Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Obama's SOTU speech and the inside-outside progressive movement

Pundits will have lots of fun dissecting Obama's Tuesday SOTU speech. The Washington Post has the prepared transcript posted.

The most significant thing about it to me is that it represents the results of the inside-outside effects of the current progressive movement on the Democratic policy. Obama's critical posture toward one-percenters who export American jobs and law-breaking banksters is a result of the Occupy movement. They really did change the political narrative of the mainstream. It's not that Occupy came out of the blue. But they caught the imagination of enough of the public three years into this depression to resonate widely with popular frustration and anger toward the 1% and their destructive misdeeds.

As a campaign speech, it sounds good. Howie Klein, who's not in the habit of being overly generous to the President's partisanship, tweeted, "I bet every Democrat running for Congress in November is feeling pretty good right now. Republicans must want to kill themselves." (I can't see in Twitter's current configuration how to link to an individual tweet.)

Since voters generally see Presidential elections as a binomial choice between the Democratic candidate and the Republican, Obama's framing in the SOTU, this seems to me to be a decent way for Obama to position himself distinctly on the pro-labor, pro-consumer, pro-99% of the binomial divide. I found his description of the bankruptcy and reconstruction of General Motors to be very effective in that regard. I've always seen that as one of his most sensible and progressive measures, and one which presented a clear contrast to the Republicans, who generally wanted to let GM collapse completely in order to weaken the United Auto Workers union.


On the tactical aspect, Democrats do have reason to be concerned about Obama's post-partisan posturing, which has him pepper-spraying his own most impressive presentations that draw a sharp contrast to the Republicans. For instance, he formulated the event that damaged him greatly in the eyes of independents because of his compromising this way: "The greatest blow to confidence in our economy last year didn't come from events beyond our control. It came from a debate in Washington over whether the United States would pay its bills or not. Who benefited from that fiasco?"

This is classic Obama bipartisanship talk: "Washington" is the problem, not the fact that the Republicans are a wrecker party running a strategy of fundamental opposition and obstructionism to Obama's main domestic agenda.

None of the stream of tweets I saw during the speech called out this line, though: "As I told the Speaker this summer, I’m prepared to make more reforms that rein in the long term costs of Medicare and Medicaid, and strengthen Social Security, so long as those programs remain a guarantee of security for seniors." Why, why, why would Obama or any Democrat think that cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits is good politics? He's referring to the part of "that fiasco" in which the Administration offered the Republicans a deal involving cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits. He may get lucky and have the punditocracy ignore it. But that is bad, bad politics and terrible policy. Bernie Sanders did pick up on it and said clearly it was a bad idea on MSNBC afterwards.

I would also note that the policies Obama did specify were largely the standard "left" version of the neoliberal menu that Jamie Galbraith described in 1996 which avoids macroeconomic policy aimed specifically at creating jobs, instead relying on more passive supply-side and so-called business friendly policies: tax cuts to reward desired behavior, education and training, "infrastructure" justified for its benefits for private business, subsidies for emerging technologies not yet developed to the point that private companies can make bundles of money on them.

And emphasizing how he's supposedly cut regulations and opening up more deep-sea oil drilling plays very much to the Republican master narrative on government and the economy. He even dredged up the basically phony Republican point about regulations on milk spills.

And he did threaten war against Iran: "America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal." It's awful policy, though given the current state of politics in which the main criticism of US interventionism that is part of the Presidential campaign is the segregationist-Bircher crackpot Papa Doc Paul, it's probably good politics to defend against the inevitable Republican charges that he's "weak" and "soft" on foreign policy.

War is not a good thing.

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