Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday attempted to justify plans for a missile strike on Syria, while at the same time accepting the face-saving compromise brokered by Russia. The contradictory message was intended to counter public opposition to military involvement in order to shore up his executive role.
The real story is that he has become increasingly estranged from the American public, and confronts an overwhelming sentiment not to get entangled in another Middle Eastern quagmire on the basis of hyped-up “intelligence.” He has no international support, and Congress, reflecting US opinion, would likely have voted against authorization for military action. A reassertion of popular sovereignty is coming into conflict with the expansion of executive power.
The public opposition to war emerged from a growing disenchantment with the administration’s record in dealing with domestic problems. Unemployment and poverty are on the rise, and even Americans with jobs are dealing with rising prices, stagnant wages, and intensified workloads. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are associated in the public mind with the financial collapse of 2008 and reduced living standards.
Obama constructed a narrative where the US is “the anchor of global security.” This formulation is aimed at persuading people to back him by projecting the ideal of stability at home, secured by the state, onto the executive’s international role. He framed a military strike with the imagery of “men, women, children, lying in rows killed by poison gas.” The US, he said, had an exceptional role and a moral duty to intervene. However, intervening would be limited and risk-free, involving “no American boots on the ground,” and thus entailed no permanent commitment. His appeal was met by scepticism from a public burned by the broken promises of hope.
The fact that he went to Congress for authorization and had to argue for executive support in this contradictory way signals the difference between the present historical moment and 2003, when Bush was able to count on the legislature to give him a free hand and the public to be saturated with media propaganda for war.
A New York Times poll “underscores a steady shift in public opinion about the proper American role in the world, as fatigue from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has made people less open to intervening in the world’s trouble spots and more preoccupied with economic travails at home. … Sixty-two percent of the people polled said the United States should not take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts, while only 34 percent said it should. In April 2003, a month after American troops marched into Iraq, 48 percent favored a leading role, while 43 percent opposed it.”
It’s hard therefore to accept veteran journalist John Pilger’s view that “a military coup has taken place in Washington.” He writes: “As the constitution is replaced by an emerging police state, those who destroyed Iraq with shock and awe, piled up the rubble in Afghanistan and reduced Libya to a Hobbesian nightmare, are ascendant across the US administration.” What this argument fails to consider is that people still have a strong sense of their rights as Americans; military ascendancy cannot be achieved without coming into conflict with popular sovereignty.
This is the fault line in US politics today. While the government has protected billionaire bankers and is close to low-wage corporations like Walmart, low-waged workers are campaigning for a $15 minimum wage – which would require statutory action at the state level. Fast-food workers walked off the job in nearly 60 cities last month, spreading industrial action to towns like Tampa and Raleigh in the south, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the west. “I know I’m risking my job, but it’s my right to fight for what I deserve,” said Julio Wilson, as he picketed a Little Caesars restaurant in North Carolina.
Unions in the AFL-CIO are having to adapt to a changed work environment, organizing in collaboration with immigrant rights activists and turning to community-based rather than industry-based organizing. Last week the federation decided to launch a major campaign to organize immigrants and low-wage workers who have traditionally not been recruited by unions.
In These Times writer Micah Uetricht commented that the fast-food workers’ strikes “seem to have legitimated walking off the job as a tactic for workers, even those without a union … And as anyone who attends these strikes and speaks with a striker can attest, the Fight for 15 campaign has tapped into a seething anger among low-wage workers over their precarious position in American society.”
Labor journalist Mike Elk noticed the same thing: the campaign “helped focus the conversation on the problems of the low minimum wage in this country and the conditions for low-wage workers. And two, this idea of non-union workers going out on strike in order to demand fair organizing conditions, organizing without fear of retaliation, I do think could spread to other industries and help unions in tough situations.”
It has also begun to affect politics at the local level. Voters in Long Beach, California, overwhelmingly enacted a measure to increase the hourly pay of the city’s hotel employees to $13. And in New York City, the difficulties of living on a low income and facing daily police harassment are finding a political expression as Bill de Blasio won a decisive victory in the Democratic primary for mayoral candidate. Democracy Now anchor Juan Gonzalez reported that de Blasio “really ran a very progressive race, focusing in on income inequality in New York City, the 47 percent of New Yorkers are at or near the poverty level, and talking about the need to rein in the—all the tax breaks to developers and the business community, and increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for better public education and expanded preschool. … his campaign really resonated with the reality that many New Yorkers are facing …”
At the same time, the government-encouraged corporatization of K-12 education is meeting resistance from teachers, and this in turn is reaching into Democratic party politics. After the Chicago Teachers Union failed to prevent school closures in the city, its president Karen Lewis declared: “If the mayor and his hand-picked corporate school board will not listen to us, we must find those who will.” In These Times reports that the CTU is working to intervene in the Democratic primaries next year to replace state legislators who voted for the closures and to stand their own candidates. Lewis told volunteers, “We must change the political landscape in Chicago.”
The executive is steadily losing its credibility with the American people as they rediscover their agency and become independent of the institutions that kept them tied to the corporate system of pumping out rents from their wages. Americans are saying “Enough” to the era of corporatist politics – Obama ran as a restorer of popular sovereignty, and the people want to ensure he keeps his word.