By Robert A. Vella

Progressives wasted no time in critiquing President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union speech.  They saw as much fault in what he didn’t say as they did in what he actually said.  The bottom line is this:  the text of President Obama’s speech was drafted to sound populist, with a few modest policy proposals sprinkled in to lend credibility, but largely avoided the fundamental issues which are of great concern to progressives.  It is my opinion that the rhetorical purpose of this SOTU speech was geared towards positioning the Democratic Party for the 2016 presidential election which most analysts expect to be centered around populist themes.  I do not believe the leadership in either of the nation’s two major political parties has any desire whatsoever to enact a progressive agenda.  It’s just more of the same old lame political tactics designed to misdirect the American people away from the most critical issues facing the country.

By far, progressives were most critical of President Obama’s remarks on the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.  The agreement, which he is trying to quickly ram through Congress with the help of the GOP leadership and corporatist Democrats, would exacerbate the economic plight of the middle class by off-shoring domestic production and outsourcing American jobs overseas.  Furthermore, the TPP would allow multinational corporations to circumvent the consumer, labor, and environmental laws of sovereign nations through the creation of super-national legal authorities.

From BloombergAllies Line Up Against Obama’s State of the Union Plea on Trade:

Even as President Barack Obama was calling on Congress to grant him expanded powers to negotiate trade agreements, some of his staunchest allies were raising objections.

“I’m the first one to admit that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype,” Obama said on Tuesday in his State of the Union speech in Washington. “But 95 percent of the world’s customers live outside our borders, and we can’t close ourselves off from those opportunities.”

The difficult battle ahead to win the so-called fast-track authority he is asking for was illustrated by opponents — including Democrats and labor leaders — who began issuing statements before Obama had even finished speaking.

The Communications Workers of America said they support many of Obama’s initiatives but wouldn’t stand with the president “to send more U.S. jobs offshore.” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka applauded Obama’s initiatives on taxes and wages, but added “our opposition to fast-track trade deals that are giant giveaways to big corporations must be resolute.”

Robert Borosage of Campaign for America’s Future rebutted Obama’s “95 percent” remark in a respectful, but highly critical editorial titled Obama Gets His Swagger Back: The State of the Union’s Scope and Limits:

The president’s case for fast track was particularly disingenuous, a retread of the false promises of the past accords. “95 percent of the world’s customers live outside our borders.” No, 95 percent of the world’s population does; customers are people with money, and far more concentrated. “China wants to write the rules” in Asia. No, while Asian countries are imitating China’s model of trampling trade rules; they are threatened, not entranced, by their increasingly assertive giant neighbor. An agreement designed to make Vietnam an alternative source of low-cost labor for American corporations while protecting investors with their own private legal system is hardly a deal to “benefit American workers.” The claim that this administration has cracked down on currency and trade violations is risible.

Mr. Borosage also addressed what was egregiously missing from the President’s speech:

President Obama claims a new foundation for the economy, based upon a revival of manufacturing, rising exports, energy independence, higher test scores and graduation rates, a reformed Wall Street.

But the claim is mocked by the reality. The president’s reforms that address the rigged rules and distorted structure of our economy are largely in place. Yet, trade deficits are back, with the deficit with China unprecedented in the annals of history. We haven’t regained the manufacturing jobs lost in the crash, much less those lost the decade before. The big banks are bigger and more concentrated than ever – still too big to fail, too big to jail and too big to manage. CEO pay continues to soar, while workers wages stagnate.


Absent also from the speech is any discussion of limiting the role of big money in politics or cleaning up the corruption of Washington and the Congress. For a president once willing to challenge the Supreme Court to its face over Citizen’s United, the omission is telling. We’ll fight over climate change, raising the floor under workers, basic worker protections, investing in the future. But big money and the core structural rules stacked against working families aren’t yet on the agenda.

And, Borosage expressed the great frustration progressives and many other Americans feel about Obama’s apparent duplicity on U.S. military involvement in foreign wars, as well as the administration’s increasingly authoritarian practices at home:

President Obama’s presentation of his foreign policy offered a similarly stark contrast between his vision and his policy. He has been the leading advocate for ending the war on terror, for removing U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, for reasserting our values and protecting our Constitution in an age of terror. He makes a strong case for smart diplomacy rather than bluster and military adventure. His opening to Cuba, insistence on negotiations with Iran, and increasing caution in the face-off with Russia all exemplify his vision in action. His call once more to close Guantanamo in the face of congressional cowardice is admirable. He is the anti-Bush, with Hillary positioning herself to his right.

Yet at the same time, troops are returning to Iraq in the fight against ISIS. We remain engaged in Afghanistan. Drones and hit squads hunt terrorists in nations across the globe. The president has asserted unprecedented prerogatives to surveil, arrest, detain, even kill people – including citizens – on his own authority. His administration has protected intelligence officers who lie to Congress while hunting whistle blowers to expose the truth to Americans. Perhaps he can use the last two years to continue to bring his practice in line with his sensible vision.