President Barack Obama delivered the annual State of the Union address last night. There was nothing new about how he discussed Wall Street. But, there were a number of proposed ideas for addressing Wall Street that may have been included because of the success of the Occupy movement over the past months .
Obama said he would not let America “go back to the days when Wall Street was allowed to play by its own set of rules.” While the claim Wall Street has ended the practices that led to the crisis that shocked the US Congress into awarding financial bailouts is debatable, the President singled out Wall Street. He displayed an understanding of the fact that Americans have worked hard and been expected to show responsibility while many on Wall Street have not abided by rules and have engaged in risky betting that crashed the economy.
This discussion of rules was not new. In the 2009 State of the Union, Obama said, “Wall Street may be more comforted by an approach that gives bank bailouts with no strings attached and that holds nobody accountable for their reckless decisions.” He said, “I intend to hold these banks fully accountable for the assistance they receive, and this time, they will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer.“ He also stated, “I will not spend a single penny for the purpose of rewarding a single Wall Street executive, but I will do whatever it takes to help the small business that can’t pay its workers or the family that has saved and still can’t get a mortgage. That’s what this is about. It’s not about helping banks; it’s about helping people.”
In the 2010 State of the Union, he said Americans “don’t understand why it seems like bad behavior on Wall Street is rewarded, but hard work on Main Street isn’t; or why Washington has been unable or unwilling to solve any of our problems. They’re tired of the partisanship and the shouting and the pettiness. They know we can’t afford it. Not now.” He called out Wall Street for only lending to “bigger companies” and proposed taking “$30 billion of the money Wall Street banks [had] repaid” to “help community banks give small businesses the credit they need to stay afloat.”
And, in his 2011 State of the Union, Obama did not mention Wall Street. The conversation about the economy was couched in discussion of the national deficit. He said, “We need to take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government.” This sort of framing, which was partly a result of the Tea Party and Democratic Party losses during the 2010 midterm election, has since been almost entirely obliterated and replaced with talk about the 99 percent versus the 1 percent.
Obama’s speechifying on “rules” and the hard work of “millions of Americans,” who deserve a country where rules are the same from “top to bottom” and there are “no bailouts, no handouts and no copouts” is actually pretty conservative. If he hadn’t used the word “rules” when presenting this view in his speech, one could have suggested this was pretty similar to what a GOP presidential candidate might say. (It’s worth asking what the difference is between government that ensures there are “rules” that enforce “no bailouts, no handouts and no copouts” and a government that lacks these “rules” but manages a society where bailouts, handouts and copouts are discouraged in society.)
Obama mentioned “watchdog” Richard Cordray, stated a “Financial Crimes Unit” would be established to crack down on “large-scale fraud,” mentioned Attorney General Eric Holder would be starting a “special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attornys general to expand” investigations into “abusive lending” and the “packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis.” He said the unit will “hold accountable those who broke the law.” He called for ensuring that those who make more than a “$1 million a year” pay their “fair share” and not pay “less than 30 percent in taxes.” And he urged Congress to send him a bill that banned insider trading by members of Congress and limited “any elected official from owning stocks in industries they impact.”
There was no mention of “workers’ rights.” He did not mention any issues or policy proposals that would directly affect unions in America. After a year with uprisings in states like Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, etc, that might be surprising. But it shows how Occupy Wall Street’s rise to prominence has diminished the importance of workers’ issues (even though Occupy groups have provided a lot of support to union struggles over the past months).
Obama noted the “Arab Spring” and said, “A wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo; from Sana’a to Tripoli.” But he did not bother to acknowledge the thousands upon thousands of Americans tirelessly working to change America. This may have something to do with the reality that typically US citizens who take action are rarely esteemed for activism, nonviolence or resistance. The people of the Appalachian Mountains, who fight the coal industry’s wholesale destruction of the region through mountaintop removal coal mining (the blowing up of mountains), are entirely ignored. Military veterans, who call for an end to wars, are liable to get stomped on by police horses. Peace activists organizing are often the focus of FBI surveillance operations that are being carried out because the FBI needs something to do. People who fight for health care as a human right are forced to stay in a “veal pen.” And workers who rise up to fight assaults on their union rights (which has been happening in Wisconsing and other US states) often find themselves betrayed as the White House says as little as possible, afraid that support for the people might make it hard to win re-election.
Such has been true for Occupy Wall Street, as the Obama Administration has not said much of anything about the police brutality and city-sponsored repression that many Occupy groups have endured. This has only added to the suspicion that Homeland Security orchestrated a crackdown on various Occupy camps months ago.
Obama has a reputation for being a good speaker, but one who is largely incapable of taking bold action either because of GOP obstruction or because he caves to corporate and special interests before the process of advancing accountability or developing reform has even begun. There is reason to be skeptical and suspect that these suggestions, if carried out as solutions, would all have a veneer of accountability and regulation and beneath the surface they would still be inadequate (especially since a “unit” already exists). But, the fact that they are being proposed indicates the Obama Administration understands it must respond somehow to the growing calls for Wall Street accountability and for increased taxes on the rich. [*Previously, he had said he could not comment on Wall Street prosecutions.]
However, the address acknowledged the problem of money in politics, a top issue for the Occupy movement. It called for Americans to pay their “fair share” in taxes, another top issue for the Occupy movement (and a demand that a group of activists known as US Uncut advanced prior to Occupy Wall Street). He also called for Congress to send him a bill to ban insider trading by Congresspeople. That has been something the Occupy movement has promoted.
The Obama 2012 campaign is laying the groundwork for re-election here and trying to get out ahead of a movement that is confronting all politicians. It may reduce the frequency which Occupy groups protest at Obama’s campaign headquarters. It will most likely create some tension within Occupy groups over whether to trust what the president said. Liberal groups may try to pull Occupy groups into helping them canvas and make phone calls for “progressive” candidates, who will, if elected, “help” Obama advance these proposals.
Numerous members of the Obama Administration have histories working for Big Banks. Up to this point, Occupy has been bold and radical in the true sense of the word, meaning willing to go to the root of problems in American society.
A post from Allison Kilkenny at In These Times indicates Occupy Wall Street mic-checked a response to the State of the Union last night and recommitted itself to the causes of economic and social injustice, which it has championed since the first days of the movement. It made no mention of President Obama. Whether it knew the agenda proposals suggested in the address or not, this shows Occupy Wall Street plans to continue to organize outside of the identity politics that often inhibits or restrains vibrant grassroots action.
If they continue to do as they have done and organize without regard for how it might affect Obama’s ability to win or lose the election, Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy groups will continue to set the terms for debate and push leaders to propose solutions that closely resemble the solutions many occupiers would like to see implemented.