Obama's Charade of the Union

Why is Barack Obama wheeling out one progressive measure after another? Simple, writes Eric Ruder: He knows the Republicans will block them all.

President Obama presenting his State of the Union address (Bill Ingalls)President Obama presenting his State of the Union address (Bill Ingalls)

THE LIBERAL punditry were swooning after Barack Obama's State of the Union address on January 20. With confidence and clarity, the president clearly articulated a progressive agenda for the last two years of his presidency--or at least that was the conventional wisdom in the media that tend to support Obama and the Democrats.

But as I watched the spectacle unfold, the cynicism driving the main lines of Obama's speech was also driving up my blood pressure. Let me explain.

For one thing, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Al Sharpton, Chris Hayes and the other MSNBC commentators skated past the parts of the speech that were not progressive at all. Like Obama's support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, widely condemned by progressives as NAFTA on steroids.

And during the hours of post-State of the Union commentary on MSNBC, no one commented on the line in the speech that took the prize for Most Dissociative Moment: Obama bragging about the foreign policy successes that resulted from replacing the cowboy diplomacy of the Bush years with his own "smart" diplomacy that avoided "getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East"--only to conclude with a call for Congress to pass a resolution authorizing the use of military force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Instead, the progressives at MSNBC and the Nation heeded days of White House prompting about the talking points to be promoted--namely that the president is pushing a "bold" agenda to tax the rich and wealthy corporations in order to give American workers the tax breaks they desperately need.

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IN THE speech, Obama proposed a $3,000 per child per year tax credit and more affordable child care for "middle-class families" (which is mainstream newspeak for the American working class). He pledged to fight for two years of free and universal community college education for high school graduates with good grades. He called on Congress to pass a bill allowing workers to earn a week of paid sick leave. He called for an increase in the minimum wage. He called for unspecified laws to "strengthen rather weaken unions."

All of this was celebrated as a progressive vision for America--one that Obama was finally unveiling in his final years as president, to the delight of the liberal crowd.

But all it took was a New York Times headline the following day to puncture the unreality of what Obama had proposed: "Bold Call to Action in Obama's State of the Union, Even if No Action Is Likely."

As the article went on to explain:

Watching an emboldened Mr. Obama, it would have been easy to forget that he was standing there just two months after the biggest electoral repudiation of his presidency...

But after the lights went out and the presidential motorcade had made its way back up Pennsylvania Avenue, the party balance had not changed. For all of Mr. Obama's confident demeanor, the question raised by the speech was whether advancing initiatives with little or no hope of passage constituted an act of bold leadership or a feckless waste of time.

Memories of another second-term Democratic president came flooding back.

During Bill Clinton's presidency, when Democrats controlled Congress during his first term, Clinton didn't mention raising the minimum wage in his public statements. However, once the Republicans swept into Congress in 1994--riding a wave of discontent with Clinton's broken promises--Clinton regularly used the issue to put the Republicans on the spot, trapping them between a broadly popular measure and their corporate backers who detested the idea.

As the Times article about Obama went on to say:

He asked congressional Republicans who have resisted new taxes at every turn over the last six years to raise taxes on the wealthy. He asked lawmakers who won their seats on promises of reining in government to reopen the spending spigot to provide free community college, child care and paid parental leave to millions of middle-income Americans. The program he outlined sounded pretty much like the one he would have sent to a Democratic Congress.

Except that he never did send such a program to Congress when Democrats controlled both houses. Which is precisely the point.

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BACK AT the MSNBC unreality show, the task of pointing out the emptiness of Obama's proposals fell to the token Republican: former GOP National Committee Chair Michael Steele. When Steele charged that Obama had failed to provide specifics about how to pay for the various tax cuts proposed in his speech, Chris Matthews retorted, "How can you get more specific than: I'm going to nail the top 1 Percent and use it to pay for a $3,000 tax cut for people with kids?"

Steele's reply: "But you know that's not going to happen. What's your alternative if you're going to govern, if you're talking to a Congress that's not going to give you that?"

Translation: Everyone knows that nothing Obama proposes along these lines will ever become law because the Republican Congress can be relied on to do the exact opposite in defense of the billionaire class. Steele proved this point when he went on an extended rant taking the side of Goliath against David: "Trickle down, trickle up, whatever you want to call it, everyone is impacted by tax increases, period, across the board, because those very rich are employers, those very rich are investors, those very rich put down a lot of cash for the middle class to grow from."

Such apologetics for the superrich are precisely what the Democrats want to provoke from Republicans. It helps to cloud the memory of what Obama and the Democratic Party have done on behalf of the very same millionaires and billionaires.

Obama and the Democrats could have actually delivered meaningful change to U.S. workers. But it's only now--in the final years of his presidency, when Republicans have taken control of both houses of Congress--that Obama has now found the confidence to boldly advance a "progressive" agenda.

And don't forget: The added benefit for the Democratic Party is that Obama's charades today will plow the ground ahead for a Democratic presidential campaign in 2016. That kind of cynicism should be enough to send anyone's blood pressure through the roof.