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The Inconsistencies In Obama’s State Union Adress

By: Trilokesh Chanmugam


On Tuesday, President Obama upheld his reputation as a first-class speech maker. His 2016 State of the Union address — uplifting as always — walked a confident line between being congratulatory of previous progress and calling for America to better itself. His words, despite some (occasionally) misplaced optimism, did not have the appearance of empty rhetoric, but outlined specific challenges to the country, affirming Obama’s belief that America can, and will, work through them.
Nevertheless, there was at least one talking point which came across as contradictory. Early on in the address, Obama recognized that the American economy has some serious problems. Rising wealth inequality—underpinned by an unrestrained private sector and corporations which are free to relocate internationally—have weakened labour unions and caused millions of working Americans to live close to and below the poverty line. Automation and production line technology takes money away from the working class and concentrates it in the hands of the few people who own capital.
“All these trends have squeezed workers, even when they have jobs; even when the economy is growing. It’s made it harder for a hardworking family to pull itself out of poverty, harder for young people to start on their careers, and tougher for workers to retire when they want to,” said Obama


He made a promise to face these issues head on, arguing that corporate power needs to be limited and assuring his citizens that, true to the American dream, those who are willing to work hard should have a fair shot at achieving what they set out to.

This promise is inconsistent with his recent politics. Only several minutes after guaranteeing to address wealth inequality, Obama went on to praise the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Amidst a whirlwind of feel-good rhetoric and standing ovations, the TPP was slipped into the speech with the implication that this is good for America, escaping—as it always has—the scrutiny it deserves. Never mind the fact that the TPP is specifically designed to enhance corporate freedom. Never mind that it gives American companies the ability to relocate, more easily, to any of the participant countries—hiring cheap labour instead of American workers. Never mind that it provides corporations with the power to sue governments, based on foregone future revenue, making a mockery of government political mandates and increasing private influence over the legislative agenda.

The TPP, passed in 12 countries as a result of aggressive support from the USA, will be of immense and far-reaching consequence. The controversial free trade agreement is likely to result in the insidious growth of plutocratic governance around the world, and promises to see the rise of more elected governments which pander to the private sector. It’s America’s way of exporting a uniquely dysfunctional brand of neoliberalism.

And it’s being readily accepted by Australia and many other countries. Perpetuated by the myth of trickle-down economics, conservative governments see big business as the answer to poor standards of living. Provide jobs, and everyone has a better go, or so the story goes. Increase money at the top of the food-chain, and it will come trickling down for those who work at the bottom. Grow the pie, and everybody gets a bigger slice. Governments which operate according to this kind of ideology must vie against other countries to bring multinationals within their borders. They cut corporate tax, reject unionization of labour, and welcome big business with open arms — as if they’re the panacea for all economic issues. This is the kind of thinking behind the TPP, which has a strong focus on economic growth, but overlooks the issue of how equitably the created wealth will be distributed.

For American corporations, the TPP is a blessing. For ordinary American citizens, the TPP will likely result in more minimum wage (or near enough) jobs. For many of the other countries in the partnership, the TPP means nearly unrestrained capital investment, which will likely cause vast profits to flow outward. These countries, including Australia, should also be concerned about the extension of American intellectual property laws: the excessive copyright protection of author’s life + 70 years will now apply to all signatory countries. It’s a dream come true for the megalith of American media companies.

“…We forged a Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Obama declared in his address. “To open markets, protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia.”

“Open markets” and “advancing American leadership in Asia” are the two outcomes of the TPP that we can honestly expect to see. Worker protection and environmental protection are less likely. He goes on to affirm that trading dominance is the actual objective of this agreement:

“With TPP, China doesn’t set the rules in that region, we do. You want to show our strength in this century? Approve this agreement. Give us the tools to enforce it.

All evidence points to a conclusion that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a political move done in the interests of American multinationals. There’s little reason to believe that it will improve the quality of life for America’s poorest—nor the poor in other parts of the world. So what does Obama mean when he affirms a commitment to tackling poverty? Was his State of the Union address an insincere piece of oration? Does he genuinely believe in wealth redistribution but have hands which are tied, politically? Or, perhaps, Obama actually believes that the TPP is good for average people around the world.

These three options paint an equally poor picture of President Obama and reflect a presidency characterized by lofty promises and unfulfilled expectations.

Obama’s support of the TPP labels him a hypocrite. Appeasing America’s corporate machine and addressing income inequality are two mutually exclusive goals. To stand in front of his country and affirm a commitment to working class Americans, whilst also taking responsibility for the TPP, is resolutely dishonest. It’s a move which taints an otherwise exceptional State of the Union address, and casts Obama as a leader who sits with feet on both sides of the fence.

Originally published on Slate.com