The President’s State of the Union Addresses are rarely focused. They are written by numerous speechwriters and put through many drafts, each reflecting the urgings by interested parties to have their issues mentioned. Often, this makes the speech sound like a grab bag of lists.
But once up on the teleprompter before a joint session of Congress and a thousand reporters and commentators, the speech becomes a signaling presentation by what the President says, how the President says it and what the President does not say.
While trying to resist the temptation to project what I or my colleagues would have included, it is remarkable to note how contradictory or inconsistent a number of President Obama’s points were.
For example, while touting the increased production of oil and gas (he did note the fast rise of solar/wind energy), he later provided gravity to the perils of climate change. Taken together, they do not mix well for the formation of a national energy conversion policy to renewables and efficiency so as to slow climate change’s planetary devastation.
Mr. Obama spoke of cherishing civil liberties. But he did not mention support of any amendments to the so-called Patriot Act, up for Congressional renewal this June, which would delete atrocious anti-civil liberties provisions, from search and seizure notification delays to snooping into sensitive personal, medical and financial information, or even people’s library usage. Nor did he declare, while saying he was increasing transparency, that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6700 page already redacted backup report on the CIA’s use of torture could be publically released from his administration’s grip.
When he said that “we still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions, and give American workers a voice,” it would have been more persuasive had he told us that he meant revising the notorious anti-union Taft-Hartley Act. Then he contradicts his concern for workers by urging passage of the job-exporting Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement (TPTA) and not filling his 2008 promise to revise NAFTA and the World Trade Organization Treaty that have resulted in the loss of large numbers of jobs along with labor, consumer and environmental rights. (See globaltradewatch.org.)
To make matters worse, he wants Congress to adopt a “fast-track” procedure for passage of the TPTA, which does not allow amendments and requires limited debate. How does that give workers a voice?
Catching up with what Western Europe has been doing for 60 years, President Obama strongly urged more available and affordable childcare, paid sick leave and paid maternity leave. He also demanded higher capital gains and dividend taxes on the super-rich. So far so good.
Every year, the Republicans, who hypocritically want lower deficits while at the same time raising military spending and corporate welfare, somehow think that shackling the Treasury Department’s tax collections are not increasing deficits. But the President didn’t stick up for the IRS, whose budget is being annually slashed so that it cannot collect more of the $300 billion in yearly evaded taxes.
President Obama wants to increase repair and expansion of public works (called infrastructure), but he didn’t connect this initiative to a crackdown on corporate defrauding of the government, such as on Medicare, Medicaid and defense contracts. This could be big money savings to pay for infrastructure needs and become a “law and order” drive against corporate crime—having Left-Right support in our own country.
Over five hundred billion dollars are spent annually through federal government contracting of goods and services with corporations. Putting the full text of these contracts online and requiring, at last, annual auditing of the Pentagon’s $800 billion military budget (including the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere) would squeeze out a lot of waste, fraud, and useless expenditures.
In 2006, then Senator Obama and arch-Republican Senator Coburn co-sponsored a bill that became law to place summary information about government contracts online. This has strong Left-Right support in Congress but it has needed a White House jumpstart to make sure the full text of those contracts is put online. It is inexplicable that such open fiscal accountability was ignored in his address, but then he has rarely mentioned this consequential reform since his inauguration in 2009.
When he came to the section of his speech that argued for raising the minimum wage, the President specifically taunted Republicans by saying “if you truly believe you could work full time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.” It would have been more effective were he to have said specifically what higher minimum wage per hour he wanted.
With Obama, as with Clinton, one rarely gets the feeling that he means what he says when speaking for progressive programs, such as zero tuition for community college students and other measures. Follow-through, a laser focus, and the building of coalitions are required for these proposals if they are to be seen as priorities rather than merely feel-good rhetoric.
The President does have opportunities for Left-Right convergence, drawing on existing public opinion and rank and file members of Congress, to move legislation that will benefit the public.
But in his “last hurrah” over the next two years, he’s got to be a hands-on President working the Congress and barnstorming the country on these overdue changes, instead of adding to his over 425 fundraisers that so drained his attention and political freedom during the last six years.
Ralph Nader’s latest book is: Unstoppable: the Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.