He got the ball rolling

In some ways last night's State of the Union address by President Obama was a virtuoso performance. There were stirring moments, memorable turns of phrase, humor, a defense of activist government, and proposals that will be welcomed, and surely help, millions of people in need.

With the scent of Massachusetts still in the air, the president reasserted his reform agenda and took the fight to the party of obstruction. In polite, nuanced but forceful terms, he chastised the Republican Party.

In powerful oratory, he challenged some of the main ideological talking points of right-wing extremism, reminded everyone that he inherited record deficits and an unprecedented economic mess, and defended the stimulus bill and other recovery measures, including, and unfortunately the unconditional bank bailouts.

One of the high points of the evening was when the president called out the right-wing (and maybe worse) dominated Supreme Court whose members were sitting directly in front of him for their recent decision saying it's OK for corporations to throw money into the election process.

One of the low points was his defense of the escalation of troops in Afghanistan and his threatening tone toward Iran and other "adversaries."

Overall, I'd say that if the leaders of the "Party of No" came into the legislative chamber last night with wind in their sails, they left with their sails trimmed and a dour look on their faces. The evening for them turned out to be a "bummer."

They had hoped to hear President Obama repeat what President Clinton said in his State of the Union address in 1994: "The era of big government is over." But the president disappointed them.

While the broad people's coalition that elected him will not, I'm sure, be entirely happy with the president's speech, all signs are that his fighting tone ("I will not quit"), his focus on the economy, his defense of democratic rights (civil, labor, women, immigrant, gay and lesbian), his insistence on financial reform, and his policy initiatives outlined in the speech, including a health care bill, will reenergize this coalition, which, as of late, has been understandably dismayed by the pace and depth of change.

But this new energy will quickly dissipate if the White House and congressional Democrats go back to ignoring the rumbling from below and bending over backwards to satisfy Republicans and conservatives in their own party.

Working people expect them to draw a line in the sand, show more partisanship, push the legislative process, and tenaciously fight for the American people. If the Republicans obstruct and filibuster so be it. At least everybody will know who is blocking legislative measures that would ease the economic crisis when they go to the polls this fall.

But as good as many parts of Obama's speech were, it didn't fully rise in substantive terms to the challenges of our times and this era. The president could have knocked the ball out of the ballpark, but he settled for less. He had a chance to make the case for deep-going political, economic and social reform, including radical reform, but he came up short of that.

His speech didn't have the programmatic depth that is objectively necessary at this moment. It took us an important step closer to solving the awful economic mess and relieving the human toll that comes with it, but only a step.

Politics is an art as well as a science. And part of that art includes knowing when to advance and when to retreat. Last night President Obama didn't retreat, but he didn't advance the people's agenda to the degree that was possible and necessary. He roused the nation, but he didn't hit the high note.

We would probably have to go back to Franklin Roosevelt to find a president who has the trust of our nation's multi-racial, multi-national, male-female, young and old working class as President Obama does.

But the people's trust has to be constantly renewed - and on the basis of practical performance, on the basis of systematically fighting for the crying needs of the American people. This president can be a transformative leader (he has that potential in my view), but only if he embraces and fights for a transformative agenda.

That agenda in a full-blown sense has yet to be articulated by him. If President Obama and the Democrats want to hail the private sector as the engine of growth, I wouldn't quibble too much as long as they recognize that the private sector at this moment (big or small business) isn't generating jobs and probably won't for a long time. In these circumstances, only direct and indirect government intervention in the form of a massive public works jobs program, infrastructure repair and renewal, aid for state and local governments, and special measures for the hardest hit communities, and especially communities of racial minorities and immigrants, stands a chance of lowering unemployment in any kind of meaningful way.

In other words, the economy still has to be re-inflated and restructured along democratic, sustainable, nonmilitary, and worker-friendly lines, but the likelihood of the private sector doing that is zero. To a degree, the president is moving in this direction, but the pace and nature of the economic reforms that he prescribes is far too limited for the scope and depth of this crisis.

One of the serious missteps that he made last night was his call for a freeze on domestic discretionary spending, beginning in 2011. Hopefully the freeze is only a political calculation to ward off the Republican wolves who accuse him of being a "spend and tax" liberal. But in any case, it comes with a price insofar as it entrenches in the public mind that deficit spending is inherently bad and that our budgetary woes are caused by "handouts" to the poor and vulnerable, especially people of color and immigrants - not to mention aid to developing countries.

This is an unmitigated falsehood that ruptures our sense of social solidarity, of connectedness to every other human being. The truth of the matter is that the current budget deficit, as the president said, began during the Bush years as a result of two wars of aggression, mammoth tax breaks to the top income tier, and a bulging military budget.

Fiscal discipline and balanced budgeting are not an article of faith that has to be adhered to no matter what the circumstances. If that were the case, the U.S. and world economy could easily have tumbled into a full-blown depression last year. Capitalism isn't a self-correcting system. Market failure and crisis are as much a reality as sustained economic growth. Vicious and reinforcing contractions of the economy can easily leave an economy stagnating at a far from optimum level or in complete ruin unless they are counteracted by aggressive government action and spending measures. The stimulus and anti-crisis measures of the Obama administration acted as a tourniquet; it stopped the hemorrhaging.

But it didn't heal the wound.

If the president looks to the Depression years he will see more than one Roosevelt. There was the Roosevelt of 1934-1936 and the Roosevelt of 1937. The 1934-1936 Roosevelt had hit a wall as far as his reform efforts were concerned and he was faced with a moment of decision as to how to proceed - should he stay the course, retreat, or enlarge his vision. He chose the latter and thus the New Deal.

Or Obama could look to the 1937 incarnation of Roosevelt who, when seeing a surge of economic activity, decided to cut back on spending and balance the budget, which, as it turned out, was exactly the wrong medicine for an economy in its early stages of recovery.

From President Obama's speech it seems like he hasn't definitively decided which Roosevelt he will emulate, although I believe he leans toward the 1934-1936 Roosevelt. Which is what we need. Admittedly a bold anti-right, anti-corporate course of action won't be easy. The opponents are many and powerful. Resist they will.

Thus to level and tilt the playing field in a progressive/radical direction, the president has to be joined, prodded, and where necessary differed with by the labor-led coalition that elected him. So far it hasn't carried its share of the load; it is not even strong and united enough to enact even the program that the president outlined last night - let alone win more fundamental reforms. Too many of us have been content to watch, offer opinions, criticize, express our frustrations, and feel disappointed in the president.

But aren't we part of the problem too, indeed a big part? An era of reform - and especially radical reforms - combines popular, sustained, and united action from below with new political openings from above. Both are necessary.

Last night the president got the ball rolling, but he didn't roll it far enough or always in the right direction. So now it's our turn to get a lot more players involved, roll the ball further and roll in the direction of economic security, equality, democracy and peace.


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  • Dan,

    Voicing concerns is not "whining" is this the new method? (to denigrate people who have real concerns about this president) This is hardly keeping with a democratic party such as the CPUSA.

    Posted by Red Grandad, 01/30/2010 3:18pm (6 years ago)

  • Sam is obviously not saying that working families are part of the problem. "We" refers to--at least as I understand him--the left, the movement. Too many people operate under the delusion that if Obama wants to change things, he can. Sure, he has a role to play as a popular tribune, but he can do nothing without a bigger movement, without labor (which is doing a great job, I think) and the same sort of forces that coalesced around his campaign.

    We on the left have to get past whining about "Obama hasn't done this" or "Obama hasn't done that" and help to rebuild the movement--a many sectored and contradictory movement--to make progress possible. If the left wasn't going around moaning about whether or not the public option was a sellout to single payer, then perhaps we could have played a more constructive role in bringing others into the fight for passage of a bill that would have been good.

    Perhaps if the left can stop spending its time on message boards condemning the President for not doing our job, building a mass movement for jobs for all, then we can play a leading role. How can we help bring people into the Jobs for America Now Coalition? How can we help bring the largest organizations of working class Americans--the labor movement at the grassroots level, the churches--into this? How can we get it off the ground?

    If there's a big enough mass movement, then there's one of two things that are possible: either Obama is some evil dishonest bourgeois politician who will be forced to keep his promises and go further--or--if Obama is honest and well-meaning and politically astute (all of these three things I believe he is) then there is space for him to say, "Look, the American people are demanding this. We have to get more jobs, we have to spend money to create them."

    Whining about Obama simply helps to demoralize people, to make them feel that the elections they took part in didn't matter. Pointing out the real dynamics of politics in this country--what we should be doing, and what Sam W is doing--helps people to understand that yes, we did elect a good president, but we have to do more as well to keep the movement going.

    Posted by Dan M, 01/29/2010 12:28pm (6 years ago)

  • I don't know what kind of ball Obama is rolling. Seems like the softball was run over by a semi truck when the kids let it roll out into the street and now it is so lopsided it won't roll straight. The ball certainly is not round. A new ball is needed. Obama has tossed us lopsided ball we can't hit or catch. Did Sam Webb ever try dribbling a basketball without any air? Perhaps Obama doesn't know how to pass a football so its a wobbling uncatchable ball he tossed. Maybe Obama is trying to roll a bowling ball with a chip out of it. Something is definitely wrong with the ball because it doesn't roll very well. Webb's analysis is like a deformed ball. It just won't roll. Maybe Webb just doesn't understand you can't roll a ball down the rocky road of capitalism and expect it to go where you want it to.

    Posted by waitingfortherighttime, 01/29/2010 11:21am (6 years ago)

  • Brother Sam,we know that when you write "economic security"in your last paragraph, you mean jobs.
    Organized labor,under the leadership of Richard Trumka,the key part of President's jobs fighting constituency,in its new multinational,multiracial form, in alliance with the tens of millions of unemployed,can persuade this or any administration to tax the super-rich,profits of war,(which are often identical)and Wall Street avarice,cowardice and speculation that has resulted in our economy's ruin.
    War and Wall Street,the darlings of the obstructionist far right and right.
    Our task,is to help put together this alliance,in the concrete,in every district,state,and metropolitan area possible.
    The potential here is really great to "get a lot more players involved"and once this alliance is on its way,"discretionary domestic deficit freezes"proposed by the President will be as popular as bailing out Wall Street bankers after infamous"bonuses".
    Our tasks in this pre-convention period are great,but so are the winds and currents for change in the country, and the world.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 01/29/2010 8:23am (6 years ago)

  • I have read numerous responses in the press and have heard the cable chatter to the President's State of the Union message; with the exception of the Party and the African American press I see no balanced acknowledgement of the set backs and successes of this Administration and what role the labor led-coalition that elected President Obama must continue to play.
    But having said that its not about pointing fingers, offering opinions and criticizing. Its about organizing and building popular, sustained and united action of the masses. We have a lot of work to do!

    Posted by Frank Chapman, 01/29/2010 8:12am (6 years ago)

  • John,

    The working class needs that leadership to raise their awareness and working class consciousness and bring people into a cohesive force to begin with, without this it will not happen. Most working people in this country do not have a working class consciousness, only the knowledge that something isn’t going right, thus they become susceptible to right wing reactionary forces. These things will not happen in a vacuum. We have that vehicle, the CPUSA. We should take this momentous opportunity as a party to educat and help raise the class consciousness and to become a left opposition to the capitalist parties (in a constructive mode, no polemics / sloganeering but solutions)

    Posted by Red Grandad, 01/29/2010 6:45am (6 years ago)

  • Go Sam!

    To Red Grandad -- I hear you about the fatigue, and the pain.

    And I agree, working people are not the PROBLEM -- but they are, and I think must, be the key component in the SOLUTION. And it is not really Obama's job to guarantee the self-organization and self-awareness of the working class.

    I recall many union organization campaigns with the theme of a rebellion arising out of the passing of a good boss, followed by a bad boss. Personal leadership qualities matter a lot if you have to work under them everyday! Seasoned workers know you cannot count on the good boss to secure your needs and interests when there are more powerful forces above him/her, and when objective forces of broad structural economic change compel ALL classes to sharpen their 'class-consciousness'. Always, but especially in a crisis, working people need the independent strength to sufficiently counterbalance those forces. That's the union's job.

    However structural change FORCES classes to change their composition and alignment and organizational structures to accommodate the new jobs and occupations emerging, and those that are disappearing. It reflects a necessary re-division of both labor and capital to new and many-sided changes in what Marx called the means and relations of production.

    The president is important. But we can do some good if we look at our responsibilities too. No harm would come from re-dedicating ourselves to help champion a sense of responsibility among our people for taking care of each other.

    At all the key moments in our national history, the folks who do the work of the country made big changes in their many-sided organizational forms to succeed in the struggle to raise their living and working standards. Many have willingly given their lives in these efforts, communists notable among them.

    "You gotta go down and join the Union
    "You have to join it for yourself
    "Nobody else can join it for you
    "You have to go down and join the Union for yourself"



    Posted by John Case, 01/29/2010 6:00am (6 years ago)

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