There were two times Republicans broke into fervent applause during this lame duck president’s seventh State of the Union speech: the first was when he called for passage of “fast track” authority to negotiate and send to the Senate a Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact — basically a NAAFTA for the Pacific region; the second was when he noted that he “won’t be running for president again.”
The applause came because those were the two most significant things that the president said in what was otherwise apathetic and dreary exercise in posing as a liberal progressive reformer now that there isn’t a chance in hell that any of his supposedly pro-middle-class proposals for reform will become law.
The cheering for the TPP on the Republican side of the House Chamber came because Republicans, unabashedly the party of capitalism, are all about reducing tariffs, freeing corporations to move to the cheapest labor countries in search of bigger profits, and the hell with American jobs being lost. They are happy to give the president and his not-so-brazenly, and yet still equally pro-capitalist Democratic minority in Congress, their support in passing the wholly pro-corporate TPP.
Obama alluded in his talk to the reality that NAAFTA, CAAFTA and other treacherous trade deals “haven’t always done as promised to protect jobs and the environment,” but he promised to do better this time. If that’s the case though, why would he want “fast track” authority, which means negotiating with other countries like China and Indonesia in secret, and then presenting Congress with a final treaty that must be voted on up or down with no amendments or changes? It’s all a giant scam that will end up eroding US jobs further. The president claimed that “export-oriented” jobs pay more than other jobs, which might be correct, but he failed to note that trade deals cut two ways: they do promote exports, but they also by definition promote imports by reducing tariffs on imported goods and services, and those imports are job killers. Worse yet, trade deals enable US companies to pull up stakes and move manufacturing work abroad because they can then produce the goods cheaper and ship them back to the US market thanks to new lower tariffs on imports.
As for his line about no longer running for president, that is precisely what made such a joke about all his proposals for taxing the rich more, making community college free to all, and “doing more to make it easier for workers to form unions,” etc. None of those proposals will ever become law because he and the Democratic Party, thanks to six years of selling out progressive voters who elected them when they had two, and later still at least one house of Congress in their control, has now lost control of both houses. And Republicans don’t have to listen to what the president wants since he’s on the way out. No wonder they all cheered that admission by the president that his sell-by date was approaching.
And those progressive proposals of his? They really aren’t that big a deal when you look at them closer.
Take that call for taxing the rich more. It’s really about raising an additional $320 billion in taxes on the wealthy, primarily by slightly raising the capital gains tax to 28%. But that’s over 10 years, and it’s still not much higher than what a middle-class worker pays on earned wages. The actual increase in taxes on the wealthy then, for just using money to make more money, would only bring in an additional $32 billion per year, which is only half of what analysts say the cost of making community college free would cost! Given that there are 100 million US taxpayers, most of them “middle class” (which the president apparently defines as over poverty level, and earning less than $200,000 per year), the $360 billion in tax breaks they would receive (also over ten years) under his proposals, would work out to only $36 billion per year, or $360 per taxpayer per year. Nice if you can get it, but hardly an amount that would make a dent in the chasm of a wealth gap that has opened up in the US over the last two decades.
The president notably did not offer to expand Social Security, which makes his line about wanting to work with a Republican Congress “in areas where we agree” very ominous — given that it was this president who, until massively bombarded with protests from his supporters, was backing a sleight-of-hand called “chained-CPI” that would reduce the annual inflation adjustment in Social Security benefits and steal tens of thousands of dollars from Social Security
He said nothing about any serious and concrete effort to tackle climate change, instead just trumpeting the agreement reached at the last climate summit in Lima between China and the US to work to reduce their emissions of global warming gases. This was pretty weak beer at a time when climate experts are warning that the entire Arctic ice cap is going to vanish this summer or next summer at the latest. That is a Rubicon that will set in motion an irreversible heat wave that could see vast clouds of methane gas belching up from the exposed permafrost of the tundras and from the shallow seafloor of the Siberian and North American continental shelves in the Arctic ocean (a process that is already underway).
The president said almost nothing about poverty either. The closest he came was a call for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage, which at $14,500 a year for a full-time job is lower in real dollar purchasing power today than it was in 1980. Instead, he focused only on the supposedly long-suffering middle class.
While it’s true that the middle class is hurting from the still lingering recession that began in late 2007, the poor are in desperate straits, with even traditional support programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Food Stamps being cut back, while poverty soars. Only this past week a study revealed that for the first time in half a century, more than 50% of children in the nation’s public schools live in families who are below the poverty line. Another study released around the same time found that one in thirty children in the US is homeless. Those dire statistics make a joke of any of the school reform efforts that abound, from the charter school movement to the obsession with testing and Common Core curriculum “reform” to attacks on teacher tenure. Many studies, in the US and abroad, make it clear that poverty is an overriding cause for poor student performance. Deal with poverty and you will make real headway in improving US education. Ignore it, and no reforms will achieve anything of consequence. This issue got no attention from the president.
What did get Obama excited was calling on Congress to pass a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), like the one passed in 2001 to launch the disastrous so-called War on Terror and the invasion of Afghanistan and the one passed in 2003 to launch the disastrous and criminal invasion of Iraq. With those two wars still raging (despite the president’s ludicrous claim that they are now ended!), he was calling for this new AUMF to authorize him to launch a yet another war, this time against Syria.
So much for not having a foreign policy “based upon fear,” which he said in his address was not a good idea. Um, it would have to be fear that would justify going to war in Syria because of a few thousand jihad-crazed Muslim fanatics attacking other Muslims there and Iraq, since none of that fighting poses any kind of existential risk to the US.
The real danger of Congress passing another AUMF, which the president obviously knows but equally obviously favors, is that President George W. Bush and VP Dick Cheney successfully used the first one in 2001 and the second in 2003 to destroy the Bill of Rights, backed by a conservative Supreme Court that has been holding that when the nation is in a state of war, presidents have essentially dictatorial powers. Giving this president a new open-ended AUMF, as the other two appear to be running out of any justification, would just extend that excuse for wholesale ignoring and undermining of the Constitution.
All in all, this State of the Union address was an outrage and a joke.
It would be bad enough if, at this late point in his second term of office, this president had really come through with a New Deal-like proposal for a whole progressive transformation of the US economy. Bad enough because he should have, and could have, done that back at his first SOTU address in January 2009, at a time when the Democratic Party was in control of both the House and the Senate and he had an electorate that had elected him overwhelmingly in expectation of dramatic action. Instead he began his first term as the nation’s first black president by backing away from every progressive promise that he had made while campaigning, starting with telling workers that he would defer a promise to immediately pass “card check” legislation making it much easier to organize a union (that idea ended up being dropped entirely by the Obama White House). But in this latest speech he offered up only pale imitations and illusions of progressive reform: tiny tax breaks for the middle class, tiny tax increases for the wealthy, vague calls for climate action, for for a higher minimum wage and for making it easier for unions to organize (no details there).
It appears what the president was really doing in this SOTU speech was setting things up so that Democrats, who for six years have done nothing of consequence for ordinary Americans (and that includes passage of the very pro-insurance-industry Affordable Care Act, instead of a Canadian-style single-payer state-owned medical insurance: Medicare for all), and who got punished for it by losing the Senate and losing more seats in the House last November, can spend the next two years harmlessly posing as progressives. They won’t have to actually deliver anything since they are now in the minority. That way, they hope they can delude the voters once again into thinking they’re serious so they can again win the presidency and maybe win back the Senate in 2016. Meanwhile, they hope the party’s corporate backers on Wall Street, and in the corporate suites of the arms industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance industry and other sectors, will understand that they don’t really mean it about progressive reform, and will thus keep bankrolling them, knowing that if they succeed in taking back control in DC, they will once again be the willing servants of corporate America.
Meanwhile, the state of the nation continues to deteriorate apace.
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