumulated by the rich.
Democratic socialists have an alternative. Instead of playing to the business community, we need to get serious about creating a comprehensive plan for a full employment economy. This can be done through emergency measures, such as the creation of a National Jobs Program and through more long-term efforts, such as the funding of a democratically operated system of worker-owned and managed cooperatives.
A commitment to full employment would put people to work immediately, thereby, relieving the skyrocketing unemployment and underemployment. The Cooperative Program would shift the national economy away from the financial and service sectors and toward manufacturing and production.
This democratically run economy would also provide a challenge to undemocratic capitalist organisations, such as the banks and multinational corporations. Once Americans experience democracy on their workplaces, a democratic socialist system of jobs creation will become a preferred choice for millions.
Americans do not need Bill Clinton “I feel your pain” platitudes. The Obama speech was full of them. We need jobs -- good jobs that will allow us to feed our families and live lives free of the uncertainties of crisis economics. If the private sector won’t provide this, the public sector must be developed. Think of how much better we would be today if the public money that was poured in the banking system would have gone to create a full employment economy. Democratic socialism offers this alternative.
On foreign policy, Obama claimed “that America's moral example must always shine for all who yearn for freedom, justice and dignity”. However, he failed to make any mention in his speech of his continued operation of the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. Guantanamo stands as a gross violation of international human rights. Closing this illegal detention centre was a key claim made by candidate Obama during the 2008 election run. Today, even after signing an executive order in January 2009 to close Guantanamo within a year, it remains open and sends the message to the world that the US is willing to violate human rights on a global scale.
In addition, not only has Obama continued Bush’s wars, he has lately taken to adopting Bush’s rhetoric. President Obama stated that, “We have also taken the fight to al Qaeda and their allies abroad.” In fact, what the Obama administration has done is reinforce military occupations while extending the war into Pakistan through the use of drone bombings.
Just two days prior to the State of the Union speech, the US military unleashed a drone attack in Pakistan that killed more than a dozen people and inspired a 10,000 person anti-drone march in that region. This was one of more than 400 attacks that have produced more than 1500 casualties since 2008. Many of these people were innocent villagers summarily executed by a machine directed from the centre of the empire.
It is time now for Americans themselves to put an end to US militarism. We can do this immediately by building a powerful protest movement to end the wars and occupation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we can do more. We can develop a movement that puts the demand to cut the military budget by 50% at the forefront. To take the money used on war and the military and put it to work to create a better society for all.
This is the promise of socialism – a world based on peaceful co-existence in which global solidarity becomes the basis of human relations.
An austerity president
Near the end of his speech Obama proposed cuts to the federal budget including pay freezes and cuts to public programs. The president provided qualified support to the Deficit Commission which recommended sharp cuts to the budget as “the only way to tackle our deficit is to cut excessive spending wherever we find it -- in domestic spending, defense spending, health-care spending, and spending through tax breaks and loopholes.” He pledged to carry out spending cuts on “…anything we cannot afford”.
However, these cuts are exactly the wrong direction for the country to be headed in. Austerity at any level of government should be resisted. Cutting federal spending will have a spiraling effect on state and local governments who are already engaged in budget cutting. Federal support is the only thing preventing even deeper cuts on the local level. The federal government should be strengthening these local budgets not forcing more cuts.
And there is one source that can be tapped into to fund not only local budgeting, but the creation of an array of necessary social survival programs. Simply put, the rich must pay. Over the past 30 years, the US has experienced a class revolution in which the richest 5% of the country has monopolised an astounding amount of resources.
As socialists, we believe that federal policy should be moving toward a truly progressive federal income tax structure that targets the wealth accumulated by the super rich. This would allow the US to create a truly excellent education system – one that is free of charge from pre-K to graduate school. These funds could be used to make a green transition for industry by creating a publicly administered energy policy. And, the deep taxation of the rich could revitalise the country’s ailing transportation system by building a super-fast national train line, by creating a green jobs program for the infrastructure and by aggressively substituting clean energy forms for our current dependence on fossil fuels.
Budget cuts will not get us there. Appeasing the top 5% won’t do it. And trying to manage polluting industries through cap and trade will do little to stem the tide of global warming. Only a bold economic plan based on the principles of democratic socialism can create a truly democratic society that puts people back in control of their own lives.
What it will take
If Obama’s speech does anything, it marks the path that we need to travel as people interested in creating a free and democratic society. We cannot lobby our way to such a society. Voting for the lesser evil won’t work. And continuing to get by on less while bankers, corporate executives and other members of the elite enrich themselves is no longer tolerable.
To create a full employment economy, to end the war and shift toward a peace policy and to create a progressive income tax system, we need a democratic revolution. We need people all over this country to awaken from their long political slumber and realise that working people have to power to make history. Our demands for jobs, peace and freedom can begin among small circles of people and grow into a mass movement. We can move from tiny to victorious and now, more than ever, is the time for action.
[Billy Wharton is co-chair Socialist Party USA.]
Capital of conservatism
Socialist Worker editorial
Democrats are as responsible as Republicans for the right-wing climate in Washington.
January 26, 2011-- Socialist Worker (USA) -- The dogmas and delusions of conservatives and corporate America are still dominating national politics -- and their most effective advocate has turned out to be a Democratic Party president.
That's the conclusion we drew from President Barack Obama's State of the Union address. The man who not long ago was derided as a "socialist" by the right wants to "make America the best place on Earth to do business" and to work with Republicans to shrink the deficit with a five-year freeze on federal spending -- non-security-related spending, that is.
Are we exaggerating? After all, Obama served up his proposals with appeals to tolerance and rhetoric about helping those in need. He said that the real measure of the success of the economy wasn't the stock market but "the success of our people."
Plus, sitting in the audience in Congress was the new Republican majority in the House of Representative -- their snarling about "job killing" and "anti-business" policies temporarily quieted by the spotlight on Obama's speech and the calls for more "civility" following the Arizona shootings.
Compared to the union-hating, immigrant-bashing, budget-slashing Republicans, Obama can't help but seem progressive and reasonable. And that's been his strongest appeal for the millions of people who voted for him two years ago and are disappointed today -- at least he's not them.
The media recap of the State of the Union speech will portray the national "debate" on an incredibly narrow spectrum, with Obama and the Democrats as the left-most extreme and the Republicans as the right. But this misses the fact that Democrats and Republicans agree on so much more than they disagree -- and that both parties have dragged the debate to the right.
In fact, Obama's speech was filled with the same tired phrases heard over and over from Republicans and Democrats alike: "[T]he challenges we face are bigger than party." "Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation." "Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same." "[T]he American people deserve to know that special interests aren't larding up legislation with pet projects." "[L]et us speak with one voice in reaffirming that our nation is united in support of our troops and their families."
Cover up the name, and you could easily imagine those quotes coming from not only Bill Clinton, but Ronald Reagan and George Bush, senior or junior. This teaches an important lesson about mainstream politics -- about how the two-party system contains sentiment for real change and reinforces a status quo where the interests of the business and political establishment are preserved, whichever of the two parties are in charge.
Two years ago, the enthusiastic support for Barack Obama, despite the evidence of his thoroughly mainstream views, was about what he was -- a symbol of the possibility of a new direction and new priorities in US politics. Today, what support he retains is about what he isn't -- a fire-breathing Republican.
That will be the Democrats' strongest argument in the months to come -- anyone who criticises Obama from the left will be told they're ignoring the fact that things would be worse if the president wasn't there to blunt the Republican assault. Don't like Obama's five-year spending freeze? Well, isn't that better than the slash-and-burn proposals from House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan?
But if the last two years prove anything, it's that the "lesser evil" in office is producing both lesser and greater evils. The way out of the "lesser evil" trap lies beyond the two-party system -- in movements of ordinary people organising for justice.
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It takes an effort to remember the transformed political climate after the November 2008 election -- with the celebration not only of the end of the hated Bush regime, but of the victory of the first African-American president in a country founded on slavery.
Time magazine captured the expectations for the new administration with a cover image that superimposed Obama's image onto Franklin Delano Roosevelt's -- with the headline "The New New Deal."
Obama did win passage of a US$787 billion economic stimulus package after his first month in office. But while unprecedented in size, it was underpowered compared to what was needed to pull the economy out of crisis. And though the stimulus is portrayed by Republicans as out-of-control spending, it was chump change compared to the trillions of dollars that flowed into the coffers of the big banks, courtesy of the Federal Reserve.
But at the same time as the stimulus was passed, the Obama administration remained in thrall to many dogmas of the past. When the crisis continued to drag on -- even as profits came roaring back for the banks and corporate America -- Obama refused to champion anything even approaching a "New New Deal". On the contrary, the administration came up with warmed-over neoliberal solutions at best -- like tax breaks for businesses to create jobs, even when it was clear that corporations weren't hiring no matter how good profits got.
Obama's failure to take decisive action on jobs gave the Republicans -- an irrelevant minority in both houses of Congress when Obama took office -- an astonishing opportunity. Right-wingers who never missed an opportunity to attack the poor and serve the rich got to pose as defenders of the working Americans who were left out in the cold while the new administration continued to bail out Wall Street.
When the debate began on health-care reform - -the centrepiece initiative of the administration's first two years -- Obama made it clear with the guest list to his first White House summit that any legislation would have to be acceptable to the health-care industry.
That meant any genuine reform proposal -- like a single-payer system where the government provides coverage to everyone -- was "off the table". Even half-measures like the "public option" for the uninsured were bargained away in the face of industry hostility. The final legislation contains limited regulations to end some of the worst insurance industry practices -- but it will also increase the power of insurers by forcing millions of people to buy inadequate policies from private companies.
The role of the Republicans in all this was the other side of the coin to the Obama administration's concessions. Though it seemed completely out of step with public sentiment at the time, the Republicans' fanatical opposition to all reform served business interests by further marginalising more radical proposals -- and by undermining support for even milder measures with a campaign of distortion and lies.
This year's "debate" over the health-care law is following the same dynamic. The new Republican majority in the House of Reprentative passed a bill to repeal the health-care law altogether. But this is a symbolic act -- the Senate, still with the Democrats in charge, is unlikely to even hold a vote on repeal, and Obama would veto the legislation in any case.
But the repeal charade further reinforced the concessions made to business -- with the Obama administration declaring it would "discuss" changes to the law on Republican terms.
So the pharmaceutical-medical-insurance complex gets a law that helps it in all kinds of ways, with the prospect of weakening still further the provisions it doesn't like. And the one segment of public opinion that will get no hearing at all in this "discussion" -- even though it's the largest single segment, according to recent polls -- are those who think that the health-care law should be changed to further reform the system.
It's become the logic of US politics: the right wing captures the initiative with wild and reactionary rhetoric, and the Democrats concede half the way or more -- until the "middle ground" has been pushed far enough that corporate America and even most Republicans are satisfied.
So it was with the big issue of the lame-duck session of Congress after the November election -- repeal or extend the Bush tax cuts for the small fraction of the richest Americans who enjoy a bonanza worth tens of thousands of dollars every year.
Republican defenders of the "little guy" suddenly forgot their hostility to Wall Street bankers and took a hard line calling for an extension. Obama and the Democrats complained and conceded, complained and conceded some more -- until the final deal became exactly what the Republicans had been demanding all along: a temporary extension on all the tax breaks, including for the super-rich.
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The shift to the right in mainstream politics has taken place almost across the board. Tellingly, the only partial exceptions were on issues where people mobilised a show of support for the kind of change Obama's election seemed to promise.
In the first year of Obama's presidency, for example, the struggle for LGBT equality reached a new level of mobilisation and organisation. Last year, the immigrant rights movement mobilised large numbers against Arizona's SB 1070 racial profiling law and inaction in Washington -- including a wave of militant protests in favour of the Defense of Marriage Act and pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (DREAM Act), legislation to provide limited legalisation for some undocumented youth.
Even these important struggles weren't strong enough. The "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring LGBT people from serving openly in the military was finally overturned, but on a conservative, pro-military basis -- and efforts to overturn the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act and pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act covering LGBT people failed. The DREAM Act came to a vote in Congress, but the measure was cynically tied to funding for the Pentagon war machine, and the Republican minority in the Senate had enough Democratic backing to block the bill.
Nevertheless, these movements show what's needed -- pressure organised from the grassroots to demand change. What we need is a stronger mobilisation, both numerically and politically -- and more movements.
The deteriorating conditions facing US workers are creating the potential for these struggles to burst out.
The drive for austerity at every level of government is leading to unprecedented attacks on social programs and on unions representing public-sector workers, from our schools to public health care and beyond. The bitterness that these assaults have stoked has already been translated into action on a small scale in cities around the country, as a look at the "Movement News" section at SocialistWorker.org shows. The question is whether these struggles can develop, link together and pose a broader challenge.
Many of the fightbacks that take place will be against the outrages of the right -- whether in the form of pro-corporate, anti-worker policies pursued by Republican politicians, or bigotry and hate directed at scapegoats, from immigrants to Muslims and more.
Some of the people involved in these struggles will remain convinced that Barack Obama is on their side -- and most will believe that the Democrats are at least a lesser evil compared to the Republicans. The struggles themselves will teach them lessons about the role of the government and the state, and where their own power lies. So it's important for activists who have come to more radical conclusions about the Democrats to not exclude those who haven't.
But at the same time, the last two years show how important it is for the left wing of our movement to insist that we not tailor our demands and activities to the requirements of supposed allies in Washington who are anything but.
One important lesson for the movements of the future was expressed most brilliantly by the great radical historian Howard Zinn, who died a year ago this week:
There's hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in -- in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating -- those are the things that determine what happens.
[Socialist Worker is the newspaper of the International Socialist Organization of the United States.]