Obama: Talking the Talk When He Can’t Walk the Walk

Hope, tragedy, farce

Marx once famously remarked that in history, tragedy reappears as farce. Seven years ago, there was for many American workers the illusion that Barack Obama would somehow serve their interests. For these workers, the conversion of Obama’s “Yes We Can” 2008 campaign to the first six years of his presidency has been a bitter disappointment and a tragedy. Even before his election, Obama was Wall Street’s man, as we explained at the time. Yet without a genuine alternative from labor leadership to expose him, he was able to disguise himself as someone who would break with the status quo and return politics to the people. Funded by Goldman Sachs, adored by the moneyed media, this photogenic lawyer would apparently save the masses from the political norms disgraced by the Bush presidency. Unfortunately, under capitalism politics has never belonged to “the people,” and this would remain the case even under the dynasty of “Change We Can Believe In.” Instead of the salvation promised and voted for, he has presided over the period of the most vicious attacks on workers’ living conditions in living memory.

Seven years ago Obama was iconized as the patron saint of “HOPE.” Once inaugurated, illusion turned to tragedy, and today workers recall the broken promise of ’08 with sardonically nostalgic references to “Candidate Obama.” Candidate Obama, Obama in office . . . and now, in his 2015 State of the Union speech, a new stage of betrayal is announced, lame duck Obama, with an all-you-can-eat buffet of promised reforms, but none of them fated to pass a Republican Congress. Farce has arrived.

Watching the SOTU speech, immediately visible is his rediscovered confidence. There are glimpses of his 2008 charisma, and with brilliant political reflex, he shuts down oppositionist hecklers by reminding them he won his elections. Really, this is also an insult to the millions watching the speech from home; yes, he did win two elections, but what did he win for the “working families” he supposedly fights for? Gloating about the last six years, six years of cuts at home and wars abroad, is hardly polite to those suffering through them. The entire speech is saturated with this braggadocio. But, on a superficial level, he seems like a new man—or maybe more accurately, his old self—and we can see that Obama is back at what he does best: promising reforms that he has no intention of delivering.

Counterfeit charity

Even before Obama took the podium, The Economist, one of the more serious mouthpieces of the ruling class, gave the verdict: “The notion that any grand ideas on Mr. Obama’s agenda will actually happen within his presidency is a joke.” Indeed, to unveil a list of promised reforms at precisely the moment that it will be impossible for him to pass legislation is more than a joke, it’s outright mockery in the face of workers’ needs. Why didn’t he fight for any one of these items when he had a Democratic super-majority in Congress? Or at any point before the Republicans won complete control of both the House and the Senate? There’s not much of a mystery here; these initiatives are simply designed to fail. The Democrats are betting on the failure of the reforms to use as dishonest political ammunition against the Republicans in 2016. Further, the life and death of these promises is engineered to restore credibility into a discredited presidency, a two-party electoral system that has been thoroughly disgraced, and the capitalist system itself, which is increasingly being threatened.

But, for the sake of discussion, let’s put aside that stubborn fact. Even if we take him seriously, the speech contains a breathtaking depth of hypocrisy layered upon more hypocrisy. Obama brags about the state of education, the week after a report is released finding that a historic 51% of public schoolchildren K-12 are from families with low enough income to be eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. This, while his former chief of staff and close associate Rahm Emanuel, now Chicago mayor, slashes the budgets of city schools. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are cited as proof of the American dream by the same person who signed into law cuts on all three. He celebrates “new tools to stop taxpayer-funded bailouts,” apparently forgetting that his first months in the Oval Office delivered hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to the doorsteps of the rich.

Still he continues, extolling the value of voting and democracy—which, by the way, includes the regime in Kiev, “Ukraine’s democracy,” deeply unpopular, butchering its own people, and employing fascist paramilitary terror for auxiliary support. For the working class of America, he clarifies, he is pursuing trade agreements internationally that will put NAFTA to shame. The jailer of Chelsea Manning “respect[s] human dignity, even when we’re threatened”; the president holding the record for the most deportations reveres the ethos of a “nation of immigrants”; the drone-bomber responsible for the butchery of innumerable children abroad speaks on the need for “universal childcare.” He champions the environment in one breath and salutes the reign of fracking in the next. At one point during the speech he “intend[s] to protect a free and open internet”; minutes pass and now he declares for “integrat[ing] intelligence to combat cyber threats”! Edward Snowden must have burst out laughing. It is a marvel that Obama was able to keep a straight face himself.

A few of these promises are not even reforms but are plainly attacks on workers. The rest are measures that, not only is he unable and even uninterested in fulfilling, but has actively prevented and pushed back since his first days on the job.

At least on foreign policy, he speaks with a fraction of honesty: “the question is not whether America leads in the world, but how.” There will be no question of American capitalism retiring from imperialist plunder and brutalization around the world; it’s just that Obama endeavors to be the best at the job. In Syria, for example, he funds the moderate rebels, i.e., the moderate fundamentalists, the milder brigands, the most trustworthy terrorists. Not too long ago Washington took a similar approach towards the same league of rebels that the Islamic State would emerge from.

“The State of the Union is strong.”

And all of this chicanery is introduced with the outstanding announcement, “The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.” What an incredible sentence, and in the most literal sense of the word! For starters, the evidence given is simple misinformation. The unemployment rate is only lower than pre-crisis levels if we ignore part-time workers in need of  full-time employment and workers who have been laid off for so long they have given up on the job search. If those key demographics are counted, unemployment today is 0.4% greater than in August 2008. As far as the job creation rate goes, capital hemorrhaged jobs in 2008–9; almost recovering the losses accounts for the high proportion of “job creation.” The higher insurance rate is maintained by the jackboot of a punitive tax on those without health insurance. Higher graduation rates reflect the fact that this generation is frantically trying to escape the new normalcy by way of a degree.


However, this normalcy is not due to the skill level of the working class, but to a systemic crisis of overproduction. Ultimately, this has resulted in the phenomenon of “overskilled” graduates who cannot find a job in their fields, and an ominous financial bubble of over one trillion dollars in student debt. Finally, Obama heralds domestic fracking as proof of strength as the Saudis drive oil prices down to a historic devaluation. The fracking industry, less profitable than traditional oil extraction, is threatened existentially by this development. And Obama steps back, looks at all these symptoms of crisis, and declares America rescued and safe!

We are compelled to admit, however, that there is a recovery in some form. The stock market is recording record highs, after all. And even if Obama’s number was dishonest, unemployment has dropped significantly. However, some slight problems persist. The jobs lost in 2008–9 have not been recovered, but replaced; low-wage, non-unionized jobs with little to no benefits or security have taken the place of jobs that were precisely of the opposite description. 95% of the 2009–12 recovery gains went to the richest 1%, and  Obama pats himself on the back.

And for all the euphoric highs of the stock market, they only represent speculative, fictitious, hallucinatory gains drawn from unreliable sources like quantitative easing instead of real capital investment. We admit, slump has turned to recovery, but it is the weakest recovery in capitalism’s history, a highly flammable one, a recovery only possible in an economic crisis spanning the entire globe. For good reason Obama stayed quiet on the Eurozone’s teetering into a panic, the overproduction in Chinese construction threatening to bring the entire economy down, the runaway inflation in Russia and India; but reality speaks for itself. Instead of being out from the shadow of the crisis, America is deep within it. A more honest perspective from the ruling class: in 2014 an OECD report forecast no world economic growth for the next fifty years. Far from reforms, what is really on the agenda of the ruling class is deeper and deeper attacks on the working class, for they will not pay for their own crisis.

Crisis of capitalism, crisis of its defenders

However, if this article were to end on this note, even its author would have to admit an unfairness to Mr. Obama. We cannot blame the player for the game. The Democrats manage to pose as friends of labor, in the absence of a labor party. But even in countries where workers do have their own mass party, such as Canada, Britain, and Brazil, the mass parties are making just as hollow promises as Obama. When they are in power, and often even beforehand, they claim the same policies of cuts and attacks as their opponents, barring cosmetic differences, and are promptly disgraced and hated by the masses. The secret of this contradiction is the fact that everywhere the leadership of the mass organizations is occupied by reformists, who base themselves on the condition of capitalism’s existence.

The plain reality is that as long as capitalism remains in power, it will demand more and more of the attacks on workers necessary to pay for the crisis. Before the crisis, the ruling class—when a reform was demanded of them—would say “we don’t have the money.” They were lying. Today they have the same answer to the same question. Yet, despite themselves, they are telling the truth! If a government responded to the crisis with a bailout to the workers paid for by the bankers, instead of the other way around, the market would convulse in panic, unsustainable capital flight would launch, and the entire economy would severely punish society for its idealism. The only possible way reforms can be genuinely won is with a complete break with the capitalist system—socialism. Even more than the Republican Congress, Obama is blocked from implementing these reforms by the fiscal reality of capitalism.

The politicians, strategists, and spokespeople of capital are helpless in the face of their system’s crisis. Ultimately there is nothing they can do to hide the contradictions tearing society into two; alas, that is precisely their job description. So, with the passions that only futility can provoke, even the parties of the same capitalist class violently harass and harangue each other, and inside each party, fresh antagonisms are discovered anew. If the Republicans win the White House and maintain Congress in 2016, soon they will fragment with the same belligerence today aimed at the Democrats. In this economic climate, the politics of “common sense” and bipartisanship an exasperated Obama asks for are a utopian delusion. On the contrary, more antagonism, further polarization, and increasingly stormy and disruptive events will develop.

A house divided

The echo chamber of the two-party system cannot last forever. Sooner or later, a party of the working class will have to disrupt the squabbling of the two bosses’ parties. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the sore absence of a labor party cannot be maintained indefinitely. As developments in Chicago and Ohio foreshadow, at some point the labor bureaucracy will be helpless to maintain their one-sided allegiance to the Democrats in the face of rank-and-file outrage. The Republicans’ indignant chorus of protests every time Obama promises something he has no intention of giving is not an irrational response, they justifiably fear that he can only tempt the working class so many times before it decides to follow up with its own forces. To his credit, Obama understands that unless gestures are made, workers will further radicalize and the system will be threatened. They are both right, and they are both wrong.

A superficial reading of the 2014 Republican-won elections would suggest a turn to the right by the masses. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nearly every leftwing ballot referendum, from gay marriage to marijuana legalization to minimum wage increases, won, even in traditional “red states.” Between the Democrats and the Republicans, the overwhelming majority chose abstinence, especially in the case of the youth, a demographic pundits would be hard-pressed to chide as apathetic after Ferguson. The most popular political party right now is neither; a record 43% of Americans consider themselves independent compared to 30% and 26% for the Democrats and Republicans, respectively. And this is only the tip of the iceberg of the potential an American mass party of labor would stand to inherit.

For Socialist Appeal, “For a Mass Party of Labor!” is not just a slogan but also a perspective. The historical necessity of workers storming American elections can only be procrastinated so long. Yet even an American labor party in power would be forced to join in on the capitalist attacks if it bases itself on capitalism. Elections only gauge the forces of the class struggle, and the organic resolution of the latter is revolution.

Not once did Obama say the words “working class” in his State of the Union address, instead stressing the moral unity of his “fellow Americans,” tantamount to a “strong, tight-knit family.” Apparently “we” “have made it through some hard times.” He also never utters the word “banker,” or “boss,” or “capitalist.” For to acknowledge the existence of the very owners of this nation would beg the question—where were they during these “hard times?” Were they making hard sacrifices with us? Or did they reward themselves with heaping bonuses in bailout money? And Obama has the audacity to patronize us, “The State of the Union is Strong.” This union is the union of worker and parasite, exploited and exploiter, oppressed and oppressor, a house divided against itself. Obama’s recovery will hatch crisis, his promises will be abandoned to the elements, and from his Strong Union subterranean kinetics will erupt. The process is neither automatic nor linear, but it is unshakable. Workers need reforms, they will fight for them, and in struggle they will unmask the Democrats and reach the natural conclusion of revolution.

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