Obama made his final State of the Union speech last week a rhetorical rebuke to Trump and other Republican presidential contenders. He deprecated the fear being generated against immigrants and minorities, especially Muslims: “Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people?” he asked.
But he showed himself singularly insensible to the actual political struggles of his presidency when he bemoaned the fact he had not been able to achieve bipartisanship in the manner of Lincoln. His failure to grasp the social roots of Republican intransigence parallels his misjudgment of the contribution of his own neoliberal administration to the cynicism Americans feel about government. Trump is able to capitalize on this feeling together with the decline of the American Dream to win support from working-class whites by imagining a new “greatness” for America based on racist attacks and demagogic threats of military force.
Obama himself boasted of US military prowess and the killing of Osama bin Laden in his speech, essentially coopting Republican rhetoric. As Roberto Lovado commented in Alternet: “Democrats have either coded and softened the right-wing message and politics of decline (i.e. Obama and the Dems standing up for Syrian refugee children while simultaneously jailing and deporting thousands of Central American refugee children) or simply not offered the kind of unifying narrative that appeals to the solidarity between working-class whites and other non-white working-class groups.”
The fears that Obama hoped to counter don’t grow out of nothing. Trump’s supporters “feel marginalized economically, politically, and socially … [but] their concerns for our future have led to an overwhelming need to see all of our problems as someone else’s fault,” writes Kaddie Abdul, who went to a Trump rally in her hijab to engage his followers in a dialog. “The people who used to be Tea Partiers, who supported Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin or any one of a number of politicians who’ve used this rhetoric before Trump – aren’t going to go away. Whether Trump wins or loses, his supporters will still be out there, longing for another leader to ‘make America great again’.”
His indifference to the social protests that have arisen during his presidency – Occupy Wall Street, the struggle against police shootings of black youth, the Fight for 15 campaign of low-paid workers, the Chicago teachers strike, the DREAM movement – and his detachment from the causes of the protests was expressed in his abstract sermonizing that: “democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.”
Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza commented: “The thing that I think was glaringly missing from the conversation last night was really the conversation around not just gun violence broadly, although that is a major issue in our country, but police violence as it relates to black communities … many people who have been involved in this movement certainly wanted to hear President Obama, possibly the last black president in our country’s history, really talk about what’s going on in black communities specifically … about what kinds of proposals are on the table to ensure that black people can live full lives in this country like everyone else.”
Obama’s leadership failed because he was constitutionally incapable of harnessing the social coalition that elected him in 2008. Once elected, he uncoupled from this mass movement and appointed a cabinet dominated by Wall Street insiders and neoliberals, leading to political capitulation over banking regulation and healthcare reform, and an inability to control the workings of the vast federal bureaucracy. The net effect was that he did little to shield the most vulnerable Americans from predatory capitalism.
In his speech he appropriated the language of Martin Luther King to argue for a corporatist version of politics. “Voices that help us see ourselves not first and foremost as black or white or Asian or Latino … but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word – voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love. They’re out there, those voices … I see it in the worker on the assembly line who clocked extra shifts to keep his company open, and the boss who pays him higher wages to keep him on board.” This flight of fantasy only has a basis in workers clocking extra shifts because they fear the closure of their plants and losing their jobs as part of America’s industrial decline, not out of brotherly love for their bosses.
But while the social movement Obama energized in 2008 may have dissipated as a political force, it has morphed into many other forms of resistance. In particular, the American labor movement is not dead. Although major strikes are infrequent, thanks to repressive legislation, when they do take place they are solid. For example, workers at Wisconsin’s Kohler Company stayed out picketing for over a month at the end of last year after a 94% strike vote against a two-tier wage system that gave younger workers 35% less than those on the top tier. They won an increase in the lower wage to $15 an hour; older workers on the picket lines said they were expressing their solidarity for the younger generation.
The Chicago Teachers’ Union has also voted overwhelmingly to strike if necessary, for the second time in three years. In 2012, the discredited Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, also exploited civil rights rhetoric to cover a neoliberal push to force give-backs from the teachers. As Shaun Richman notes, the public on the other hand “overwhelmingly viewed the CTU as striking for the common good. Partly, this was thanks to two years of deep and meaningful community organizing and partnerships that the union diligently pursued knowing there would likely be a strike. And partly, this was thanks to the union bargaining for school resources demands that resonated beyond just their membership.”
The Fight for 15 is another sign of growing resistance. Richman argues: “Some have dismissed the series of rolling one-day strikes for increases in the minimum wage and organizing rights as mere P.R. stunts. But there is something deeply radical and significant at play here. Workers who don’t even technically have a union are proving their value—and their power—to their bosses by withholding their labor. … The great potential of Fight for 15 is that unorganized workers see reflections of themselves in the strikers and begin to fantasize about what a job action could look like at their workplace.”
Obama’s legacy is a disappointment to many who voted for him, but there is a potential for Bernie Sanders to energize the kind of political excitement that Obama did in 2008. While Hillary Clinton is tied by her umbilical cord to Wall Street, Sanders is getting major support for his anti-corporate message. He still has to reach many voters in the south, however, although his willingness to take on board actual movements of dissent is a huge positive. And as his poll numbers rise, he will get more exposure to potential supporters who would respond to his call for universal healthcare and free higher education.
Whether or not he succeeds in becoming the Democratic presidential candidate, his campaign has connected with the same kind of anti-oligarchic sentiment as did Occupy Wall Street. The hunger for real hope and change is stronger than ever.