President Obama’s recent State of the Union speech represents an attempt to reframe the political debate in an era of unprecedented obstructionist scorched-earth politics generated by a hardened extremist right wing faction, funded by a bottomless pit of unlimited corporate money, brought to us by the infamous Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision. The goal of this cabal has been to prevent the Obama Administration from enacting the fundamental economic reforms that would help restore the middle class and halt the slide of the working class into second world conditions. The message is: “Forget about all that hope and change talk. We run this country, and there will be no hope and no change. Get used to it.”
In the face of such intractable and malignantly anti-democratic forces, the Obama team has made the decision to take the battle to the cities and states, since the elaborate system of checks and balances built into the Constitution have led to political gridlock at the Federal level. Even though a broad majority of the population have already twice stated their desire to see the promise of America restored by restoring a level playing field that promotes the welfare of all classes, rather than continuing down the path of concentrating the collective wealth in the hands of the 1%, that project has run aground in the face of unremitting abuse of parliamentary procedures and rules in the both the House and the Senate. What is new in the political calculus is the constant use of the threat of government shutdown and national default in order to force the hand of the more responsible political actors to get their way.
The Founders of America had created our system of dispersed power as a bulwark against tyranny, but they had assumed a baseline of goodwill and civic-mindedness that has been breached by a faction that will not accept the outcome of any election that does not go their way. We have reached the stage of political decadence in America. Structural reform is blocked by entrenched corporate interests who use their wealth and power to pollute the political landscape with a steady stream of disinformation (Benghazi! 24/7) designed to reduce the populace to political apathy. The message has been deeply absorbed into the political consciousness of the American people, who have internalized the learned helplessness that this project is designed to induce.
The State of the Union speech outlines a plan of action to work around this state of perpetual gridlock by design. President Obama seems finally emboldened to strike out on a course of action that will go directly to the people, sidestepping the disfunctionality of Congress. It was refreshing to hear the theme of economic inequity as the central issue of our time coming from the White House. Unless that central fact of contemporary America is addressed, our political system will continue to devolve, and the conditions of life for the vast majority of citizens will remain on a downward spiral.
The key themes of the speech were a call to increase the federal minimum wage, investment in infrastructure, education, and job training, and ending the disgrace of the Guantanamo gulag. Those themes have been a staple for the Obama Administration for years, but the tone has changed. Obama has finally recognized that he does not have a reasonable negotiating partner in crafting even modest legislation to achieve those aims. He created a firestorm on the Fox News/ right-wing talk radio mega-network by stating that he would forge ahead with a year of action through the use of executive orders to get around the Congressional roadblock. Contrary to the hyperventilating misrepresentations in Fox News World, the use of executive orders is part of the constitutional powers of the executive branch.
The federal minimum wage has not been raised during Obama’s tenure in office. That has been a constant demand of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party for years, but what makes this time different was the call to action to take the fight to the cities and states. Obama is recalling his background as a community organizer by recognizing that entrenched power can be challenged through popular movements with broad support. The call has gone out to activists across the country to take on the task of raising wage floors in every city and state in the U.S. This initiative provides a path for constructive action for local community leaders that is not dependent on a cement-footed Congress for success. That call to local action was the political genius of this new strategy. It puts the prospects for change in the hands of the people and dissipates the political apathy that the program of obstruction is designed to produce.
Already, 21 states and the District of Columbia have higher minimum wages than the federal standard of $7.25 per hour. Ten of those states have tied their minimum wages to inflation, so that the rate rises each year with the cost of living. Democrats are now pushing minimum wage ballot initiatives throughout the country hoping the measures’ popularity will help drive Democratic voter turnout. “This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It doesn’t involve any new bureaucratic program,” Obama said. “So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise.”