Inauguration Masturbation

by Benjamin Studebaker

Barack Obama’s second inaugural address has met with wide approval on the left, but while there is much talk about what was mentioned and how very nice and apropos that the inauguration took place on Martin Luther King Day and so on and so forth, how much of what Barack Obama talked about doing is he actually capable politically of doing with the current congress? Furthermore, how much did the president actually talk about doing in the first place? Let’s have a look.

The speech begins with an overview of things the country has done and experienced in the past–the end of slavery, state financing of infrastructure, and so on down the line. The purpose is clearly to set a backdrop to what Obama will say in reference to the state of affairs today, but their content is exclusively attitudinal, and the attitude expressed is one of cooperation. A nice sentiment surely, but what does it entail in real terms?

Evidently this entails strengthening the middle class, as Obama says:

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.

But as for how this will be done? Barack doesn’t say, and his record to this point does not suggest he is likely to make any real progress in this area. One of my favourite statistics lately is the wage share–the portion of our economic output that, broadly speaking, goes to the middle class, to the workers. Since Obama took office in 2009, this share has fallen to its lowest level in post-war US history:

Recall that in the first two years of his presidency, Obama commanded a both houses of congress (with a super majority in the senate), yet the trajectory of the wage share only accelerated downward. With the same republican house we saw the past two years having been retained, is there really any sense that Barack Obama has a policy agenda that will advance the material position of the middle class? He talks a big game about increasing taxes on the rich, but without policies to help the middle, such hikes only serve to feed deficit reduction and are of no value to poor and working people.

What else does Obama have to say?

The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

Here Obama talks big about defending the entitlement programmes, but he was the one who offered to compromise with republicans and raise the Medicare elibility age and cut Social Security benefits. When push has come to shove, Obama has demonstrated a willingness to fold on this issue in the past, and it is only republican unwillingness to raise taxes in order to achieve these objectives that has saved us so far.

Obama mentioned doing something about climate change:

We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

However, despite having made some helpful investments in renewable technology as part of the original stimulus package, Obama did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol and failed to pass cap and trade legislation despite being in control of both houses of congress at the time.

He appeased opponents of the various wars the United States has been involved in of late:

We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.

But once again, his record does not back him up–Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan and ended the war in Iraq on the same timetable set into place by the Bush administration, demonstrating no significant foreign policy differences from late-period Bush.

There are many very wonderful sentiments and positions expressed, like these:

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.

Yet this is a president whose position on gay rights was “evolving” until May of last year, who not only has not managed to pass the DREAM Act but who has even deported more immigrants in his first term than the Bush administration did in nearly seven of its eight years. This is a president who sends his vice president to whinge at the video gaming industry over gun violence when many developed countries with media cultures far more violent than ours continue to maintain far lower rates of violence in their societies–Japan, in particular, is one of the least violent countries, but has one of the most violent film and video gaming industries.

Barack Obama closes his speech with a call to action:

For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.

Perhaps it is one he himself should heed.

I am tired of this president’s empty promises and empty rhetoric. While it must be acknowledged that the congress (which the people have only themselves to blame for having foolishly elected) obstructs much of the decent things Obama tries to do, it is nonetheless the case that Barack Obama does not make the full use of the powers open to him. George W. Bush did a lot of things of which I was not fond, but he never backed down from a challenge and he was always willing to find some way, any way, to carry out the policies he believed in. Whether it was signing statements, executive orders, or the use of legal loopholes, Bush found a way to do what he perceived to be his duty, whether it was popular or not. Barack Obama to this point has failed to demonstrate through action that he is of the same moral character. I freely concede that he has talked the talk before, and he will very likely talk the talk again, but, to quote George R.R. Martin:

Words are wind.