The annual State of the Union address is the president’s laundry list for Congress: what he wants to see them do in the next year. Except, of course, in a campaign year, when the State of the Union address is the president’s kick-off speech for his campaign. Given that this is an election year, and given that Congress was paralyzed by partisan squabbling last year, Obama’s State of the Union speech was unusually larded with admonitions for Congress to pass bills for the president to sign. This has been the modus operandi of the Obama administration: Congress is in charge, they’re responsible for this mess, it’s out of my hands.
Take, for instance, the lead issue in the State of the Union speech: jobs. After admonishing US corporations to bring jobs back to the US, Obama offers up a host of tax credit sweeteners, as if the federal government is wallowing in money right now. Commentators pointed out immediately that taxes are not the main reason for offshoring. Cheap labor, lack of labor laws and safety regulations, and closer proximity to commodities and parts are the main reasons corporations send jobs overseas. Obama didn’t say, “We’re ready to repeal labor laws; Congress, send me a bill and I will sign it!” Although that’s what it would take to move these jobs back here.
In fact, the Obama administration doesn’t need to do this on a federal level, because similar actions are occurring at the state level. Last week, Indiana became the 23rd state in the union to pass a “right-to-work” law that undermines labor unions, and a number of other states are considering doing the same. The Obama administration has chosen to remain silent on the “right-to-work” movement, which amounts to a strategic decision to passively support corporations’ efforts to create a Third-World underclass here in the US.
Likewise, his job training initiatives will help employers at the expense of students. A proposal to create a public-private partnership between corporations and community colleges begs the question: while students are learning how to measure, calculate, cut, solder, clean, and assemble, will they be learning civics, reading comprehension, history, or critical thinking? These latter skills are essential for an informed populace in a democratic society, as many Middle Eastern nations are learning today. Will we lose an important edge in our capacity for freedom and democracy in order to gain a competitive edge in the international job markets?
Many listeners celebrated Obama’s call to free K-12 students from standardized testing, expand work-study opportunities for college students, allocate more pay for teachers, extend the tuition tax credit, and lower college tuition rates. He didn’t say, however, where the money would come from for all of these expensive proposals.
No, instead he changed the subject to immigration reform, sending a deeply contradictory message: yes, we should pass laws allowing immigrant students to become naturalized citizens. But then he beat his chest about how he’s closed the borders by putting more “boots on the ground” than any previous president. These two statements don’t constitute an effective immigration reform policy, and certainly don’t fulfill the promise he made in his campaign three years ago to reform our broken immigration system. Under his presidency, that system has become more militarized—an overzealous arm of the anti-terrorism campaign—and has torn many families and communities apart.
Much has been written since the State of Union speech about Obama’s new taskforce to crack down on banks and mortgage lenders who engaged in shady lending practices in the past decade. It’s three years too late and millions of dollars short. The SEC and the Department of Justice have already covered this ground, suing big banks and their former CEO’s and extracting insufficient settlement payments—most of which were paid by shareholders of those companies, not the executives responsible for the misdeeds. The banks will argue strenuously and with great success that this is double jeopardy: they can’t be sued twice for the same crimes. Proponents’ arguments that the taskforce will uncover new crimes are not persuasive, given that that the taskforce will be staffed with many of the same lawyers from the SEC and the DOJ who pursued the earlier cases.
The clearest example of the Obama administration’s approach to governance can be seen in its energy and environmental policies. In his speech Obama said, “Tonight I’m directing my administration to open more than 75% of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.” So much for cracking down on oil company polluters in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf. He went on to say that hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) is okay, as long as companies tell us which chemicals they’re pouring into the ground. No mention was made of how those chemicals often migrate into groundwater and drinking water supplies, harming human, plant, and animal life. No mention was made of recent studies of earthquake activity near the deep-well disposal sites for contaminated fluids used in fracking.
Boasting that we have 100 years of natural gas reserves in the US, Obama ignored recent estimates by his own Energy Information Administration that show those reserves to be much lower—more than 40% lower, in fact, than earlier estimates. In addition, the US is set to become a net exporter of liquefied natural gas by 2016, belying Obama’s assumption that that our natural gas supply is for domestic use only.
The president then tossed a bone to environmentalists by calling for the opening of public lands to clean energy projects. Unfortunately, this shows the Democratic Party’s vast ignorance of the debate raging in environmental circles about such projects. Many enviros condemn the effort to place, for example, solar panels in a pristine and fragile semi-desert environment, when there are many private lands that could be used for clean energy development. The difference: energy companies would have to pay private landowners, when they could get access to public lands much more cheaply. Again, financial incentives to corporations trump environmental policy.
Most important are the elements missing from an Obama administration energy and environmental policy, primarily energy conservation plans and any effort to require power plants to clean up their carbon emissions. Corporations and the Republican Party have called these “job-killing” initiatives, and the Democratic Party has swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.
Aside from the tax credits for businesses to bring jobs home, the expensive educational initiatives, and the call to fund clean energy projects, the centerpiece of Obama’s State of the Union address, the words that everyone was waiting to hear were: “Here’s how we’re going to pay for all this.”
Again, Obama disappointed us. He made two, brief statements about funding for his proposals. First, he claimed that the federal government will get a peace dividend from ending the war in Iraq, which Congress should spend to pay down the deficit and fund infrastructure projects.
The peace dividend is a mirage. The US is still pouring billions of dollars into the War on Terror. Sure, not as much of it is going to Iraq, although we still have the largest US embassy in the world in Baghdad, and we’re still funding Iraqi infrastructure and security forces training there. But we’re pouring increasing amounts of money into secret and undeclared wars all across the Middle East and Africa, from Pakistan to Yemen, to Somalia. And let’s not forget Afghanistan, where the US military estimates we’ll be involved for at least the next decade or longer.
Secondly, Obama embraced Warren Buffet’s proposal to raise taxes on people who make more than a million dollars per year. This does not constitute a comprehensive, detailed tax plan. He didn’t say a single word about letting the Bush tax cuts expire, he didn’t mention raising taxes on carried interest (wages earned by hedge fund managers that are taxed at only 15%), or raising capital gains tax rates. He didn’t mention revising the alternative minimum tax to capture more wealthy taxpayers instead of middle-class taxpayers. He didn’t mention a special tax on investment transactions, nor did he make a case for the estate tax or closing loopholes that allow the wealthy to transfer their assets tax-free to their children and grandchildren. He didn’t discuss how many businesses in the US paid little or no tax on their profits last year. In short, he presented no plan to deal with the federal government’s fiscal woes. And that’s a massive failure of governance.
Congress bears some responsibility for not passing a comprehensive budget, but that doesn’t let the president off the hook for proposing a solution to the most important problem in the national political arena. Obama failed to do that, and in doing so, proved himself as much removed from reality and divorced from the concerns of average Americans as George W. Bush ever was.
Obama’s State of the Union speech can be viewed as a campaign speech, but it should also be viewed as a gauge for the state of his presidency. In spite of rhetoric meant to appeal to middle class Americans, his administration has done everything it can to help the wealthy maintain their privileges, and to help corporations erode democracy, workers’ rights, and the environment in pursuit of more profits for their shareholders. None of the Republican candidates for president would be better, but they also wouldn’t be much worse, and that makes me shudder for the future of democracy in America.