In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama strongly argued for progressive and pro-worker initiatives in the face of a wall of obstruction by the Republican-dominated Congress. As he noted, the Republican/tea-party bloc has stymied even the most basic human measure - extending unemployment benefits for the nation's long-term jobless. It has blocked another essential humanitarian move - comprehensive immigration reform, stonewalled pay equity for women, killed legislation to curb fossil fuel use and move against climate change ... and on and on.
In the face of this grim political reality, Obama in his speech focused on executive actions he will take to combat the soaring income inequality in our country and address some of the nation's other pressing economic and social problems. Most notably he announced he will issue an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers going forward. And he announced some initiatives to repair our roads, bridges and, creating much-needed, good jobs. He made a compelling case for equality for women, in life and on the job, drawing cheers and laughter when he said, ""It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a 'Mad Men' episode" - surely a pointed message to Republicans who seem stuck in the worst aspects of the "Mad Men" era.
But the president also repeatedly appealed for action at state and local levels to do what the Republicans in Congress are preventing the federal government from doing.
There are plenty of things Obama did not say that we and others wish he had. For example, he made no mention of defending Social Security and Medicare from cuts advocated by right-wingers and even some centrists. He did not say what he'll do about the Keystone XL pipeline that poses dangers to the environment, farmland and Native lands. He did not say he will fully stop deportations that divide families.
And there are things he said that we and others don't agree with, for example, his praise of Race to the Top, the administration's very problematic education program.
But his speech as a whole amounted to a clear advocacy for the working class side of the battle now under way between America's working families and the super-rich fronted by their Republican/tea party mouthpieces. In addition to making a strong case for social and economic equality in the face of right-wing assault on these basics, he also argued strongly for a demilitarized foreign policy that emphasizes diplomacy - an important break with right-wing militarism.
Make no mistake: One can parse the president's rhetoric for shortcomings, but how does that advance the people's struggle? Obama has set forward some major progressive tasks that have to be fought for. In our political system with its division of powers, big advances must come through legislation and money appropriations enacted by Congress. Examples are the New Deal legislation of the 1930s, and the civil rights and social legislation of the 1960s.
Obama's State of the Union speech amounts to a warning bell to progressive and left-thinking Americans: If we want serious, deep-going progressive action, we must prioritize ending the Republican lock on Congress in this fall's elections. It's time to organize for that.
Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP