Socialist Alternative

The Empty Populism of Obama’s State of the Union Address

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By Patrick Ayers, Seattle

In his State of the Union address, Obama spoke to two audiences. While at times striking a populist tone, raising his voice against inequality, and attacking Republican obstructionism, the president’s attempt to win back support among frustrated voters rang hollow.

Populist tone aside, the substance of Obama’s carefully crafted address sent a clear message to big business and the Republican leadership that the White House was prepared to further compromise and betray the expectations of working people, immigrants, environmentalists, and other core constituencies whom the Democratic Party counts on to win elections. Even Obama’s widely reported order to raise the minimum wage of federal contractors to $10.10 was immediately exposed as a token gesture, impacting no current workers and only limited numbers of future contract workers.

Despite Obama’s emphasis on using his executive powers to act “with or without Congress,” he promised nothing that could even begin to address the deepening inequities ripping the country apart.

This year the response to the speech was not left solely to the fractured Republican Party. In yet another indication of the growing anger and ferment from below, the socialist response to Obama by Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant went viral, with more online views than the Tea Party response.

Obama in Crisis

The year 2013 was full of big setbacks for President Obama, including the scandal around the NSA’s spying programs, his failed attempt to launch a war with Syria, and a disastrous roll-out of Obamacare. While the government shutdown hurt the Republicans most, it also exposed the inability of the Democrats to stop their unpopular far-right agenda. Going into his fifth State of the Union address, Obama’s jobs ratings had fallen from 54 percent one year ago to 46 percent today, one of his lowest levels since entering office.

Faced with the question of what legacy he might leave behind, Obama used his annual speech to call for a “year of action.” He said, “That’s what most Americans want – for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.”

Yet anger at the political establishment has never been higher, and the magic of Obama’s oratory faded long ago. The television audience was estimated to be the lowest for a State of the Union since 2000. For many people, the speech was very similar to what they’ve heard before – full of vague promises that were unlikely to be fulfilled.

Empty Rhetoric: “With or Without Congress”

Obama warned Congress about the growing discontent in the U.S. After a year of increasing government dysfunction, Obama exhorted the Republicans to end their charade of obstructionism and meaningless votes on Obamacare. He said, “America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Obama pledged to act “with or without Congress,” and earlier in the day he issued an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 – although it will only count toward future contracts and will not apply to existing ones. Obama supported a bill in the Senate that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 for all workers in the U.S. over three years. But the Republican-dominated House is expected to block even such modest attempts.

The Republican House is a major obstacle to any substantial change, and executive orders won’t be enough to make up the difference. Moreover, where Obama is most aggressively using his executive authority, it’s to further the interests of big business.

Immigrant rights activists have noted that Obama has pursued the most aggressive deportation policy of any administration in modern history. Under his watch, NSA spying has dramatically expanded, alongside the expansion of drone warfare around the world.

While Obama stated that “climate change is a fact,” fossil fuel production has massively expanded under his watch, and pristine waters have been opened up to drilling. On top of this, Obama is now moving toward approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, encouraging increased production and burning of the dirty tar sands oil.

Rather than taking a stand for workers’ rights and the environment, Obama called for Congress to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP is called “NAFTA on steroids” by labor and environmental groups because of the threat it poses to the wages and living conditions of working people. His plan to create jobs was merely to enact new tax incentives: a dead-end strategy for addressing mass unemployment.

Under Obama, the growing inequality that he acknowledged in his speech has reached proportions not seen in the U.S. since 1917. Obama painted a rosy picture of the economy, but the recovery has been the weakest in sixty years. A massive jobs shortage remains, and nearly 50 million people are living in poverty.

It will take aggressive measures to meet the needs of working people in the coming period. But Obama and the Democrats have shown again and again they are not prepared to aggressively fight.

Dysfunction and Compromise

The reality is that we are unlikely to see anything substantial from Washington, D.C. in the coming year. Obama’s ability to act alone is limited, and Congress is a cesspool of inaction. Foreseeing this, Obama mainly used his speech to push for more compromise.

The Republicans had their own year of problems in 2013. They were blamed for the disastrous government shutdown in the fall as well as the sequester. Republican attacks on workers, women, LGBTQ folks, and people of color backfired among voters. Now, with the 2014 elections coming up, a section of the Republicans wants to avoid a repeat of these problems. They have gone on the offensive against the Tea Party and have recently worked out a number of limited compromises with the Democrats on the budget, the debt ceiling, and a farm bill.

Some of the language used by Obama in his speech was crafted in hopes of reaching further compromises. Unlike last year, he did not mention a “pathway to citizenship” when discussing immigration reform, a signal of his willingness to settle far short of what he asked for in the past.

The Democrats have bent the stick toward settling for just about any kind of compromise, and they have been willing to throw working people to the wolves. The recent bipartisan farm bill included $8 billion in cuts to food stamps. 850,000 people will see upwards of $90 less a month at a time of growing hunger and poverty when food stamps are needed more than ever.

2014 Elections

The inability of President Obama to deliver over the past five years has damaged the Democratic Party. From the beginning, Socialist Alternative explained that despite the huge hopes after the nightmare of George W. Bush, Obama was thoroughly tied to big business and would not be able to deliver.

We explained how the disappointment in Obama could open the door for all kinds of left-populist and genuine working-class movements and developments toward a new left, working peoples’ party, independent of corporate influence. We warned that if the left failed to fill the developing vacuum, big openings would exist for the right, including Tea Partiers, libertarians, ultra-neoliberals and other forces.

Incredibly, there is the possibility that the Republicans – who were hammered in the 2006, 2008, and 2012 elections – could not only defend their majority of the House, but could even take the Senate in the 2014 elections. In five states where Democrats are up for reelection, Obama’s approval rating is below 35 percent. A number of Democrats, including three who helped craft Obamacare, have decided to retire rather than face the humiliating prospect of being defeated in 2014.

This is not a sign of the strength of the Republicans. They face even greater popular opposition than the Democrats. Remember that in 2012 the Democrats won more votes in House elections, but Republicans still maintained a large majority in Congress. The only advantage that both parties might have at the moment is that voters hate their opponents more!

The possibility of a Republican House and Senate will inevitably stir fears among progressives, providing a fresh basis for the tired arguments of “lesser-evilism.” At the same time, many working people have illusions in more populist Democrats like Bill de Blasio, who won a crushing landslide victory in the New York City mayoral election. But while de Blasio echoes the aspirations of working people, he comes from the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party and maintains deep ties to big business. It should not be forgotten that in 2008 Obama also rallied hopes using left-populist rhetoric. Like Obama, de Blasio is likely to disappoint his supporters, (see “New York: Will de Blasio Deliver for Working People?” on

At points in his speech, Obama attempted to adopt the populist approach that de Blasio, Elizabeth Warren, and some other Democrats have used to rebuild an enthusiastic Democratic Party base. While Obama’s populist credibility has been severely undermined by his record of betrayals, across the country the Democratic Party will use ballot measures on the minimum wage, small reforms favoring women and people of color, or token measures against the super-rich to whip up its base to turn out for the November elections.

It is therefore all the more crucial that labor, social movements, and the left develop an independent working-class electoral alternative to cut across the Democrats’ shallow attempts to co-opt working-class opposition to their broken system. The election success of Kshama Sawant in Seattle, the great campaign of Ty Moore in Minneapolis, and the victory of the two dozen “Independent Labor” candidates in Ohio point to the growing potential for independent left challenges in the coming period. Socialist Alternative argues for building a new party of working-class people – a voice for the 99%. (For more explanation, see “Obama`s Support Falling – We Need a New Party for Working People.”)

The Socialist Response

Obama’s address was followed by responses from a divided Republican Party. But this year a response also appeared from the left and Occupy Wall Street.

In an initiative originating from a Twitter suggestion the day before Obama’s State of the Union address, Seattle’s socialist council member, Kshama Sawant, gave a live response that Occupy Wall Street, The Stranger (“Seattle’s Only Newspaper”), and others promoted via social media. Over 70,000 watched the YouTube video in the first 72 hours – more views than either the Republican or the Tea Party response. This shows the search for an alternative to the pro-capitalist policies of the two parties, and it is an example of the potential for independent politics in the period we are entering.

With the mounting anger at Wall Street and the deep disappointment with Obama, there are undoubtedly historic opportunities to begin turning the tide against the corporate onslaught in 2014.

Obama was forced to speak about inequality and raising the minimum wage. We can’t wait for a modest increase in the minimum wage, phased in over years. Obama called for a “year of action” on his agenda, but working people are also poised to take that slogan into our own hands, behind our own agenda. offers an excellent opportunity. Get involved with the week of action in March and help build mass demonstrations for a $15/hour minimum wage on May Day. Join Socialist Alternative in the struggle.

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