Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address exhibited many of the qualities that have endeared him to progressive Americans over the last eight years. Intelligent and expansive, it laid out a path for the country’s future based on a rational recognition of the nation’s problems — from economic inequality to climate change — and embracing values like fairness and tolerance.
Largely avoiding detailed policy discussions, it instead worked to rekindle liberal enthusiasm and confidence, which have suffered in recent months amid a recrudescence of reaction triggered by the Republican presidential primary.
Though he went unmentioned, the specter of Donald Trump was felt throughout the speech, much of which was concerned with both rebuking Trumpism and outlining a means of getting beyond it. But while liberals will undoubtedly applaud this aspect of the speech, it is here that Obama failed — for the actual course he recommended will only reinforce the trends that have produced Trumpism.
The address opened with an extended discussion of the economy. Obama was quick to tout the achievements of his administration, which has presided over a clear recovery from the catastrophe of 2008. He noted that millions of jobs have been created since, celebrating in particular the expansion of manufacturing employment. Yet Obama also acknowledged that the gains from an expanding economy remain concentrated at the top and that workers, in his words, continue to be “squeezed.”
For this, the president blamed technological change and globalization. In the melodrama of American politics, these are good villains. Their seeming inexorability renders them less agents of politics and more forces of nature. But analytically, they are poor choices — substantial amounts of research cast doubt on the idea that globalization and technological change are the primary drivers of exploding income inequality in recent decades.
And they hide the actual cause of workers’ misery — capital. Though concern with workers was a main theme in the address, Obama’s meticulous depoliticization of their struggles made it easy for him to argue the remedy was increasing opportunity, through means like expanded education.
The elision of capital as an agent of workers’ oppression allowed for a second omission: unions. Aside from a brief mention of collective bargaining, unions were completely absent from Obama’s speech, despite being one of the most important bulwarks against inequality. While Obama decried the insecurity that crushes working-class lives in the US, he studiously avoided invoking the one force that, more than any other, has worked to civilize capital and render workers’ lives a little more livable.
Instead of recognizing the real forces capable of improving workers’ lives, the address conjured up a series of images of goodwill and cooperation. Particularly amusing was Obama’s grouping of “workers and start-ups and small businesses” as subjects deserving of a greater voice in the economy, all “little guys” who need a bit more support.
In Obama’s vision of America, workers put in extra shifts to keep the plant open, and teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies. It is in the gumption and ingenuity of Americans, he insists, that the solution to ballooning inequality lies. Obama is right, of course, that American workers possess these qualities in abundance. But their employment is often a matter of survival, and even in that respect often fails.
On foreign policy, Obama laid out a multilateralist vision in which American predominance is nonetheless preserved. Alluding to the disastrous consequences of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Obama disclaimed an interest in “nation-building” and outlined an alternative conception of American leadership.
Though he dipped into the usual American braggadocio about hunting down terrorists, it was clear Obama was attempting to downgrade military intervention’s importance in the arsenal of American hegemony. Of course, his presidency has hardly been marked by a reticence to employ brutal military force. But the rhetorical emphasis is nonetheless significant — as Obama’s model for American leadership makes clear.
Obama cited the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as exemplifying this role. The TPP, according to Obama, would shore up the American position vis-à-vis China, and ensure that trade rules would benefit the United States. In the face of an unlikely coalition of opposition from both Tea Party and progressive legislators, Obama urged Congress to approve the treaty as a step toward solidifying American supremacy.
While it is true that the TPP would enhance American hegemony, it would be a disaster for American workers. A continuation of the trade regime that’s existed since NAFTA’s passage in the early 1990s, the TPP would lead to further assaults on the position of American workers, exacerbating the inequality Obama purportedly deplores.
It was this contradiction that defined the address. While Obama denounced the xenophobia and racism of Trumpism, and linked it with the economic insecurity that still ravages American workers, he plotted a course for American liberalism that all but guarantees that such grotesques will continue to stalk the political landscape.
This is the dilemma of anti-Trumpism in official politics. While liberals and many conservatives are united in opposition to what Trump represents, they are equally united in their commitment to the social order that has given his campaign life.
But if the conditions that nurture Trumpism are to be changed, it won’t come from the kinds of initiatives Obama proposed last night. It will come from a resurgence of the social forces Obama and his ilk would very much prefer remained off stage.