What Obama did and didn’t say

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address to Congress was an effort to touch the right buttons to retain the allegiance of millions of people in the U.S. who are suffering from the prolonged economic crisis.

In that sense, it was very like the State of the Union speeches made by presidents in the last century in times of economic crisis and hardship for the masses, from Herbert Hoover in 1930 to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, Richard Nixon in 1974 and Ronald Reagan in 1982.

Roosevelt said in 1934, four years into the Great Depression, that “we are definitely in the process of recovery.” But it took six more years of massive suffering before that happened. And the Depression ended only through the intervention of an even worse disaster — World War II.

A huge expansion of industry began in the late 1930s that was geared to production for war, which had already started in Europe. Within a few years, tens of millions of the formerly unemployed were either in uniform or working in the war industries.

Economic suffering — but why?

Like most of the other presidents, Obama gave no explanation for why the economy has gotten so bad for so many. That there will be recessions and depressions was taken as a fact of life, like bad weather.

It is interesting to note that of all the presidents mentioned here, it was only Hoover who, in his 1930 address, spoke frankly about “overproduction” being the cause of the Depression then raging, although he did not explain what that meant. More on that later.

It is now more than five years since the housing bubble burst and the financial system turned out to be a house of cards. Millions of workers have begun to despair that things will never get better. They haven’t forgotten that the government bailed out the banks, and they’re asking, When will it bail me out?

Five years with no relief for unemployed

Obama’s advisers and speech writers know that the polls show a definite shift to the left in this country. A big majority now say that the growing gap between rich and poor is the major problem. They say that wages are far too low.

So Obama’s message was largely to reassure the electoral base of the Democratic Party that his administration has their interests at heart, and will “focus on creating new jobs, not creating new crises.” He said he’d make sure that “if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America.”

What stood out most was his promise to raise the minimum wage for federally contracted workers to $10.10 an hour. That got a lot of applause from the Democratic side of the aisle. Yet what is remarkable about it is that today, unlike in earlier times, working for the federal government is no guarantee at all that one will have a secure income adequate for raising a family. Ten dollars now buys less than the minimum wage of years past.

Obama made much of the fact that he would do this on his authority as president if Congress did not pass the required legislation. So it turns out that the president does have some authority after all!

However, most of what he half-promised in his talk was hedged with the qualification “working with the Congress.” In a political system completely dominated by two capitalist parties that both bow to the dictates of big business, the good-cop, bad-cop routine carried out in Congress pretty much guarantees that few progressive laws ever get passed. The failure can always be blamed on the other party.

Obama said he was offering “a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” but that some of them “require congressional action.”

It would have been more honest to talk about making it possible for the working class to earn decent wages, since the real middle class — people like farmers and shopkeepers, who are self-employed but don’t have many others working for them — have been virtually eliminated by the advent of agribusiness, chain stores and franchisers.

The term “middle class” is generally used in a way to divide the better-paid workers from the lower-paid and the unemployed. It has often had racial overtones.

Putting a bright face on what is to come, Obama said that “companies say they intend to hire more people this year.” This remark was typical of the whole approach the president took, which not only urges that current problems be resolved through “bipartisan” compromise, but rests on “cooperation” between workers and their exploiters to iron things out.

New face, same substance

Nothing more can nor should be expected from a political figure whose career has been embedded in an arena dominated and controlled by the capitalist ruling class.

True, the election of Obama broke the mold of U.S. politics in one very important sense: It ended the era when only white men, preferably rich, could be the symbol, the face of the country. That change in the external appearance of the political machinery was made possible only because, after World War II, there were more than five decades of struggle by oppressed peoples inside the U.S. to break their chains.

Around the world, tremendous battles were also waged for independence and self-determination by colonized peoples. Decolonization dissolved the direct political hold of the oppressors, if not their economic domination. In many ways, the election of a Black president in the U.S. came very late, given the fact that most world political leaders — but not the bankers and corporate heads who hold the economic power! — are today people of color, in keeping with the majority of the world’s population.

This symbolic change aroused the hopes of the masses that government was in the hands of someone more like them than the previous heads of state. Obama’s style is certainly refreshing in contrast to the cynical Bushes, the cardboard Reagan and the venal Clintons.

Yet it is becoming clear that nothing fundamental has changed. Obama’s refrain of business and labor cooperating for a brighter future is calculated to counter the growing demand by workers to take the struggle to the streets — whether to demand better wages, resist givebacks in labor contracts or organize the unorganized.

He is also dodging the big issue: the inability and outright unwillingness of the capitalist bosses to expand employment in this era of high technology. He said in his talk that he was “asking” employers to hire the long-term jobless. He’s the president. Why can’t he tell them, not merely ask?

We know what their answer will be. That they can’t afford it — even though the rich are getting richer at an unprecedented rate.

There was lots to gladden the hearts of the profit makers.

Obama promised to lower taxes on businesses that “keep the jobs here.” That’s been done already. Companies like The Gap and Benetton would much rather contract work to garment companies that pay the lowest wages in the poorest countries, like Bangladesh and Vietnam. But lower taxes on businesses? They’re all for that.

High-tech here and there

Obama pledged government support to create more high-tech industry, citing competition with “China and Europe.” An entire essay could be written on that alone.

The Chinese government, which still owes most of its success to its mighty ­socialist revolution that shook the world, has propelled what was an overwhelmingly poor, agricultural country into a model of high-tech planning — without causing any unemployment! In fact, wages in China have risen between five- and nine-fold in the last decade, partly in response to the militant workers’ movement there and partly because of a shortage of labor.

In the U.S. and other thoroughly capitalist countries, however, high-tech is intimately connected to the lowering of wages and shedding of workers — all in the interest of profits. That’s what is so interesting about Herbert Hoover’s mention of “overproduction” in his 1930 State of the Union speech.

Overproduction is a phenomenon of the capitalist economic system — and no other system. In ancient times, surpluses were celebrated. Today they lead to layoffs and shutdowns.

In a socialist society, the ability to produce more than what is needed in one area of the economy will be handled by reallocating human and material resources into areas where they are needed, with all the appropriate retraining that requires.

But of course Obama can’t say any of this, and his training precludes him even thinking about it.

The movement to transform society into one where the workers’ desires for security and comfort can be fulfilled must break out of the ideological and political framework of both capitalist parties. It must revive the class-struggle traditions of the working class, which today more than ever before encompasses all nationalities, sexes and genders.

Harmony between the classes is a myth. We are in a struggle against the insatiable owners of capital, and we must say that openly and proudly. n

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