Obama’s State of the Union: A framework for the nation’s future

WASHINGTON – In his final State of the Union address, delivered here last night, President Obama echoed the goals of those seeking progressive change in America: “opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids.”

He said “all that is within our reach,” but only if we reject the politics of jingoism and racism.

He did not cite Trumpism by name, but quoted Pope Francis as saying “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”

The President said, “‘We the People.’ Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we’ve come to recognize mean all the people,” bound by a common creed as Americans, “not as black or white or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born; not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans first.”

He acknowledged, however, that our democracy is being undermined today because “the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.”

“If we want a better politics,” the President said, “it’s not enough to just change a Congressman or a Senator or even a President; we have to change the system to reflect our better selves.

“We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections.”

In many ways, Obama’s speech last night was emblematic of his entire presidency. He was unflinchingly honest in his assessment of the state of our nation. He was more explicitly pro-worker than any president in modern history. Yet his prescriptions for change lacked the strong medicine that’s needed cure our present ills and to prevent them from re-occurring.

For example, he pointed out that today working people are more liable to lose their jobs because “companies have less loyalty to their communities.”

He said that “after years of record corporate profits, working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at the expense of everyone else; or by allowing attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered.”

Yet instead of suggesting new legislation to require corporate responsibility or to create new jobs, Obama pushed an often-tried and unsuccessful economic cure: a trade agreement.

He urged passage of the Trans Pacific Partnership, which, among other things, creates a corporate-run tribunal with the power to make decisions that would supersede national worker protection laws.

Moreover, instead of offering a plan to protect union rights, the President suggested expanding unemployment insurance so that “if a new job doesn’t pay as much, there should be a system of wage insurance in place so that he can still pay his bills.”

Unions have called this plan a measure that would keep wages at minimal levels.

In his speech, the President listed the many real accomplishments of his Administration. First and foremost is the Affordable Care Act, through which nearly eighteen million American have gained health care coverage, whether or not they have pre-existing health problems.

Yet profit-driven insurance companies remain at the center of the American healthcare system and we are still paying more for healthcare than any other country and getting less.

Furthermore, Obama very justifiably took credit for bringing us out of the worst economic crisis this nation has faced in generations. Yet instead of putting in place programs and policies that would have created new jobs and outlawed the type of corporate behavior that created the recession, the Obama Administration merely bailed out big financial corporations and institutions.

Today, as President Obama said in his speech, “More and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top.” Moreover, most working people are earning less today than they were ten years ago and the risk of a new recession is still with us.

There is no evidence that President Obama ever acted in bad faith. Indeed, all the evidence points to him sincerely believing in what he said in many different ways last night: with a few tweaks, the American system as it is can meet the economic challenges of today.

Proof of his sincerity is that he said something truly remarkable. Traditionally, American politicians are expected to try to appear infallible.

Obama broke that rule.

He said: “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”

Obama did not say that many of his efforts to improve the lives of the American people have been crippled by an unprecedented onslaught of lies and slander from right wingers and racists. As a result, twenty percent of the American people still believe he is foreign born and not qualified to be president.

Nor did Obama point out that both Lincoln and Roosevelt relied on something that did not exist throughout most of his Administration: the power of massive grassroots movements pushing for progressive social change.

However, the President pointed to the need for such movements today. He said “Changes in our political process – in not just who gets elected but how they get elected – that will only happen when the American people demand it.

“So, my fellow Americans … our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen. To vote. To speak out … To stay active in our public life so it reflects the goodness and decency and optimism that I see in the American people every single day.”

Obama came into office pledging to continue to build Organizing for America, a broad-based community movement that would help mobilize the nation to initiate and back a progressive agenda.

If that movement had continued, perhaps the Obama Administration would have been better able to overcome the attacks from those who benefit from economic and social injustice.

Today, there are more people organizing for progressive change on more fronts than in the 30s. The lesson we should learn from the past seven years is that we must keep these movements vibrant, united and growing.

As Obama said, “… progress is not inevitable. It is the result of choices we make together. And we face such choices right now. Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people?

“Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?”

Across our nation, people are answering the second question with a resounding “yes.”

If that “yes” gets louder and louder, perhaps we can actually build a future that will turn into reality the vision Obama expressed.

In his speech, Obama assured us that “a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I’ll be right there with you as a citizen – inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that have helped America travel so far.”

As progressives, we can look forward to Obama playing a powerful role in our movement.

Photo: Evan Vucci/AP


Larry Rubin
Larry Rubin

Larry Rubin has been a union organizer, a speechwriter and an editor of union publications. He was a civil rights organizer in the Deep South and is often invited to speak on applying Movement lessons to today's challenges. He has produced several folk music shows.