Obama returned to the U.S. House of Representatives chamber on Tuesday victorious from the general election only a few months ago. In November Americans across the country with vote after vote, made their voice clear in their rejection of right-wing conservative policies of tax breaks for the rich and corporate welfare, as well as homophobia and sexism. This was the America that Obama was addressing.
At the same time we should also pay attention, not just to the American public at home, but to the people in the chamber with him. In the very from row, in fact, was his cabinet; hand picket by the president to plot out the course he was set on by the American people. But who are these faces? Many of them are the same people who are, at the very least, complicit in the market crash that got us into this recession in the first place. Not the least of which is the newly appointed John Kerry, a multi-billionaire who was formally one of the richest people in the Senate.
True to form, President Obama’s address did a lot to reassure the corporate interests, and their representative in that chamber, that he would continue to be their champion for historically low taxes and hands off government oversight. He opened with a report on how much the economy has improved over the last two year. But only later does he mention that the bulk of this recovery has gone to the richest 1%, while the wages of working people have stagnated, and their debt has continued to mount. It is a to suggest that the state of the union is good for anyone but the wealthy elite.
Obama’s address was a mixture of hardcore conservative policies such as the so-called ‘entitlement reform’ and education reform, sprinkled with exciting sounding programs designed to invoke memories of the New Deal and Great Society, all tied together with calls for bipartisanship and patriotic chest pounding.
The most frightening of Obama’s initiatives was touched on early in the address, that is cuts to Medicare and ‘entitlement reform’. Obama has made clear that he is in complete bipartisan agreement with the congress that the most vulnerable Americans should have to carry the weight of the burden for this economic crisis and the federal budget deficit. The cuts to Medicare, along with future cuts to Social Security and Medicaid that are also being discussed with increasing frequency, would be a huge blow to working people, especially the elderly and retirees, and our response should be a resounding “Hands off!” These are not “entitlements” to people with their hands out, but benefits that workers have earned through a lifetime of work.
One issue that seemed to get the most applause was Obama’s comments on immigration reform. There has been increasing talk about this in the congress in recent months since the election. Generally what is being discussed is streamlining the path to citizenship for immigrants who are already here while at the same time further militarizing our border and keeping future undocumented immigrant out. This humanitarian talk about immigration reform comes from a president whose administration has carried out more deportations than we have seen in decades. These deportations are carried out because the capitalist “free market” is a chaotic free-for-all system without any centrally coordinated planning, so it cannot support full-employment for everyone, and instead brings the hammer down on the most vulnerable workers. Citizenship should be guaranteed for all, regardless of documentation, and a living-wage job should be a human right for all workers.
Amidst all the liberal rhetoric also resonated a familiar conservative message in regards to war and US foreign policy. Our president, who in his youth could be seen protesting the Vietnam war, continued the policy of ‘staying the course’ in Afghanistan. Obama announced that by the end of 2014 the war in Afghanistan will be won, and the US can begin to bring troop home. The likely outcome of this will be a continued military presence in the region, coupled with continued support in terms of funding and weapons to ensure a pro-western government is maintained in the impoverished nation. What was only briefly touched on was that to this administration the war on terror doesn't end in Afghanistan.
Obama gave us a picture of things to come when he mentioned how Al-Quida is now retreating to other nations including Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. In the past year Obama has dramatically increased military intervention in these regions and this trend will likely continue in the months and years to come. Even if this were a successful way to stomp out terrorism (which it isn't) what is left behind is not democratic governments but corrupt puppet regimes that are friendly to US and global business interests. Workers and poor farmers in these countries have nothing to show for these efforts except bloodied and war-torn communities, which only fans the flames of resentment and desperation that breeds terrorism.
Obama also laid out lots of exciting sounding programs for his coming term, designed to establish him as a liberal, worker-friendly president. It is difficult to comment on them here and now because specifics on these plans are not yet forthcoming, but if these measures are anything like the so-called “recovery” we have seen so far, they will leave much to be desired. For example, he called for raising the minimum wage to only $9/hour, which would be a small step forward, but it would not be enough for many to live on. According to the U.S. census report released in December 2011, almost half of all Americans – 147 million Americans – are living in poverty or just above the poverty line.
Socialists, of course, support any and all reforms, no matter how limited they are, that create a better standard of living for working people. And the President touched on a lot of meaningful topics from gun control, to voter ID laws, to reviving the manufacturing industry, to rebuilding infrastructure, to environmental reform, to taking meaningful action on violence against women. But history shows us that the Democratic Party, and this administration in particular, is not all that interested in making sure that these pressing matters are fully addressed.
These initiatives, like Obama’s stimulus package in 2009 and the Democrat’s Job’s Bill in 2011, are a drop in the bucket compared to the billions upon billions of dollars that big business is sucking out of the economy at the expense of working people. A recovery won’t come from the representatives of big business in the congress or the white house. Real freedom from poverty and oppression can only come when capitalism and its representatives are overthrown, but the first steps to this involves working people and youth coming together to build a broad grassroots left challenge to the two parties of big business.
A new political party, rooted in working class communities and funded not by corporate backers but by working people, could pose a challenge to the ruling elite that could put the power of working people into action to win a better world. This party hasn't been built in the US yet, but if we look around the world to Greece, Spain, and especially in South Africa, workers are making important steps in this direction that we here in America can learn from. To make this future a reality we first must break from the Democrats and Republican, and their masters on Wall Street, and fight for a socialist world that will provide for all.