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What Is To Be Done About the State of Our Union?

Lydia Howell: Nine months after taking office, Obama began slamming the Democratic Party’s liberal/progressive base for daring to notice, much less criticize, his corporate-friendly policies and center-right positions. In the wake of his Simpson-Bowles Deficit Commission, Obama will likely make a sober call for national sacrifice.

"We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both." --Supreme Court Association Justice Louis Brandeis, served 1916-1939

obama state of the union

“Power concedes nothing without a struggle. It never has and it never will.” --Frederick Douglass, escaped slave,19th century abolitionist, pro-women and labor rights

Two years into President Barack Obama’s first term, you won’t be reminded of FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society. We’ll get a re-run of Bill Clinton’s triangulation (without the theatrics of “empathy” that Comeback Kid excelled at) while imitating George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”, that emphasized Obama’s collaboration with Republicans and the remaining Blue Dog Democrats -- oops, I mean “bi-partisanship” , Except less inspiration and more of Obama‘s lauded “pragmatism”.

There are plenty of issues facing the nation from never-ending wars to a stalemate on climate change, crumbling infrastructure and the public education crisis. But, all polls agree that jobs and the economy--not the deficit-- are Americans’ top priority across the political spectrum.

Obama will aim to further lower his supporters’ expectations. Nine months after taking office, Obama began slamming the Democratic Party’s liberal/progressive base for daring to notice, much less criticize, his corporate-friendly policies and center-right positions. In the wake of his Simpson-Bowles Deficit Commission, Obama will likely make a sober call for national sacrifice.

The president’s recent Wall Street Journal editorial was hailed as Obama’s “reconciliation” with Big Business, who in spite of extending Bush’s tax cuts and refusal to restore the post-Great Depression regulations that previously protected the economy until the Bush casino era. Continuing the failed policies of the last 30 years, Obama has bowed to the Tea Party resentment of unionized public workers by announcing a freeze on government workers’ wages and that 15% will be laid off. This adds further injury to Obama’s utter silence on the Employee Free Choice Act, that would have restored American workers’ right to organize that his union supporters expected him and the Democrats to push. There are rumors that Social Security and Medicaid are to be on Obama’s deficit-cutting chopping block fulfilling his Wall Street and insurance company sponsors’ desire.

So who will Obama be calling on to make more sacrifices? Wall Street financiers have collected their latest bonuses, bailed-out big banks refuse to make loans to job-creating small businesses and profitable multinational corporations continue to lay off workers and pay a 15% tax rate compared to working families paying 15%. One-third of profitable corporations--such as Shell Oil last year--pay nothing at all.

In the kabuki theatre of American two-party politics, Obama supporters have blamed Republicans for all of the president’s cave-ins to the rich and powerful at the expense of the unemployed and invisible. But, coming into office, Obama filled his economic team with the same Clinton-era de-regulators who helped Republicans create the 2008 Wall Street crisis. His newest appointments reveal the reality of who’s interests Barack Obama actually represents and his liberal-progressive supporters must face facts.

Obama’s new chief of staff is JP Morgan executive, William Daley who was instrumental in the Clinton Administration in pushing the job-exporting NAFTA. Heading up the National Economic Council is former $5M a year, Goldman Sachs bankster Gene Sperling who Dean Baker, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, describes as having “a horrible track record of supporting policies that were bad for the country and good for Wall Street.”

With jobs (not deficits) the #1 concern of 73% of Americans, Obama picked General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt to head his Jobs Council. In the last three years, Immalet closed 29 factories and laid-off 3,000 workers. Stacking the table with corporate representatives savvy at gaming Wall Street and shipping US factories overseas while aiming for more “free trade” agreements in places like Colombia is about as tone-deaf as one can get in response to a public experiencing high economic anxiety.

Barack Obama got a two year free ride from the people who worked the hardest to get him elected--labor unions, healthcare activists, feminists, communities of color, environmentalists, youth and anti-war activists. After the election, the Organizer-in-Chief reduced his supporters to celebrity-worshipping cheerleaders. When progressives began belatedly protesting Obama’s hybrid of Reagan-Clinton-Bush II policies, he contemptuously dismissed his base with insults worthy of a rightwing Fox pundit.

We are in a Second Gilded Age in the making since Obama’s hero Ronald Reagan came to office 30 years ago and it is destroying not only the standard of living for everyday people, but, our democracy, too.

Congressional Democrats and Obama have been telling liberals to be happy with half a loaf--- but, that loaf has been greatly reduced --often only to crumbs. The crumbs often come at an insanely high price like $700 Billion tax-breaks for billionaires and millionaires.

As outsourcing jobs continues (often with government subsidies!) , more homes are foreclosed and any government program that addresses human needs is slashed further, progressives of all stripes must revive the kind of organizing that made every gain in social and economic justice possible in the 1930s and 1960s.We can certainly make use of 21st century communications technology---especially as we build alternatives to corporate media that censor out almost all progressive ideas and actions. But, to counter the rightwing Tea Party’s faux populist narrative, we have to re-learn (and propagate) the “people’s history” of social movements as immortalized by the late Howard Zinn.

What might this mean?

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  • Re-build the labor union movement to be far more racially inclusive than it’s ever been, expanding to speak for the jobless and to challenge corporate welfare and exporting the US manufacturing. Too many Americans have been brainwashed to think decent wages are a gift while CEO multi-million dollar salaries are a god-given right.
  • Re-build both the civil rights and women’s movements to be about far more than “firsts” and “success” for a few corporate tokens. Galvanize the most vulnerable and left out---abandoned inner city communities of color and rural/small towns pillaged by Wal-Mart, single mothers and the poor--be the yard stick by which policies are measured.
  • Bring together “blue/green coalition” of labor and environmentalists to work on sustainable ways to meet human needs . Revive the lost ideas of “the commons” and the public interest not only for job-creation but to reinvigorate grassroots participation in our rapidly failing democracy.

Progressives must loudly ask the question that President Obama won’t ask in his State of the Union speech: Who is our economy for? An entire society---or a few thousand wealthy people and a sliver of a middle-class?

Obama has rewarded billionaire Wall Street speculators and multinational corporations gutting our manufacturing while telling workers we must “sacrifice’ with wage cuts and lose job benefits in order to be ‘competitive” with exploited workers in foreign sweatshops. After Wall Street gambled away 40% of people’s 401k retirement savings, (under the cover of his Deficits Commission), Obama is poised to force us to work until almost 70---even as a huge number of the long-term unemployed are over age 50; proposed cuts to Social Security benefits and “voluntary privatization” is one more step to a complete reversal of the New Deal. Even his health insurance “reform” was designed by corporate insiders without strong oversight to insure that real changes (like including people with pre-existing conditions) will actually happen while premiums (and profits) still rise.

For those still defending Obama as a “progressive”, his tax-cut deal primarily benefited the already obscenely wealthy in order to continue unemployment benefits as six people apply for each job opening. Corporate loopholes continue as those making $40,000 will actually see their taxes go up.

Remember it was not a Republican but, a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who dismantled Aid to Families With Dependent Children (aka welfare established during the New Deal). The economic aristocracy has always hated Social Security, feeling that people are expendable once they are too old to make profits for the wealthy. Even as lay-offs continue and November saw mostly more temp positions, the oligarchs are now called “the job creators.”

But, most of the jobs being created are minimum-wage to $12 an hour service jobs. Like 21st century serfs kneeling before the corporate gentry, more and more Americans are supposed to be grateful to cobble together two or three part-time jobs or, if more skilled, go from one six-month contract to another. News flash: no bank will give you a home loan when you’re a contract worker. This is what many of Clinton’s “knowledge economy” jobs (computer programming, engineering) have become---when they haven’t been shipped outright to India.

Where is the economic foundation for people to buy even a modest home and raise a couple of kids? What kind of country makes college an elite privilege or mostly debt peonage with no guarantee of a decent job? How can society make all its decisions based on making the top 1% richer at the expense of everyone else?

Progressives have to be willing to look for our inspiration outside the Democratic Party, which has a long history of co-opting social justice movements. From Cold War anti-communism to Clinton’s New Democrats and Obama’s “bi-partisanship”, liberals have been bought off with ultimately empty “access” to Beltway power , pressured with fear-mongering about the rightwing or if truly on the Left, just purged outright .

Everywhere one looks there’s plenty of real work needing to be done: repair and update of our physical infrastructure, the shift to clean, efficient energy, public transportation, clean up our environment, raise academic achievement by lowering class size and re-imagine education for a more diverse society and more complex world, create reliable, quality care for children and the elderly since most women are in the paid workforce. On every level we need to re-design our communities to meet human needs in an environmentally sustainable way. Addressing all these issues would create tens of millions of jobs.

We need 21st century Freedom Schools that teach all of us progressive history and organizing skills. Workers must take over their unions and demand independence from the Democratic Party, running either their own candidates as independents or forming a Labor Party. We must combine political organizing with community-based “self-help”, mutual aide and culture as unions did in the 20th century through the 1950s, the Black Panther Party did in the 1960s and second -wave feminists did in the 1970s.

While certainly containing a significant strata of rightwing reactionaries, the Tea Party has also to some extent simply filled the vacuum of political frustration and economic fear that progressives left open while too many waited for Democrats and Obama to reverse the disastrous Bush-Cheney years. Now, we know that was just campaign hype to get our votes. European workers reject “austerity” measures in street protests, Latin American social democracy experiments represent the formerly invisible poor and the recent election in Tunisia overthrew a dictator of over 30 years. What will American progressives do to take our democracy into our own hands?

lydia howell

Lydia Howell

Lydia Howell is an independent journalist in Minneapolis, Minnesota, winner of the Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism. She is producer-host of “Catalyst: politics & culture”, available online at http;//