Give America A Raise: Obama’s State of the Union

Robert Borosage

In a State of the Union address that lasted over an hour, President Obama called on Congress to raise the minimum wage, announced he would act immediately by issuing an executive order to lift the lowest wages of government contract workers, and urged companies to lift workers’ wages as well.

This was far from the president’s best speech, but as Republican CNN Analyst Alex Castellanos quipped in the best line of the night, “a speech by Barack Obama is a lot like sex.  The worst there ever was is still excellent.”

The president went through a long laundry list of proposals and actions, intent on demonstrating that this could be a “year of action,” with or without the Congress.  But the most telling parts of the speech were less the proposals than the framing. And here what the president said and didn’t say pose challenges to both parties in the coming months.

The President wants to sell this economy

Obama began the speech with an effective evocation of ordinary heroes acting to “make the state of our union strong.”  That led to a long riff on the economic recovery:

And here are the results of your efforts: the lowest unemployment rate in over five years; a rebounding housing market — (applause) — a manufacturing sector that’s adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s — (applause) — more oil produced — more oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world, the first time that’s happened in nearly twenty years — (applause) — our deficits cut by more than half; and for the first time — (applause) — for the first time in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world’s number one place to invest; America is.

This culminated in a “morning in America” prediction that this could be “a breakthrough year for America. After five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth.”

Right up front, the least convincing portion of the president’s speech. Nearly two-thirds of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.  They think the economy is still lousy.  And they are right.  20 million people are in need of full-time work.  Five years into the official recovery and we haven’t regained the jobs we had when the economy collapsed.  The top 1% is capturing nearly all the income growth since the recovery began.

The various Republicans responses — official, Tea Party, Latino, Paulista, whatever – displayed a striking absence of ideas or energy. But they all joined Americans in decrying the lousy economy.  If the 2014 election is fought with Republicans running against the economy and Democrats trying to sell our progress, Democrats, and the country, will be in big trouble.

The President punts on the new populism

Obama pivoted from the “breakthrough year” back to the harsher reality that this economy isn’t working for working people.   Profits are up, “people at the top have never done better,” but “the cold hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone get ahead. And too many aren’t working at all.”

So why is this?  Who rigged the rules that broke the middle class?  What ideas and policies led us astray?  What needs to be fixed to make it right?  Here the president went into passive voice:

“Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on.”

Inequality just happened to us.  It wasn’t the folly of trickle-down, supply side voodoo economics.  It wasn’t a corporate assault on workers and unions. It wasn’t bipartisan trade policies that racked up unprecedented and unsustainable trade deficits while hollowing out manufacturing.  It wasn’t Wall Street freeing itself from regulation and blowing up the economy in a speculative wilding.

Passive voice populism doesn’t cut it.  It doesn’t help people understand how we got here nor how we get out. On the new populism, the president chose to punt.

And his agenda reflected that.  Sensible initiatives to expand R&D, do more to capture a lead in renewable energy, encourage cutting edge innovation.  But no call for full employment.  No demand that Congress act to rebuild the country and put people to work. No reiteration of the need to get billionaires and global corporations to pay their fair share of taxes so we can make public investments vital to America’s future. And, with Democrats sitting on their hands, the president dutifully made a somewhat dispirited call to pass fast track trade authority in order to run another set of trade accords through Congress. Even the president didn’t look like he believed what he was peddling.

The President will call out Republican obstruction

The speech highlighted Obama’s willingness to act on his own, but the more important theme was to call for action in vital areas where Republicans are standing in the way of the American majority:  Raise the minimum wage; extend jobless benefits; pass equal pay for women,  paid family leave, immigration reform, universal pre-K. The president framed much of this agenda in the context of the reality that women work, and recycled Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi’s theme: “When women succeed, America succeeds.”   The Republican war on women includes more than idiocy over contraception and “forcible rape.” It includes a refusal to act on an economic agenda vital to America’s workers, and particularly to its working women.

And Obama’s defense of health reform showed Democrats how to stand up and defend the law.  It is notable that the Republican response did not call for repealing Obamacare. The economy, not health care, will drive the election debate this fall.

Towards an Obama Doctrine

Although it came at the end of a long speech when only the few and the brave were still paying attention, the president devoted far more time and energy to foreign policy than expected.  This reflects the reality of second term presidents generally: it’s a lot easier to act abroad than to get anything done at home.  It also reflects the president’s apparent and likely mistaken sense that the economic crisis is behind us.

On security issues, Obama was at his most forceful.  He celebrated the success in drawing down two wars. He pledged that he would never send Americans to “be mired in open-ended conflicts” or to be put in harm’s way unless “truly necessary.”  He reiterated his call for America to “move off of permanent war footing.”

Obama is intent on curbing, if not ending, the excesses of the GWOT, the global war on terror:  “prudent” limits on drones, closing Guantanamo, restraining the NSA.

He then made an extended defense of America’s active diplomacy – in Iran, in Syria, in the Israeli-Palestinian thicket.  He vowed to veto the foolish bipartisan effort to sabotage negotiations with Iran by passing renewed sanctions.

Liberal critics will argue the president is simply seeking to make America’s global intervention more affordable and less unpopular. But surely it is better to have a president making a forceful case for diplomacy than a feckless case for wars we should never have fought.

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