By BILL ONASCH
The annual ritual of President Obama’s State of the Union address to Congress (SOTU), required by law and custom, comes without any mandate for action. It has evolved into Reality TV viewed by tens of millions—but with less lasting impact than the style decrees of Fashion Police. It is one component of a Rubik’s Cube puzzle known as Separation of Powers created by the all white male property-owning Founding Fathers. When neither consensus nor compromise can be reached on major disputes with or within the American ruling class, it provides the fail-safe of gridlock.
Only once have these checks and balances praised in our high school civics classes completely broken down. When the then new Republican Party, perceived to be anti-slavery, elected Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860, most of the slave states refused to accept the vote and seceded from the USA. That split, of course, was soundly crushed in a bloody Civil War that did lead to the abolition of slavery—and the end of power sharing between the old vanquished slave-owner class and the newly triumphant capitalist class.
There have been numerous periods of gridlock over the years, but the present one since the Tea Party-driven Republican rout of the president’s party in the 2010 House elections is the longest and most bitter in living memory. Fueled by the deep pockets of maverick billionaires such as the notorious Koch family—whose founding father was a charter member of the ultra-right John Birch Society—they built a motley base of disgruntled strip-mall capitalists, gun fanatics, science-bashing climate change deniers, and Christian extremists eager to fight Darwin, birth control and same-sex marriage.
Taking advantage of the massive abstention of disillusioned Obama supporters, they won control of many state governments as well as the House. Last November, they tightened their stranglehold on Capitol Hill by winning a nine-seat majority in the Senate.
Favorite twin acts up
The mainstream of the boss and banker class has strong reservations about this transformation of their traditional favorite twin of the two parties they employ to run the government. They are more pragmatic than ideological, favoring stable government rather than constant confrontational stunts that fail to take care of business. With no serious challenge in sight from their mortal enemy—the working-class majority—most of the uber rich prefer seduction to rape, fraud over strong arm robbery. All in all, they have done quite well on Obama’s watch and they are aware that that this perfidious “friend” of labor was able to do things for them during the Great Recession that might have stirred up worker resistance if McCain or Romney had been at the helm.
There was some speculation among the chattering classes about GOP leaders trying to clean up their mean-spirited, loony image in time to convince patrons and public they are fit to govern before next year’s presidential election. There was precious little evidence of such a daunting make over before SOTU.
And the very next day after the president’s speech, they committed a stunning breach of protocol. Without even consulting the White House, the Republican Speaker of the House invited the head of a foreign government to explain to Congress the dangerous flaws in U.S. government foreign policy and military strategy.
They undoubtedly hoped to not only further tarnish the hated Lame Duck in the White House; they also seek to boost the prospects of their Zionist sister party in the March Israeli elections. As Lisa Goldman noted on the Aljazeera America site, “the sight of their prime minister giving a speech in perfect English to applauding American legislators—the last time Netanyahu spoke on Capitol Hill, he received 29 standing ovations—could be just the thing to sway voters on the fence.” And in lieu of honorarium, there are also moves to cut off the pittance of aid to the victims of war crimes in Gaza—carried out by the government led by their guest speaker.
While the ruling-class mainstream is certainly pro-Zionist—as is the president—using foreign leaders to dis the commander in chief in the halls of Congress is just not done. The rehab to break the addiction of mindless partisan aggression has so far failed.
President takes less congested high road
GOP focus on abuse of executive authority as well as scandals real and contrived has given the president a free pass on vulnerable issues such as war, civil liberties, the economy, and climate change affecting those who work for a living. With polling data and focus groups as inspiration, the Lame Duck flew in to what he does best—campaign stops across the country before and after SOTU. He hopes to frame public debate—not to influence Congress, but to trail blaze for a worthy successor in November 2016.
In his SOTU, the President sounded a bit like Reagan proclaiming “it’s morning in America again,” as he asserted we have moved beyond the “shadow of crisis.” He hailed the Labor Department report showing that more jobs were created in 2014 than in any other year of this century.
The statistics cited are accurate, and undoubtedly the job situation has improved over the depths of the Great Recession. But this partial picture ignores serious lingering problems. Even The Wall Street Journal observed the report was “marred by softer wages and a rise in workforce dropouts.” There are still nearly 18 million workers who want full-time jobs but can’t find one. And that doesn’t include millions more who have simply given up looking for work and are no longer being tracked. It was only these “dropouts” that have brought the official unemployment rate to 5.6 percent—down from the Recession peak of 10 percent.
For the second time in 2014, average wages actually declined in December. The average worker wage is lower today than when Obama took office.
The president acknowledged the growth in inequality during “recovery.” Choosing not to jaw bone about his $10.10 minimum wage proposal, he instead advocated boosting taxes on both wealth and income of the rich while giving tax breaks to the “middle class.” Such help for what has been his party’s historic base includes modest tax write-offs for child care and what has been exaggerated as “free” community college education. These proposals have been cheered at the pep rallies on the road—but are dead on arrival in Congress.
The president did reach out to the Republicans in one area sure to get bipartisan support and likely action—so-called Fast Track approval for negotiating further global economic pacts. This was the one topic the president’s most loyal of all supporters—the bureaucracy atop our unions—had to criticize.
With characteristic bluntness, Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union said, “The progressive plans proposed by President Obama in his State of the Union will do nothing to help the poor or the middle class if ‘fast track’ legislation and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal are passed by Congress. … ‘Fast track’ is just another name for the corrupt and undemocratic process that has been used to ram destructive trade deals through Congress; deals that have led to a systematic elimination of good jobs, have devastated our communities, and degraded our standard-of-living for the last 30 years.”
And what about the over-arching crisis for not just the United States but our entire planet—climate change? The president devoted four brief paragraphs to the greatest challenge humanity has yet faced. He took some pot shots at global-warming deniers and said, “The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.”
But the only “action” mentioned was the joint statement with the Chinese government made during an intermission in trade negotiations that he puffed up as a “historic announcement”—a scam we analyzed in some detail in a November Socialist Action article.
A socialist response to SOTU
The only socialist currently holding elected office in the United States is Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. While having some political differences with her Socialist Alternative party, Socialist Action endorsed her election campaign and has been supportive of her role in minimum-wage movement victories that have meant substantial raises for tens of thousands of low-wage workers in her city. On the night of SOTU she gave a perceptive video and written response to the president that was picked up on the Common Dreams site. She concluded, “We need to build our own political voice, a mass political party for working people. …We must work to build independent movements of working-class people … to challenge the domination of the 1%. Solidarity!”
Recalling the idiom of my Sixties youth—right on, sister Kshama! While respecting our own nuanced differences, socialists will play a vital role in reviving working-class unity in action.
Photo: Vice President Biden (left) and House Speaker Boehner applaud Obama during his State of the Union Address. Getty Images