State of the Union Places Entitlement Above Equity

By Michelle Chen Jan 28, 2010

Wrapped up in tonight’s stream of glossy oratory was a familiar sense of entitlement. The State of the Union address emphasized rebuilding the middle class, supporting small businesses, boosting financial markets–in other words, soothing the anxieties of people who slipped during the recession and are eager to reclaim stability. Less was said about those who never had much in the first place, for whom the recession is just the latest setback in a lifetime of struggle. Obama did acknowledge the pain that has been heaped on “Main Street.” But his call for “a new jobs bill” was deferential to free enterprise—which means "growth" will be pursued, as usual, on the backs of the poor, people of color and other communities at the economic margins.

[T]he true engine of job creation in this country will always be America’s businesses. But government can create the conditions necessary for businesses to expand and hire more workers. We should start where most new jobs do – in small businesses, companies that begin when an entrepreneur takes a chance on a dream, or a worker decides its time she became her own boss.

He talked of transferring tax breaks from companies that outsource their labor “to companies that create jobs in the United States of America.” But he was careful not to suggest any significant expansion of the government’s role in the economy, despite the numerous parallels between the current crises and the Great Depression, which spawned the New Deal. And his pro-business pivot left no room for mentioning any comprehensive effort to deal with poverty, which would require a redistribution of resources that free markets do not countenance. Recovery, in the narrow frame that Obama has drawn, is about nurturing a “strong, healthy financial market” that “channels the savings of families into investments that raise incomes.” Who’s not in the picture? The families who are more likely to dip into their local food pantry than draw down their mutual funds. The words were curated to persuade the middle class and its aspirants not to give up hope for financial security and health care, and to remind the banking sector that Washington will chide them but never really hamper their growth. And the rest of us are left with a vague assurance that the world won’t fall apart tomorrow, even though that’s what it felt like yesterday on the unemployment line. In Pacifica’s follow-up coverage, hip hop commentator Davey D called the speech “kind of wack”:

“I think he’s addressing people who are feeling uncomfortable. Uncomfortable meaning… they might not have some of the creature comforts that they’ve been used to. And what I’m concerned about are the working poor and folks who can barely make it. And they weren’t addressed…. You have people that are now finding themselves out of work after putting in 10, 15 years on the job. They find themselves under the pressure of having to take significant pay cuts… And at the same time, you haven’t had any of the costs go down. So somebody’s sitting there asking himself, ‘How will I pay for groceries? The groceries in their neighborhood went up. ‘How will I pay for rent?’ They’re not homeowners, they’re renters. The rent has gone up…. And so what I see is a lot of people who are sitting there going, ‘This is great, if I had a kid that’s going to school. This is good if I get a tax break, but if I don’t have no job, tax break doesn’t do anything for me. So poor and working people, I feel, did not have a lot of the challenges that they have really addressed.”

So entitlement trumped equity in Obama’s speech. The most he said about civil rights came at the end in a slew of talking points that lumped together hate crimes, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and one sentence for the millions of immigrants awaiting reform.

My administration has a Civil Rights Division that is once again prosecuting civil rights violations and employment discrimination. (Applause.) We finally strengthened our laws to protect against crimes driven by hate. (Applause.) This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. (Applause.) It’s the right thing to do. (Applause.) We’re going to crack down on violations of equal pay laws — so that women get equal pay for an equal day’s work. (Applause.) And we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system — to secure our borders and enforce our laws, and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation. (Applause.)

Maybe Obama thought the applause would fill in the blanks in his policy agenda. The speech was heavy on boosterism for a slippery vision of mainstream America. The responsibility to protect the most vulnerable, however, was mostly a rhetorical flourish, and Obama’s controversial plan to freeze discretionary spending may weaken that mandate even further. Rena Steinzor of the Center for Progressive Reform points out that Obama’s "pander" to tight-fisted Republicans may gut those programs that serve impoverished children, protect workers’ safety and health, and regulate the pollution that disproportionately afflicts poor people of color.

The freeze would apply to only 17 percent of the budget, a total of about $450 million, and does not include the massive entitlement spending for Medicare and Social Security, the defense budget and foreign aid, but does appear to include early childhood education, afterschool programs, worker safety, and consumer and environmental protections. The President has not said how he will allocate the aggregate amount of frozen funds, which will not even be indexed for inflation, in effect setting off a destructive battle within the public interest community to see if Head Start can trump toxics regulation.

But the public interest wasn’t in the spotlight tonight. It was traded for another round of promises, spiked with lofty hopes and strategic distractions. Obama’s most salient point may have been in his conclusion:

I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone. Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That’s just how it is.

True, change is hard. And Obama won’t do it alone, or at all, unless those millions of people are ready to make politics noisier, messier and more complicated than ever before. Image: Jim Wilson / The New York Times