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The State of Phony Populism

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address on Tuesday. (Photo: Larry Downing/Reuters)Barack Obama put on a deft performance Tuesday night. With trills of empathy, the president’s voice soared to hit the high notes. He easily carried a tune of economic populism. But after five years of Obama in the White House, Americans should know by now that he was lip-syncing the words.

The latest State of the Union speech offered a faint echo of a call for the bold public investment that would be necessary to reduce economic inequity in the United States. The rhetoric went out to a country that in recent years has grown even more accustomed to yesterday’s floor becoming today’s ceiling.

The speech offered nothing that could plausibly reverse the trend of widening income gaps. Despite Obama’s major drumroll about his executive order to increase the minimum wage for some federal contract employees, few workers would be affected. The thumping was loud, but the action was small.

Obama of course blames congressional Republicans for obstructing needed reforms — and they certainly deserve blame. But for Americans struggling to make ends meet, the record of the Obama administration is littered with wreckage from its refusal to fight for people of modest means.

During 2009 and 2010 — when Democrats controlled not only the White House and Senate but also the House — Obama skipped past vital options for working and want-to-be-working Americans. For instance, he never really pushed for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have helped unions regain footing and halt their downward slide of membership, especially after crackdowns in state legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan and elsewhere.

In a huge blow to the largest unionized workforce in the country — U.S. Postal Service employees — the Obama administration did nothing to undo the extreme pension-prefunding rules that were imposed during the last two years of the George W. Bush administration. And now the Obama White House is presiding over waves of privatization of USPS assets and services, with grave consequences for its workers and the public.

In his speech, while Obama presented himself as an ally of federal workers, he neglected to mention something quite relevant: At the end of 2010, he signed a bill that prohibited pay increases for most of the federal government’s civilian employees. The pay freeze had come at his initiative.

Conflicted priorities

More broadly, Obama never came close to embracing the scale of public investment that would have been necessary to truly move toward a strong and equitable economy.

It was clear in 2009 that the incoming president would get one major bite of the stimulus apple. Obama chose not to go for a big enough bite. As a tragic result, the job-creating stimulus package was too small and too fleeting to sustain a strong recovery.

But the size of the stimulus was only part of the problem. Obama, it turned out, was not interested in much public investment via government programs. Instead of developing a modern New Deal that would enable public works to create large numbers of long-term jobs, the Obama team routinely funneled the federal spending to private companies.

In his speech, Obama used the term ‘middle class’ five times. But he had nothing of substance to say about America’s poor.

Now, entering his sixth presidential year — after doing much for Wall Street and little for the nonwealthy — Obama has used the State of the Union to burnish himself as a champion of working people. But top economic officials in his Cabinet belie the pose.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is a former top executive at Citigroup, where he ran a unit that profited from the housing collapse. The same collapse was also very good to Obama’s current commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker, a Chicago billionaire who profited handsomely from banking operations that methodically targeted low-income people for subprime mortgages. (By the way, Pritzker was the national finance chair for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and a co-chair of his 2012 campaign.)

The president’s 2014 State of the Union, of course, hit all the right populist notes. He lauded “middle class” Americans who “work hard and take responsibility.”

Earlier in the day, the Democratic National Committee distributed talking points to its members, featuring this headline: “The President & Democrats Acting to Build a Stronger Middle Class.”

Limited-opportunity agenda

In his speech, Obama used the term “middle class” five times. But he had nothing of substance to say about America’s poor, despite the fact that nearly 50 million people — almost 1 in 6 — are living below the official U.S. poverty line.

“The Obama administration seems to have very little concern about poor people and their social misery,” African-American scholar and activist Cornel West said in November 2010. More than three years later, Obama’s record does little to refute such assessments.

Like West, I was a hopeful supporter of Barack Obama during his first campaign for president. In fact, I was an Obama delegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention. But his corporate affinities and lack of interest in genuine structural change to the U.S. economy have long since become painfully clear.

On Wednesday, The New York Times headlined a bold-sounding statement from his State of the Union address: “Whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.” But such noble barking from President Obama has rarely had much bite.

Opportunity for American families is badly circumscribed by many policies that Obama has shown no interest in changing — such as huge military budgets that drain vast amounts of badly needed resources away from domestic needs. And he could expand opportunity for American families by removing Treasury’s Lew and Commerce’s Pritzker from his Cabinet, which remains well stocked with officials who have long functioned in sync with the predatory elites of Wall Street.

Obama’s continuing allegiance to those elites is one of the great tragedies of our era. He knows how to give speeches that impress many pundits and power brokers. But no amount of lofty oratory can make up for a presidency that continues to boost extreme disparities between the rich and the rest of us.