Obama to America: Work Harder

Liberal pundits and Republican congressmen agree: Barack Obama’s second inaugural was the most liberal speech of his presidency. They may be right. But just what kind of liberalism is this?

(samirluther / flickr)

Liberal pundits and Republican congressmen agree: Barack Obama’s second inaugural was the most liberal speech of his presidency. They may be right. But just what kind of liberalism is this?

The speech’s claim to liberalism rests on at least three grounds. First, Obama spoke with unusual urgency about the threat of climate change — a pleasant surprise given his recent reticence on the topic. Second, he argued for a role for government in a mixed economy, including the need not to scrap Social Security or Medicare (though he also praised “initiative and enterprise,” and reiterated his call for “hard choices” to attack the deficit). And third, the president celebrated the role of collective action and organizing in American history, including by militant queer activists – making Obama’s the first inaugural address to acknowledge the existence of gay people.

Obama called the declaration “that all of us are created equal” the “star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall . . .” That’s not what you would have heard in a Mitt Romney Inaugural Address (though it’s not hard to imagine Romney, with a different emphasis, also touting a mixed economy and the need to secure entitlements for future generations).

But Obama’s celebration of collective action was also noteworthy for the proper nouns he didn’t name: Lowell. Pullman. Flint. Memphis. Delano. Obama’s speech celebrated feminist activism, civil rights activism, and LGBT activism, but didn’t mention labor activism. That’s a noteworthy omission, not an accident of alliteration.

Consider the ways the president does and doesn’t talk about labor. In last year’s State of the Union, Obama twice alluded to unions: He touted support for paying teachers better, while making it easier for schools to fire them. And he praised a CEO who decided, given rising costs abroad and rising productivity at home, to bring jobs back to a unionized factory in the United States. (Obama’s first term record on labor is decidedly mixed.)

In Monday’s speech, Obama said that “America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.” (This line appeared in some union press releases praising the speech.) But he didn’t celebrate workplace activism to secure those wages. After declaring that “a little girl born into the bleakest poverty” must be “free” and “equal” in the eyes of Americans’, Obama said, “We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach harder.”

Set aside for a moment that “education reform” here includes attacking collective bargaining. Consider that, at a moment when productivity gains are flowing overwhelmingly to the wealthiest, the president of the United States is calling upon the country to empower workers to work harder. (Never mind that, as liberal economists have observed, what’s lacking is demand, not skills, and the multi-decade decline in good jobs has hit the “skilled” workforce as well.)

Obama may believe it will take a mass movement of citizens to wring support for these “new ideas and technology” from a recalcitrant Republican House. But once that mission is accomplished, his speech’s prescription for US workers is heavy on individual uplift.

Of course, Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall were all about workers as well (a reality Obama arguably alluded to in saying that “our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.”) True liberation for women, or African Americans, or gay people doesn’t stop at the workplace door. That’s where the limits of this inaugural’s liberalism lie. Rooting out prejudicial treatment among workers isn’t enough to end exploitation. And a call to arms against racism, sexism, and homophobia that treads lightly around the workplace has a very circumscribed form of social transformation in sight.

Obama’s speech was a far cry from the message of the modern Republican Party. But much of it would fit snugly in a handbook from Human Resources: Discrimination will not be tolerated. Active citizenship is everyone’s responsibility. Work harder.