By Robert A. Vella
President Obama gave his final State of the Union speech before Congress last night, and everything about it was as predictable as the sanctimony reverberating through a Southern Baptist convention. If you had thought Obama would use this opportunity – as he has done numerous times before – to urge an extremely polarized American populace to be more compassionate, understanding, and tolerant of each other while offering little-to-no leadership on how to do so, you were correct. If you had thought the establishment Republican response would condemn the vitriol spewing from presidential candidate Donald Trump and his Tea Party supporters, without offering any policy changes whatsoever to the mean-spirited GOP platform, you were correct. If you had thought those right-wing crazies who idolize Trump would then turn on the establishment Republican messenger, you were also correct.
If you had made these predictions – as I had – you probably didn’t watch Obama’s speech, and you were justified in not doing so. What a complete waste of time this was. At least listening to Nero fiddle while Rome burned provided some musical entertainment for the weary masses.
From Robert Borosage of Campaign for America’s Future – Obama: The First Farewell:
If the economy is so strong, why are the people hurting? Here, Obama reiterated his passive voice populism. Americans “feel anxious” because we live in a time of “extraordinary change.” Technology is transforming our economy in “profound ways.” That’s why workers have less leverage, companies less loyalty, wealth and income is more concentrated. We have to make change our friend, and navigate its currents. He then offered a sensible, if modest, agenda on education, extending shared security guarantees, greater support for the working poor.
But technological change has always been with us. Globalization is the result of policy, not an act of nature. Yes, we have to navigate the changes wrought by technological change. But the reason Americans are “anxious” is that the rules have been rigged to favor the few, not because technology mandates less worker leverage or company loyalty.
The president did offer a dollop of more active voice populism later on, an unstated tribute to Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, when discussing the fierce debate over “what role government should play in making sure the system’s not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and biggest corporations.”
“Working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules…Food stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did. Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough; those decisions are made in boardrooms…”
“In this economy, workers and start-ups and small businesses need more of a voice, not less.”
Yet this populist frame led nowhere. The president offered no agenda for empowering workers, no pledge of executive action to give government contract workers the right to join a union. Instead he pledged only to “lift up many businesses” that are doing the right thing.
Borosage issued a similar critique on Obama’s foreign policy agenda, while praising Obama’s rhetoric on the need for bipartisanship and campaign finance reform in America’s political system. But, his concluding remarks were most telling of the Obama presidency:
Obama knows how to deliver a speech. Like Lincoln, he uses logic and common sense to stake his position and make his case. He has an author’s care about language. But in trying to describe our common ground, he has chosen not to “litigate the past,” either on our economic course or on our foreign policy follies. At a time when Americans had to learn clearly how failed conservative doctrines had led us into the fix we are in, the president chose not to issue the indictment. That was true at the start of his administration as he inherited a failed war and a collapsing economy. And it is true as his term draws to a close, despite the unrelentingly bitter partisan and ideological opposition he has endured.