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State of the Union: Obama's Political Theater and Theirs

Obama's State of the Union Marks Beginning of Reelection Campaign

- Common Dreams staff

President Obama's 2012 State of the Union address begins at 9 PM EST. Watch here:

If you have problems with the stream, try here or here to view the address.

Tonight's State of the Union address delivered by Barack Obama will mark a clear starting line for his 2012 presidential election campaign.  Though predictable and broadly forecast, the speech may be more interesting for what it excludes than what it includes.

First, the predictable. Here's a preview of the speech laid out in a recent video by the president:

And here are circulated White House talking points, as released by the Huffington Post:President Obama talks about the speech with White House Speech-Writing Director Jon Favreau in the Oval Office.

  • In his State of the Union Address, the President will lay out a blueprint for an economy that's built to last -- an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values.
  • The President believes this is a make or break moment for the middle class and those trying to reach it. What's at stake is the very survival of the basic American promise that if you work hard, you can do well enough to raise a family, own a home, and put a little away for retirement.
  • The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive. No challenge is more urgent; no debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while more Americans barely get by. Or we can build a nation where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.
  • The fact is, the economic security of the middle class has eroded for decades. Long before the recession, good jobs and manufacturing began leaving our shores. Hard work stopped paying off for too many Americans. Those at the top saw their incomes rise like never before, but the vast majority of Americans struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren't.
  • In 2008, the house of cards collapsed. Mortgages were sold to people who couldn't afford or understand them. Banks made huge bets and bonuses made with other people's money. It was a crisis that cost us more than eight million jobs and plunged our economy and the world into a crisis from which we are still fighting to recover.
  • The President has been clear that we need to do more to create jobs and help economic growth. But under his leadership and thanks to action taken by this President, the economy is growing again. The economy has added a total of 3.2 million private sector jobs over the last 22 months.
  • American manufacturing is creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s. The American auto industry is coming back. Today, American oil production is the highest that it's been in eight years. Together, we've agreed to cut the deficit by more than 2 trillion. And the President signed into law new rules to hold Wall Street accountable. He stands on a solid record and tonight will lay out a blueprint that will ensure an economy built to last over the long term.
  • For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. We've decimated al Qaeda's leadership, delivered justice to Osama bin Laden, and put that terrorist network on the path to defeat. We've made important progress in Afghanistan, and begun a transition so Afghans can assume more responsibility. We joined with allies and partners to protect the Libyan people as they ended the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.
  • We cannot go back to an economy based on outsourcing, bad debt, and phony financial profits. The President intends to keep moving forward and rebuild an economy where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded -- an economy built to last.

Equally predictable will be the response by Republicans politicians, candidates, and operatives, and many aren't waiting for the speech itself to cast their aspersions on the president's remark.

Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), said in a statement: "The president's policies, again, are just going to double down on what hasn't worked.  Republicans have a plan for America's job creators. There are over 30 bills that are sitting over in the United States Senate.  We're hopeful that the president will extend somewhat of an olive branch tonight to work with us on those policies that will help get our economy moving again, and help create jobs in our country."

GOP candidate Mitt Romney offered a 'prebuttal' to the speech this morning in Tampa Bay, Florida. "This President’s agenda made these troubled times last longer. He and his allies made it harder for the economy to recover," Romney said  . "Instead of solving the housing crisis and getting Americans back to work, President Obama has been building a European-style welfare state. He has pushed for a second stimulus and deep cuts to our national defense."  Romney did not cite any facts to back up these claims.

The GOP have chosen Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels to voice their official rebuttal to the speech, and although less known to most Americans, Daniels will delineate many familiar talking points in his response.  The Nation's John Nichols offers a sense of what to expect from "anti-labor zealot" Daniels and what the choice says about the Republicans' election year mindset: Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels delivers the State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature at the Statehouse Tuesday, January 10, 2012, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

The choice of Daniels, who is currently leading the fight to enact an antilabor “right-to-work (for less)” law in Indiana, sends a powerful signal at a time when the Republicans who would be president are stumbling over one another to proclaim their enthusiasm for “right-to-work” legislation, their disdain for public employees and their unions and (in Newt Gingrich’s case) their determination to turn the clock back a century in order to eliminate child-labor laws. Only Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Ohio Governor John Kasich are more closely linked in the public’s mind with the union-bashing frenzy that has so energized Republican governors and legislators. And Daniels is, arguably, the most aggressive union basher of all. Having already stripped Indiana public employees of collective bargaining rights, he is now aiding and abetting the efforts of Indiana Republican legislators to undermine the rights of private sector workers.

Now, the state-based fight goes national as an antilabor governor gets a forum to spread antilabor lies about how best to jump-start a sputtering economy. “The national Republican party has selected Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels to respond to President Obama’s State of the Union address… sending a clear signal the party is making attacks on working people a top priority in the 2012 elections,” observes the AFL-CIO blog. Daniels is a key backer of right-to-work-for-less (RTW) legislation, which state Republican lawmakers, in a stunning display of arrogance, have repeatedly tried to ram through, while thumbing their noses at working Hoosiers—not to mention democracy.

The response to the president’s State of the Union Address by a representative of the opposition party has become as much a part of American political theater as the speech itself.

Robert Parry, at Consortium News, points out the failures in policy Daniels helped generate while acting as George W. Bush's budget director from 2001 to 2003:

Daniels oversaw the federal budget as it was making its historic reversal from a $236 billion surplus – then on a trajectory to eliminate the entire federal debt in a decade – to a $400 billion deficit by the time Daniels left the Office of Management and Budget in June 2003.

Plus, because of proposals developed on Daniels’s watch – such as tax cuts favoring the rich and unpaid-for projects, including the invasion of Iraq and a new prescription drug plan – the fiscal situation of the federal government continued to deteriorate over the ensuing years, becoming a trillion-dollar-plus annual deficit by the time Bush left the White House in 2009.

And that Clinton-era projection of eliminating the entire federal debt receded far over the horizon behind a vast ocean of red ink. In other words, in a saner world, Daniels might be one of the last people you would tout as a “fiscal conservative” or, for that matter, a “job creator” given the massive job losses by the end of Bush’s disastrous reign.

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What Progressives Want to Hear, But Likely Won't

The Center for Biological Diversity would like the president to address the climate crisis, which they call the "challenge of our lifetime". Executive director Kieran Suckling said:

More than any other person on the planet, the president has the power to set a course for immediate, tangible progress on the most devastating problem facing life on Earth. Delaying action will virtually ensure a climate catastrophe.

The world needs the United States to help solve this global crisis, and President Obama should do just that. Without his leadership now, all living beings on Earth risk dangers that belong in science-fiction novels, not reality.

And Robert S. McElvaine, history professor at Millsaps College and author of the 25th-anniversary edition of “The Great Depression", renewed the oft heard refrain that Obama -- once and for all -- should learn the lessons that FDR learned in 1936 by taking on the banks and Washington corporate paymasters head on with an aggressive progressive populism. Writing at Politico, he argues:

FDR abandoned consensus and compromise, and instead cast his lot with the poor, unions and minorities, and against the corporate and financial interests

It was progressive agitation, union activities and popular movements (collectively identified as “Thunder on the Left”) in 1934 and 1935 — combined with FDR’s belated realization that Big Business wasn’t going to play ball with him — that ultimately led Roosevelt to shift to more progressive policies and proposals.

The American Liberty League, formed by business and conservative opponents of the New Deal, was established in 1934 “to combat radicalism, preserve property rights [and] uphold and preserve the Constitution.” These backers were the Koch brothers of that era, trying to convince Americans that the president was a socialist.

Always a savvy pragmatist, FDR finally realized it was impossible to compromise with those who refuse to compromise. He also saw that he needed to move left to catch up with his “followers,” who were demanding more vigorous action on behalf of the vast majority of Americans struggling in the Great Depression.

Roosevelt was “leading from behind.” He abandoned consensus and compromise, and instead cast his lot with the poor, unions and minorities, and against the corporate and financial interests — becoming the “Franklin D. Roosevelt” we know today.

FDR launched his 1936 reelection campaign by warning against a dictatorship by the over-privileged and declaring that private enterprise had become “too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.”

“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America,” he said, expressing sentiments that could resonate now. “What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.”

Glenn Greenwald, at Salon.com, doubts Obama will discuss his horrible record on prosecuting whistleblowers:

What’s most notable [is] that [prosecution of a former CIA agent, John Kiriakou] is now the sixth prosecution by the Obama administration of an accused leaker, and all six have been charged under the draconian, World-War-I era Espionage Act. As EFF’s Trevor Timm put it yesterday: this is the “6th time under Obama someone is charged with Espionage for leaking to a journalist. Before Obama: only 3 cases in history.” This is all accomplished by characterizing disclosures in American newspapers about America’s wrongdoing as “aiding the enemy” (the alleged enemy being informed is Al Qaeda, but the actual concern is that the American people learn what their government is doing). As The New York Times‘ Charlie Savage wrote this morning, Obama has brought “more such cases than all previous presidents combined,” and by doing so, has won the admiration of the CIA and other intelligence agencies which, above all else, loathe transparency (which happens to be the value that Obama vowed to provide more of than any President in history).

And few will be surprised if Obama makes any special note of this Reuters report about how top members of his Justice Department are connected to large mortgage banks at the center of a major fraud foreclosure investigation:

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, were partners for years at a Washington law firm that represented a Who's Who of big banks and other companies at the center of alleged foreclosure fraud [...]

While Holder and Breuer were partners at Covington, the firm's clients included the four largest U.S. banks - Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo & Co - as well as at least one other bank that is among the 10 largest mortgage servicers. [...]

Several lawyers for homeowners have said that even if Holder and Breuer haven't violated any ethics rules, their ties to Covington create an impression of bias toward the firms' clients, especially in the absence of any prosecutions by the Justice Department.

And though Obama has not shied away from his controversial signing of the National Defense Authorization Act -- which law professor Jonathan Turley called “one of the greatest rollbacks of civil liberties in the history of our country”-- few expect him to champion his policy of indefinite detention, his inability to close the Guantanamo prison, or the countless innocent civilians killed in his expanded drone war in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

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