Obama's Last State of the Union Speech

The Reality of the "Change We Can Believe In"—More Wars, Continuing Environmental Catastrophe, Ongoing Horrors

January 18, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


On January 12, President Barack Obama gave his eighth and final State of the Union message.

Eight years ago, Obama was elected the first African-American president in U.S. history. There were massive celebrations, with millions hoping for major changes—a dramatic U-turn from the George W. Bush years and a real beginning to end war, racism, poverty, repression, and environmental devastation. Obama ran on these hopes—“Change We Can Believe In”—and fed them every step of the way. The night he won the vote, Obama told supporters his election proved that America is a “place where all things are possible” and that “change has come to America.” Why was all this possible? Because, according to Obama, of the promise and reality of the American Dream—“that through hard work and sacrifice each of us can pursue our individual dreams.... that each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will.”

So what has Obama actually done? Has he fulfilled those hopes? If not, WHY not? And what are the implications?

Reveling in USA No. 1—Imperialism and Mass Murder

The Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan was hit by a U.S. air strike in October 2015. Photo: AP

A key theme of his State of the Union speech was how even in these times of huge, fast-paced changes reshaping the planet and posing new challenges, the U.S. does and can remain the world’s dominant power—and that people should not only believe this, they should revel in it. Eight years ago, many people had put hope in Obama as the “antiwar candidate”—even when he himself was telling them differently, like promising to send more troops to Afghanistan in order to win the war. Now, Obama sounded like a mafia boss, bragging about U.S. military dominance and his willingness to use it to kill:

[A]ll the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air. Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.

The candidate who established his reputation by opposing Bush’s launching of the war in Iraq is now demanding that Congress authorize more war: “If this Congress is serious about winning this war, and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, you should finally authorize the use of military force against ISIL. Take a vote.”

And Obama brags that authorization or no authorization, the U.S. has already conducted 10,000 airstrikes against targets in Iraq and Syria, and enemies of the U.S. should understand that this president is ready to assassinate anyone, anywhere—like the U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, murdered by a drone strike in Yemen with Obama serving as judge, jury, and executioner: “When you come after Americans”—in other words, threaten U.S. imperialist interests—”we go after you. It may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limit.” Aside from Iraq and Syria, during his two terms Obama has ordered airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia.

Obama’s performance called to mind what Malcolm X said about the U.S., that it stands before the world like a smiling “bloody-jawed wolf.”

Villagers at a home hit by a drone strike near Kabul, Afghanistan, June 2012. Photo: AP

Obama targeted reactionary Islamic fundamentalists, saying, “Both al Qaeda and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people.” But the reality is that the workings of U.S. imperialism over decades—its support of murderous fundamentalist tyrannies like Saudi Arabia and the brutal enforcer state Israel, and its wars and occupations, have created the towering horrors that have fueled the growth of Islamic jihadism. “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia,” Obama declared. “We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis”—as if the U.S. had nothing to do with the 60 million people who are now refugees, or the million-plus dead in Afghanistan and Iraq, as if U.S. bombings, wars and occupations were benevolent efforts to “rebuild.”

All of this is training people to see the world through the eyes of the empire... to think that only American lives matter... and that in hopes of getting better jobs, education, and medical benefits, the people in this country should turn a blind eye to the murder and mayhem the U.S. spreads around the world and the hell for hundreds of millions right here on planet Earth.

“Reinventing” the Energy Sector... By Becoming No. 1 Oil Producer

Some people may argue that he has fulfilled his promises on the environment. Obama—the so-called “environmental” president—claimed that under his leadership, the U.S. had “reinvented” its energy sector, and that thanks to “the single biggest investment in clean energy in our history,” in many places “wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power,” and that “solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills, and employs more Americans than coal.” Meanwhile, Obama declared, “We’ve cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly 60 percent, and cut carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth.”

A coal field in Wyoming, 2010. Photo: AP

What’s the reality? At a moment when the planet is at a climate tipping point, with the fate of the environmental fabric of life at stake, and drastic action is required, Obama’s claims cover over the reality that under his leadership U.S. capitalism-imperialism continues to pour out greenhouse gases from massive use of fossil fuels—gases that are the key drivers of the climate change that is pushing the world toward environmental catastrophe. Wind power? It accounts for only four percent of U.S. energy consumption. Solar? Barely over one percent. Fossil fuels still account for 84 percent of U.S. energy (and this does not even take into account the millions of tons of greenhouse gases spewed into the atmosphere from overseas production for the U.S. market).

As for changes in the energy sector and cutting U.S. oil imports, this is something that has happened under Obama—but it’s nothing positive for humanity. More than Bush/Cheney or any other previous administrations, Obama has been the “oil president,” expanding fracking and increasing oil production 72 percent under his watch, turning the U.S. into the world’s biggest oil and natural gas producer. The U.S. uses these fuels and its dominance of fracking technology as a weapon in its rivalry with capitalist competitors. Clearly, these changes under Obama are hardly consistent with “combating climate change.”

Why Obama Couldn’t Fulfill His Promises

In other aspects as well, things have NOT gotten better under Obama—including the new Jim Crow facing Black people (which Obama said almost nothing about in his speech), the attacks on the right to abortion and other ways that women are under assault, and more. Far from turning around the vicious and heartless attacks on immigrants, Obama has presided over record levels of deportation of immigrants, including children and women fleeing violent hell in Central American countries that has its roots in the U.S. domination of the region in the first place.

The fact is that even if he had wanted to, Obama could never have fulfilled his promises. Why?

Not because Republicans have prevented him. Yes, there’s been sharp struggle in the halls of power, but this is a struggle within the class of capitalist-imperialist rulers over how to best manage the empire. The reasons go much deeper, to the very foundation of any society, including the U.S.—its economic base.

No matter what Obama had said, or even what he had intended—no political representative of this system can escape the laws that set the framework for what is, and what isn’t, possible under the current setup: the laws of capitalism and in particular its anarchic driving force of dog-eat-dog, expand-or-die competition between capitalists, and between the world’s capitalist powers. Whoever sits in the Oval Office is compelled by the needs of this system to fight to maintain the U.S.’s global economic, military, and political supremacy—including by having the biggest military and using that power (including acting through proxy powers) to pursue the interests of U.S. imperialism.

The dynamics of capitalism-imperialism are why environmental measures that are actually commensurate with the scope and scale of the planetary emergency are impossible. If somehow Obama, or any president, were to attempt a wholesale transformation of the way the economy and society as a whole is organized in order to make the kind of drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that are actually needed to seriously deal with the climate crisis, their plans would quickly run up against the workings of the capitalist-imperialist system—including their military and strategic necessities as they engage in cutthroat competition against their rivals around the world. Ask yourself: The U.S. military is the largest single institutional consumer of oil in the world—could the U.S. rulers dismantle their military in order to help save the planet? The answer is obvious.

The fundamental way capitalism-imperialism operates is also why eliminating the oppression of women, the horrendous mistreatment of immigrants, or other horrors is impossible under the current system.

Obama’s role for the last eight years has been to be the political representative of a system that has carried out more wars around the world, environmental destruction, terror against Black and other people of color, violence against and degradation of women, and other horrors—and to try to get people to go along with all this. People who voted for Obama believed that they had chosen him to carry out things they hoped to see. But the truth of the matter is that Obama was chosen by the powers that be to play the role he went on to play—because the ruling class was facing some serious contradictions, within the U.S. and across their empire. This is why powerful forces among the rulers did what they did with Obama—not only having this relatively unknown senator become a “viable” and “serious” candidate for the presidency, but carefully grooming and bringing him forward, including through the mainstream media, giving him an “audition,” and then anointing him to become the face of U.S. imperialism. This is the reality, no matter how much people got sucked into and deeply believed in the promotion of Obama as the “real one” who would finally bring about real “change” in the interests of the people.

What Bob Avakian recently pointed out about elections is very relevant to this: “Choosing between oppressive rulers will not stop them from ruling over and oppressing you and committing horrific crimes against humanity. This is true of all the major presidential candidates, of both the Republican and Democratic parties, and it will be true of anyone who becomes president, or occupies any major political office, under this system. What supporting these people does accomplish is making you complicit with these crimes.(from “ON ‘PRINCIPLED COMPROMISES,’ AND OTHER CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY”)


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