US President Barack Obama during his public swearing in ceremony on January 22, 2013
This past Monday marked the beginning of Barack H. Obama’s second term in the White House. The centerpiece was Obama’s second inaugural address. This speech merits a few minutes of close attention since, although the essence of Obama’s method is deception, dissembling, and fakery, he often telegraphs in his formal statements a veiled version of what he actually proposes to do.
Obama’s acolytes, sycophants, and presstitutes in the world of mercenary journalism have mounted a special mobilization, attempting to portray Obama’s second inaugural address as the definitive statements of the liberal and progressive agenda.
In reality, this speech marks a new low for the modern Democratic Party. It is right wing neo-liberalism wrapped in right wing communitarianism. It is a million miles away from the concerns of the average American, and rather reflects the obsessions of the Wall Street elitists and, Malthusian ideologues.
In order to illustrate the utter hollowness of Obama’s demagogy, it will be instructive to compare his speech to the second inaugural addresses of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 - that is to say, of the best American presidents of the 19th and 20th centuries.
On January 20, 2009, addressing a small gathering of political activists in Arlington, Virginia, I pointed out that Obama’s first inaugural was vastly inferior to the speech given by Franklin D. Roosevelt upon assuming the presidency in the midst of the previous world economic depression. Many are familiar with Roosevelt’s famous observation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but his 1933 speech went much further. In the depths of the Depression, Roosevelt did not hesitate to indict Wall Street bankers and financiers as those responsible for the tragic economic collapse of the country:
“… the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish. The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”
This was a devastating indictment of the crimes of Wall Street high finance. Speaking under similar circumstances in 2009, Obama graphically illustrated his own tragic moral and intellectual inferiority to his famous predecessor.
“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”
So who was responsible? Perhaps, a few greedy and irresponsible people in Wall Street, but the larger failure seems to belong to the American people. This is known as blaming the victim. “Our collective failure” in Obamaspeak means a failure to mercilessly cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, food stamps, and other meager social safety net programs - the obsession of Peter Peterson of the now-extinct Lehman Brothers.
These expenditures played absolutely no role whatsoever in the world derivatives and banking panic of 2007-2008, which was caused by an orgy of speculation in derivatives known as credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and structured investment vehicles - the latter a specialty of Citibanker Jack Lew, whom Obama has just tapped to be Secretary of the Treasury. Here Obama was preparing his relentless campaign to cut the social safety net to ribbons under the pretext of reducing deficits and debt.
His intent was signaled by the code words “our health care is too costly,” a harbinger of genocidal Medicare cuts already in the amount of $700 billion, with $400 billion yet to come. “Our schools fail too many” refers of course to the campaign by Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to use poor performance by poverty-stricken pupils as a pretext to bust the existing teachers’ unions on the way to privatizing and wrecking the existing US system of free, universal, compulsory public education.
Obama not like Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Johnson
In 2008-2009, the corrupt US media attempted to portray Obama as the new Franklin D. Roosevelt or the new John F. Kennedy. But Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signature program was the Social Security Act of 1935, which Obama has been attempting to gut and dismantle ever since he got to the White House. Obama even accepted the so-called Chained CPI, a dastardly trick to gradually reduce the Social Security benefit and, as Newt Gingrich might have said, let it wither on the vine.
As for Kennedy, his signature program was the moon shot of the 1960s. Obama, by contrast, has presided over the elimination of the US manned space program. To round out the picture, Obama is also the antithesis of Lyndon B. Johnson, who did more than any other 20th-century president for old people and for the black community: In addition to landmark civil rights legislation, Johnson also pioneered the 1965 Medicare program, which has scored an unparalleled success in prolonging lives and reducing human suffering.
Obama’s approach to Medicare has been to loot it. Obama emerged in his first term as the anti-Roosevelt, the anti-Kennedy, and the anti-Johnson. Obama rather belongs to the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party, which has included such figures as Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Al Smith, Harry S. Truman, Adlai Stevenson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. So much for Obama’s first inaugural address.
Counting Obama, only sixteen US presidents out of forty-four have attained a second term. Of these, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt offered the best speeches combined with the best policy.
Lincoln’s spirit of charity; Obama’s narcissistic indifference
Lincoln’s second inaugural came at the end of a devastating civil war. His speech on that occasion, often considered the absolute high point for US presidents embarking on a second mandate, was an appeal for reconciliation and support for measures of political and economic reconstruction:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Obama too wants to profile himself as a president managing the end of protracted hostilities - in Iraq a year ago, and in Afghanistan in 2014. Here is what Obama said about this in his speech:
“This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. A decade of war is now ending.”
Apart from a feeble attempt to imitate John F. Kennedy’s first inaugural in 1961, Obama thus has nothing to offer. Behind this façade of postmodern minimalism lurk drones, assassinations, Special Forces raids, economic sanctions, color revolutions, cyberwar, and destabilizations - a new form of endless war and mayhem. Here there is no trace of FDR’s Good Neighbor policy.
President Obama, where are the jobs?
At the center of US politics today stand the questions of economic crisis and unemployment. So it was in 1937, when Franklin D. Roosevelt had succeeded in halting and reversing the post-1929 economic collapse, but was still dealing with stubbornly high levels of unemployment. Many of Roosevelt’s programs had been blocked by the reactionary majority on the US Supreme Court, including the judges known as the infamous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, rather similar to the Roberts-Alito-Thomas-Scalia clique of today. Roosevelt, like Obama, was also facing a determined capital strike or refusal to invest for political reasons by significant parts of the ruling financier class. Roosevelt’s second inaugural was an impassioned call for the first war on poverty in American history:
“In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens-a substantial part of its whole population-who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life. I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day. I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago. I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children. I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions. I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. But it is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope-because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
In the United States of today, 50 million people live on the meager food stamp allowance, 50 million people are now classed as suffering from extreme poverty, and 50 million people have no access to health care. There is some overlap among these categories, but we should not assume that the overlap is total.
We should also note the millions who are forced to work in low-wage, dead-end jobs at or close to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, or even less. If we factor in the 30 million unemployed and underemployed, we can easily see that, in the United States of 2013, we may well once again find one third of the nation ill clad, ill housed, and ill nourished. Many indices show that this situation has gotten worse, not better, under the neoliberal Obama.
So what did Obama offer in the way of economic policy? This: “And economic recovery has begun.”
And this: “We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.” In other words, Obama proposes the fool’s errand of trying to balance the federal budget, a futile effort to be paid for by savage cuts in Medicare that will cost thousands of human lives. In the real world, Medicare costs could be reduced by finding cures for the principal diseases, in much the same way that polio has been largely vanquished and therefore does not require extensive resources for treatment. But that would require billions of dollars up front for a crash program of biomedical research.
If Obama wants to stabilize the federal budget, he can easily do so by levying a 1% tax on the largest flow of untaxed cash in the world - the speculative hot money which surges each day through the New York, Chicago, and other markets. A 1% Wall Street sales tax on these quadrillions of program trading, high frequency trading, and flash rating could initially provide trillions of additional federal revenue, which could be shared with the states. Austerity will not be necessary provided that Wall Street pays its fair share.
In addition, Obama could start a broad-based economic recovery in a few weeks, without having to appeal to Congress. The White House could compile a catalogue of the shovel-ready infrastructure projects requiring urgent attention, perhaps in the amount of $3 trillion. He could invite states, counties, cities, and regional authorities to issue 0% coupon, 100-year bonds to finance these projects.
He could then place a telephone call to Chairman Bernanke at the Federal Reserve informing him that the national interest requires the Fed to create a special credit facility to purchase these bonds, in the same way that the Fed has already purchased more than $1 trillion worth of US Treasury bonds. This would be a credit stimulus, similar to the Term Auction Facility (TAF) and other special windows which the Fed opened in 2008-2009. The Fed could consider the superhighways, bridges, fast rail systems, energy facilities, water projects, schools, hospitals, libraries, and public buildings as solid collateral for these loans.
Obama offers nothing to reduce unemployment
Unemployment is the leading economical-theoretical and practical political handle for understanding and curing the reality of world economic depression. For the past several years, both major US political parties have run for office reciting a litany of “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Astoundingly, Obama’s second inaugural contains the word “jobs” just three times, always merely in passing, and never in the context of a program designed to create any jobs.
Obama has nothing to offer for job creation to 30 million Americans who would work full time if they could, but are now suffering from unemployment and underemployment. He has nothing to offer young people, ranging from college graduates to inner-city minorities. He has nothing to offer black and Hispanic inner-city youth whose real unemployment levels must be around 50%. In other words, Obama has no program for recovery from the current economic depression. He does not even want to entertain the question.
Nothing for organized labor
One group which spared no effort to get Obama re-elected was organized labor. Yet, Obama’s second inaugural has absolutely nothing for the AFL-CIO, the SEIU, and other unions which had worked so hard to get him a second term.
On the day after the inauguration, the Labor Department published statistics showing that, during Obama’s first term, the percentage of American workers belonging to unions declined even faster than it had been during the eight years of George W. Bush. Unionization fell from 11.8% of wage and salary workers in 2011 to 11.2% in 2012. Unionization in the private sector fell from 6.9% to 6.6%. Among government workers, unionization fell from 37% to 35.9%. During Obama’s first term, overall unionization declined by 1.2%, even worse than the 1.1% decline during the years of Bush the younger.
Obama once upon a time offered lip service to the Employee Free Choice Act, otherwise known as card check, which would have made it easier to organize in the workplace for collective bargaining. But Obama did nothing but nothing to get card check enacted, and he has now dropped the issue.
This week Obama rightly called attention to the efforts by the reactionary Republicans to limit the right to vote, permanently restricting the franchise for certain groups. “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” There are indeed racist and reactionary Republicans, led by fascist governors in states like Ohio and Michigan, who are trying to make it harder and harder for blacks, Hispanics, the young, the old, and the disabled to cast their votes.
But these same fascist governors are seeking to roll back a century of gains by the labor movement, making it almost impossible to organize and maintain unions and collective bargaining. Here such figures as Snyder of Michigan, Walker of Wisconsin, Kasich of Ohio, and Daniels of Indiana have taken the lead. Snyder wants to put the entire city of Detroit under the dictatorship of a financial overseer through the provisions of his emergency management law. Obama, given his responsibility to take care that the laws be faithfully enforced, must guarantee each and every state a republican form of government, and to prevent any state from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. But he was silent.
Nothing for black Americans, nothing for the District of Columbia
An indispensable component of Obama’s winning electoral coalition was the black community. This is also the sector of the US population which has been hardest hit by the economic depression, among other things seeing its net worth virtually wiped out by the housing crash. The national interest would require a Marshall Plan for the Cities, with hundreds of billions of dollars of initial investment, much of it obtained through 0% century bonds issued through a credit facility at the Federal Reserve. On this point as well, Obama was silent.
Of all the jurisdictions of the United States, it was the District of Columbia which gave Obama his largest margin of victory. Fully 91% of DC voters chose Obama. The primordial political aspiration of the District of Columbia is to become a state, at least to the extent of sending two senators and one representative with full voting power to the U.S. Congress. These officials would most likely be black, left of center Democrats. They would perform a valuable national service by counterbalancing the reactionary Republicans. But the self-absorbed narcissist Obama could not be bothered inserting a call for DC statehood into his inaugural address.
Obama appears inferior even to a president like Richard Nixon, who in the early 70s declared war on cancer with a national mobilization which has steadily reduced the death rate from this complex of dread diseases. Statistics now suggest that 25 million Americans will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease over the next decades, and that 10 million of them will die. Declaring war on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s would serve the interest of humanity, but Obama is silent.
Obama postures as the new Kennedy, but we have noted that he is presiding over the destruction of the US manned space program. Why not a new mobilization for permanent settlements on the moon and Mars, before the United States falls hopelessly behind China and other countries.
The United States currently has about a hundred nuclear reactors, all obsolete relics of the pre-Carter era. Why not announce an urgent program to replace his aging reactors with the safest and most modern high temperature, pebble bed plants - to be financed by the Fed? Instead, Obama’s reference to climate change implies that he will continue to gouge Medicare of sick seniors and use the money to pay for anti-economical “green jobs” boondoggles like the notorious Solyndra, while pushing the regressive Waxman-Markey carbon tax legislation favored by wealthy Malthusian elitists of the Al Gore school.
One positive feature of Obama’s speech was his promise of immigration reform. What was missing was a clear commitment to legalize and normalize the status of 11 million largely Hispanic immigrants within no more than a year, with no guest worker program and no second-class citizenship. Latinos need to be offered citizenship expeditiously so they can obtain public education, drivers’ licenses, and obtain health care in 2014. To avoid any downward pressure on wages, the federal minimum wage should be raised to $12 an hour now, rising to $15 an hour over the following three years.
If Obama’s speech represented a new low in moral and intellectual quality, it also established a new benchmark in the banality of its hackneyed prose. Obama’s wordsmiths mobilized a parade of the most shopworn clichés, yielding rich id boilerplate like this: “We made ourselves a new, and vowed to move forward together.” The first time around, Obama had peddled mystical phrases like “we are the ones we have been waiting for,” and, like the legendary King Canute, promised to halt the rise of the oceans. It is time for Obama’s base to make its voice heard, forcing him to turn away from neo-liberalism and drop his attacks on the New Deal.