I won’t be watching President Obama’s State of the Union speech. It’s not that I don’t enjoy his speeches — having seen more than of all other presidents combined — but the problem is the disconnect between Speechmaker Obama and President Obama. Speechmaker Obama is always “fighting for working families,” “battling powerful interests,” and advocating for “Main Street” over Wall Street.
But President Obama’s actions do not match his rhetoric. I saw Speechmaker Obama give a powerful speech in support of working families at the AFL-CIO convention in September, only to see President Obama back excise taxes on union and working families’ health care. Speechmaker Obama has railed against special interests, while the President made backroom deals with Big Pharma and appointed Wall Street insiders to key financial posts.
Now President Obama’s State of the Union gives him yet another chance to signal to his base that he “feels their pain.” But activists must take a “Show Me” approach to President Obama, demanding action on core campaign pledges rather than being mollified by the Speechmaker’s Siren call.
I’ve watched nearly all of Barack Obama’s great speeches since the start of 2008, and attended his powerful nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Denver. I was also present when Obama addressed the AFL-CIO in September, where he stated that “when organized labor succeeds, our middle class succeeds, and when our middle-class succeeds, the United States of America succeeds. That’s what we’re fighting for.”
Obama’s AFL-CIO Speech: Rhetoric vs Actions
President Obama’s September 15 speech to AFL-CIO Convention delegates in Pittsburgh perfectly embodies the disconnect between his oratory and actions.
After leading the crowd in chanting “Health Care Can’t Wait,” Speechmaker Obama told the assembled union audience everything they wanted to hear. And then President Obama failed to move forward on any of labor’s priorities, while backing an excise tax on so-called “Cadillac” (now described as “Chevrolet”) health benefit plans impacting a third of union members.
The President who identified himself as a strong ally of union households forced the AFL-CIO to spend political capital on preventing a tax on union families. A tax that he had long told labor that he opposed, and that he never told convention attendees in Pittsburgh.that he could possibly support.
Obama’s Health Care Speech
Remember Speechmaker Obama’s September 9 nationally televised health care speech that was widely viewed as getting the health care bill back on track? Our Paul Hogarth cited E.J. Dionne’s rosy assessment in the Washington Post: “It seemed as if a politician who had been channeling the detached and cerebral Adlai Stevenson had discovered a new role model in the fighting Harry Truman. For the cause of health-care reform, it was about time.”
But President Obama never adopted this fiery “fighting” Harry Truman style. By November he had returned to the sidelines on health care, leaving Harry Reid — never mistaken for Truman — leading the fight.
My Last Obama Speech: Afghanistan
The best evidence of how President Obama has maintained progressive support through words rather than actions could be his December 1 West Point speech on his Afghanistan war strategy. I turned the speech off after ten minutes, as it sounded too much like the Bush Administration.
But progressive sentiment on the blogosphere was surprisingly mixed toward Obama’s troop escalation. Even some who disagreed with him praised his “principled” decision making, his reliance on reasoned rather than emotional appeals, and the highly questionable claim that, despite the recent fraudulent Afghan election, this now dramatic escalation was “what he said he would do.”
Speechmaker Obama’s oratory had convinced much of his base to quietly accept an extension of George W. Bush’s war goals. And no matter how doubtful President Obama’s strategy appears in light of increased problems outside Afghanistan, his December speech appears to have chilled serious progressive dissent.
So I’ll skip watching the State of the Union. And I reached this decision well before learning of Obama’s politically disastrous plan to announce a three-year domestic spending freeze. Speechmaker Obama’s efforts to sell that economic plan to a Democratic base reeling from rising unemployment and stretched pocketbooks may even exceed his mighty oratory skills, and could leave President Obama’s base wondering what happened to the candidate they elected.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the new book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press). Randy discusses how to keep politicians accountable in The Activist’s Handbook
Republished with permission from Beyond Chron