Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

The State of the Union is Ambivalent (2013)

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Last year Elias Isquith asked me to contribute a piece to a forum he did on the State of the Union speech. There was some dispute between the contributors over how they read the speech which was my jumping off point. I’m posting it again before this year’s speech because most of what I had to say is still applicable, even if some of the details have changed.

Obama 2010 SOTU

Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The fact that people have such different readings of this speech isn’t that surprising. It reads to me like it was designed to do just that – let each of us hear what we want to hear.  Our normal way of understanding the SOTU is outward.  We tend to think of the president seeking to persuade the opposition or independents.  But there are two ways we might think of ‘us’ as the target.  First, speeches can be used to mobilize one’s own supporters to action. Second, they can be used to demobilize one’s own team. But ultimately, the impact depends on how we react.  We can use the good things that were mentioned as a resource, in making demands.  Or we can assume that the White House has the issue in hand and therefore we can stand down – at least until we get marching orders.  The latter is a losing proposition, regardless of your thoughts about the president’s own motives. I cringe at the barrage of emails about supporting the president’s agenda. We should have our own agenda, and pressure him to support us.

Of course, we all know that the president faces a hostile Republican majority in the House, and an obstructionist Republican minority in the Senate which, as a result of Harry Reid’s unwillingness to undo the filibuster, has a great deal of power.  Because of the sequester, there will likely be fiscal legislation, and because of Republicans’ fear over losing the Latino vote in perpetuity, immigration legislation will at least get a hearing.

So I thought I’d focus more on some other things, including those the White House has more control over.

First, let’s talk about economic inequality.  An increase in the minimum wage is a good thing as is indexing it (although it appears as though tipped employees will be left behind again). This policy would be especially helpful for woman and people of color, who are overrepresented at the bottom of the wage scale. The president said “no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.” But of course, an increase to $9 an hour won’t achieve that – and that assumes that when it comes to a vote, there won’t be additional compromises.  And it’s unlikely it will come to a vote, at least in this Congress. Still, states could increase their own minimum wages, making Republican intransigence only partly a barrier.  Interestingly, if Democrats had put the minimum wage on the ballot, it likely could have increased turnout during the election, providing them electoral benefits.  But they didn’t.  Also worth noting is that Obama proposed a minimum wage of $9.50 during the campaign, but there was little push behind it.

How about unions? The future of the union movement is bleak.  Many commentators before the speech called on the president to mention the word ‘unions’ in his speech, but this call went unheeded.  Rhetorically, I wish the president would talk more about the importance of unions, and the rest of the Democrats aside.  (There are exceptions of course – like Senators Harkin or Brown). But as an ask, that’s quite small.  I wish that we were asking for fair contracting, a unilateral way that the White House could protect labor rights and thereby fight wage stagnation and inequality.  But even the unions aren’t talking about that. (Yet one more reminder, these problems are structural, not about one person).

On the other hand, even ending policies that undermine unions would be an improvement.  But the president highlighted his Race to the Top program, which undermines teachers unions (heavily woman and people of color) and a push for a new corporate trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Universal pre-K (which I think is a good idea), better education (which I highly support in the abstract but disagree vehemently with this Administration about how to do it), and skills training (which I think is a waste of time and money, distracting us from things that work) all are based on the assumption that changes in the workforce can drive employment. But in reality, when demand for labor increases, as it did during the Clinton years, then employers hire people, and train them.

(An aside: Short-term deficit reduction, also known as austerity, means reducing demand and therefore increasing unemployment.  Bragging about cuts while decrying unemployment and wage stagnation makes no sense.  One has to choose between deficit reduction and job growth. Growth reduces the deficit, not the other way around. Also retirement programs aren’t going to crowd out investments our children need – this encourages intergenerational warfare that undermines the political supports for social insurance. The same is true of ‘asking rich seniors to pay a little more’ i.e. further means testing.  For that matter, it’s not clear why we’re even talking about ‘entitlement reform’ unless the goal is to get both parties to cut these popular programs together so there’s no danger of democratic accountability.)

What about climate change?  We’ve massively increased carbon based energy production under the theory that the issue was foreign oil rather than oil.  Again, one must choose between this goal (where the president has acted unilaterally to move the ball forward) with the professed principle of fighting climate change. The ‘all-of-the-above’ plan makes no sense, unless you are trying to please the powerful carbon and the considerably less powerful (at the moment) climate change movement.  In addition, there are plenty of proposals already out there for what the president can do to address climate change without new legislation, so why ask the cabinet to come up with such ideas now? Those proposals should be ready to go.

Some of this appears to be tactical in relation to the Republicans. ‘We did some conservative thing, so you should give in on this liberal thing’ is a recurring theme of the Obama presidency. It’s also been a spectacular failure. Whether is the militarization of the border, spending cuts, or drill baby, drill, giving into Republican policies and rhetoric doesn’t win them over – it makes them hungrier.

None of what I’m talking about is new, for either Obama or Democratic politics.  James Galbraith criticized much of this mentality before (referencing many of the policies I’ve discussed):

 To concede the authority of the market is to affirm the legitimacy of the hierarchies that markets produce. Everyone in the system has a social role; there are no class enemies, no parasites, no leisure class, and not even anyone whose economic role is superfluous or unneeded. The market system is not open to fundamental reform; power relations cannot be changed [my emphasis]. The system is already engineered for the best; new architects and new planners are not needed. That is the starting point for the policy discussion.  What is left for the Third Way is to tinker with the plumbing….in area after area, the pursuit of ‘market-friendly’ policy solutions is the search for measures that have the virtue of being politically innocuous and have the defect of being ineffective.

Lastly, Robert ends his post with this: “Barack Obama was a promising candidate for liberals in 2008 because he was adept at using ideologically neutral rhetoric to support liberal policies.  With his 2013 State of the Union, he once again flashed that potential.” I think that’s a fair assessment of the case that was often made for Obama as a candidate, and I suspect he’s right that many liberals (and Democrats) agreed.  But to my mind, the speech was deeply ideological. The centrality of markets is ideological.  The belief that unemployment is a product of lack of skills is ideological.  The claim that entitlements must be reformed is ideological.  But this sort of neoliberalism is so ascendant that we take it for granted – it can be hard to even see it. I also think we overestimate the effectiveness of this tactics.  I think what Robert and others are getting at is that Obama puts forward liberal policies without making a liberal case for them.

Conservatives have made strides for over a generation by relentlessly arguing for conservatism.  I just don’t see the evidence that the opposite has moved the ball forward for the left.  And it also has facilitated the siloing of liberal causes – where threats for one group aren’t seen as the business of all other groups.  Divided, we have often failed.

Written by David Kaib

January 27, 2014 at 11:13 am

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