The inherent strength of the social movement that reelected Obama in November was perceptible in the spectacle of his second inauguration. The event was designed to be symbolic in a way that both coopted and validated social change in America.
Some of Obama’s liberal critics were surprised by its tone: immigration activist Sarah Uribe “was taken aback by the diversity displayed: an almost surreal portrait of progress and equality. I beamed while watching supreme court Justice Sonia Sotomayor swear in Vice-President Biden; I was thrilled to hear gay, Latino poet Richard Blanco’s ode to working-class people; and my jaw nearly dropped when I heard the Reverend Luis Leon partially recite the benediction in Spanish. And, of course, the historic significance of hearing our African-American president speak on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday was not lost.”
The rhetoric of his inaugural speech aligned Obama politically with this movement, making many references to “We, the people,” leveraging the language of the constitution, Lincoln, and the Civil Rights movement against the philosophy of radical individualism. He defended the role of government, articulating popular frustration with legislative gridlock in order to undermine Reagan’s “welfare queen” ideology and send a message to Congressional Republicans that the balance of power between executive and legislature had changed.
But while Obama’s themes were squarely in line with popular sentiment, they didn’t include any major initiatives. Former Obama official Kenneth Baer pointed out in the Washington Post that the speech sounded progressive only because the Republicans have moved political discourse so far to the right. “Defending the idea of a social safety net to guard against the vagaries of life is hardly radical,” writes Baer.
Obama’s commitment to maintaining Medicare and Social Security hinges on reducing the cost of health care and the size of the deficit. This is where the devil is in the details, for if a semblance of equality can be achieved by increasing taxes on the rich, Obama may well agree to cuts in social programs when negotiations resume over the debt ceiling in March.
This possibility is indicated by a major contradiction between Obama’s promises of equality of opportunity and reality. Although he declared: “We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class,” major changes in the relation between state, banks and corporations are needed to stop middle-class jobs from disappearing because of the way the economy has been hollowed out through outsourcing. While more manufacturing jobs have been created in the last four years, they are non-union, low-wage jobs that won’t sustain a middle-class lifestyle.
According to the New York Times, “For millions of workers, wages have flatlined. Take Caterpillar, long a symbol of American industry: while it reported record profits last year, it insisted on a six-year wage freeze for many of its blue-collar workers. … Corporate America’s push to outsource jobs — whether call-center jobs to India or factory jobs to China — has fattened corporate earnings, while holding down wages at home. New technologies have raised productivity and profits, while enabling companies to shed workers and slice payroll. … From 1973 to 2011, worker productivity grew 80 percent, while median hourly compensation, after inflation, grew by just one-eighth that amount, according to the Economic Policy Institute …”
What was also notable in Obama’s speech was his omissions from its narrative. He invoked the images of Selma, Seneca Falls and Stonewall, but ignored present-day struggles for collective bargaining or for a living wage – let alone the contribution of the labor movement to the creation of a large middle class. This omission of any contemporary challenge to corporate America is a sign that, despite the appointment of a former prosecutor to the SEC, Obama is not serious about curbing the power of the financial industry. From Lehman Brothers to HBOS, major banks and their CEOs have gotten away with fraud and criminal conduct which Holder’s Justice Department refuses to prosecute. Changes at the SEC come too little, too late to put any well-heeled bank executives in jail.
Obama’s role is to rationalize the state on behalf of the political class, which means making sure opposition to cuts in entitlement spending is confined to pressure on Congress rather than riots in the street. That’s what he means by calling on citizens to “shape the debates of our time.” However, his validation of the ideal of equality carries the potential of extending it to the fight for economic as well as political equality.
This is why the movement of low-waged workers is more crucial than ever. It has spread from Walmart warehouse and store workers to subcontracted cleaners at Target who are filing charges that they were regularly locked into Minneapolis stores overnight. Walmart itself is trying to head off organizing efforts by introducing a monitoring system for working conditions in its warehouses – no different in principle from its monitoring of factories in Bangladesh, which did nothing to prevent the tragic fire killing over 100 garment workers. And in New York City, school bus drivers are in the tenth day of a strike against the loss of union protections for drivers on special education routes.
Although the Occupy movement is no longer highly visible, it made an indelible contribution to the popular notion of a pluralist society in America. The struggle of low-waged workers for union organization, GE factory workers against outsourcing, communities against evictions, and of the majority against cuts in social security, will mount a real challenge to corporate privilege. And this is the promise of America as Obama’s second term begins.