President Barack Obama delivered a well-calibrated State of the Union speech last week that was combative in parts, forward looking as a whole, and carefully designed to influence the broad swath of independent voters who consider themselves in the center of the American political spectrum.
Judging by polls after the speech that showed higher approval ratings, he hit his mark.
Obama outlined policies that centered on growing the economy in the near and longer-term: He called for rebuilding the manufacturing base, an end to subsidies for big oil companies and a broad approach to energy that includes new ecologically sound technologies, fairness in taxation, a modernized education system, help for the victims in the housing crisis, immigration reform, and cuts in military spending.
Given the low level of confidence the American people hold in banks, financial institutions and Wall Street, the president announced creation of a special Department of Justice unit to investigate financial crimes.
These are all pieces of a program that the president says can and must be won if the economy is to recover from crisis and move forward. He called it a blueprint for “An America Built to Last.”
In some cases, the president’s proposals are spot on. Investing in clean energy and education, getting rid of Bush-era tax giveaways to the ultra-wealthy, passing the DREAM Act, providing more help for homeowners holding underwater mortgages and rebuilding the manufacturing base of the nation can help create jobs. The proposals made by the president can help alleviate the daily insecurities of millions – insecurities that result from capitalism’s economic crisis.
It is important to recognize, however, that the president’s proposals are just minimum proposals, and that much more will be needed to truly tackle the unemployment and poverty crisis.
Plus, at a time when the racial edge of income inequality is most severe, special steps must be taken to close income, education and health gaps caused by racism.
In some cases, the president’s speech contained proposals that the labor and people’s movements may find problematic.
The “all of the above” approach he said was needed for energy development is not without its negatives.
For example, fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, which is the removal of natural gas by breaking underground shale, is a controversial policy, to say the least. Toxic chemicals used in the process have been found in underground wells and drinking water. There is even evidence that fracking causes earthquakes.
A foreign policy that includes new military bases in the Pacific or threats and sanctions against Iran could set in motion new dangers of war and violence or loss of life and money that threaten the interests of the American people and the world. NATO intervention in Libya, for example, was more of a disaster for both the people of Libya and the stability of the world than the “official line” is willing to admit.
There were many applause lines in the speech. One such section was the president’s case for comprehensive immigration reform and passing the DREAM Act. Standing up for immigrant young people at a time when they are being vilified and criminalized is praiseworthy. It breaks down barriers and helps influence in a better direction those who may be under the sway of anti-immigrant rhetoric.
The president excels at threading the political needle and taking combative, principled stances on issues considered left-of-center. Unfortunately, however, in his speech, as he has at other times, he tossed right-wing compromises into the mix that were not just wrong, but unnecessary, even from a “pragmatic” point of view.
By way of example, he coupled his proposal for higher taxes on billionaires and millionaires and eliminating the Bush tax cuts for that group with calls for “reform” of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Progressives know all too well what too many of our politicians mean when they say these programs need to be “reformed” or “strengthened.” We don’t believe that the president needs to hold out the prospect of cuts in Social Security to sweeten the idea of the rich paying their fair share in taxes. Poll after poll shows that the people already have the president’s back on taxes and that they oppose any cuts in Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.
Unfortunately, the State of the Union speech makes too many such trade offs. Again, if the argument is that such tradeoffs are needed to win the support of the broad center, we say, “look at all the polls.”
The majority of Americans, Republicans included, want no cuts in Social Security or Medicare.
The majority of Americans, Republicans included, are furious at the profiteering Wall Street banks.
The majority of Americans, Republicans included, want the rich to pay their fair share in taxes.
With the rampant far-right obstructionism, the continual barrage of political attacks and the racism directed at him and the labor and people’s movements, it takes more than opinion polls to influence politics and events. It takes mass action and unity at the grassroots.
President Obama deserves credit for delivering a State of the Union message that clearly shows he hears the concerns of the people of the United States.
We must not forget in this election year that in contrast there are the Republicans. Their single-minded goal is the defeat of that president.
Photo: President Barack Obama greets soldiers following his remarks at Buckley Air Force Base in Denver, Colo., Jan. 26, as part of his post-State of the Union tour. (White House/Pete Souza)