At question is the basic American dream: the assumption that a decent life can be earned by hard work.
The president certainly can deliver a speech. Last night, he showed he could do a Clinton one better, delivering an hour-long speech packed with policy initiatives, with rhetorical flourishes to rouse his audience. Empowered by his re-election and the progressive majority coalition that he has helped to forge, President Obama revealed the scope and the limits of his liberal vision in his State of the Union address last night. He showed his firm grip on the views and values of the American center – and challenged the Republican Congress to join or expose how out of step they are.
“They deserve a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote.” If the emotional climax was the appeal on gun reform, the central focus of the speech was on a plan for jobs, growth and reviving the American middle class – creating “an economy that works for the many and not just the few.”
Here the president offered bold initiatives wrapped in an austerity straitjacket: Investment to create a world-class modern infrastructure. A manufacturing strategy to give companies incentives to create jobs here. An industrial policy focused on clean energy. Investment in education and training from universal pre-K to action to make colleges more accountable. Raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation, lifting the floor so that a full-time worker can lift his or her family out of poverty. Comprehensive immigration reform to bring millions out of the shadows. Promise zones and youth jobs targeting impoverished urban and rural neighborhoods. Paycheck fairness for women. Refinancing for “responsible homeowners.”
He challenged the wingnuts on climate change, and made a powerful appeal for action on gun violence. Foreign policy received less attention, serving mostly as a rhetorical bridge from the economic argument to the appeal on gun violence.
The era of small government is over, the president seemed to be saying, the era of smart and active government has begun.
Progressives will surely be pleased by the president’s audacity and scope. There is much worth fighting for in the speech.
But its limits are most revealing. This was more New Democrat than populist. And by omission, the president chose not to break with many of the bipartisan shibboleths of the failed conservative era.
The president vowed to create manufacturing jobs here – but advocated more corporate trade accords, the very policies that helped rack up record trade deficits and shipped jobs abroad. Breaking up the big banks and continuing the effort to shackle Wall Street got no mention. The need to empower workers to bargain collectively as central to reviving a middle class was omitted – as was the relentless assault on unions that brought us the broad middle class. While the president supports lifting the floor with the minimum wage, he said nothing about fixing the ceiling – the perverse CEO compensation packages that give executives multimillion-dollar personal incentives to plunder their companies and cook the books received no mention. He called for bipartisan reform to make voting easier, but made nary a mention of the flood of big money that now corrupts our politics.
In fealty to his Wall Street mentor, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and now to a public opinion that he has helped to consolidate, the president continues to champion austerity – another $1.5 trillion over 10 years to reach the arbitrary $4 trillion deficit reduction total – in a time of mass unemployment and slow growth. He called for “balanced” deficit reduction, joining the closing of loopholes with cutting excess from Medicare rather than benefits, keeping Social Security out of his speech.
The president’s current budget projects reducing domestic investment down to levels of the economy not seen since Eisenhower. He offered a grand bargain to achieve further reductions and pledged that his new proposals will not add a dime to the deficit.
The Congressional Budget Office already projects slower growth and rising unemployment this year than last, in part due to austerity. The deficit is already down by nearly half in relation to the economy over the last three years. Lowing deficits by putting people to work should be the focus now, not more austerity (as ironically, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio argued in his contradictory Republican reply).
And there’s the rub. Republicans will insure that Washington is focused on deficit reduction for another half-year minimally. With the president echoing the need to reduce deficits, more Americans will come to believe, mistakenly, that deficit reduction now will help the economy. That virtually ensures that the president will find himself trapped in a fiscal straitjacket that harshly chokes his investment agenda. He summons America to invest and act while reinforcing the obstacles that stand in the way.
This article was originally published on February 13 on the blog of The Campaign for America's Future - a strategy centre for the US' progressive movement