I did not watch the U.S. president’s State of the Union address. I had less than zero interest in the president’s State of the Union address. Not because I believe a president’s words do not matter; in some contexts they certainly matter very much. No, I declined to watch because after listening to this administration for 4+ years I have very little faith that anything the president says reflects his actual agenda, or gives us any meaningful hint of what his future actions will be. Of course, talk is cheap for every successful politician: they are required to convincingly spew a lot of meaningless garbage in order to get elected, and then spew more meaningless garbage to appease various constituencies once they do. That is why I have cultivated a habit of evaluating politicians not on what they say but rather what they do—an approach I heartily recommend, especially in light of the extraordinary rhetorical gifts of Barack Obama. Besides, the state of the union can be assessed perfectly well by nearly anyone. Let’s have a look, shall we?
Soaring income inequality continues unabated. In a trend that began in the 1970s and is expected to continue, the top 10 percent of earners captured 46.5 percent of all income in 2011. That is the highest proportion since 1917. UC Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez recently revealed some telling numbers: during the “economic recovery” over which Barack Obama has presided, the earnings of the top 1 percent rose by 11.2 percent, while earnings of the other 99 percent decreased by 0.4 percent. As of last December, workers’ wages had fallen to their lowest-ever share of GDP.
Child poverty is higher than it has been in half a century. At 23 percent, the U.S. has the second-highest rate of childhood poverty in the developed world. Nearly half of all U.S. children — and 90 percent of black children — will be on food stamps at some point during childhood.
Corporate profits are at record highs. In the third quarter of 2012 corporate earnings were up 18.6% from the previous year to $1.75 trillion, sending after-tax profits soaring to their greatest percentage of GDP in history. In a joint report released last year (pdf) by U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and Citizens for Tax Justice, the authors analyzed 280 corporations comprising most of the Fortune 500 companies that were consistently profitable over the previous three years. These companies spent a combined total of $2 billion on federal lobbying over the same period, and received a total of $223 billion in tax breaks. I’m no Warren Buffet, but 11,050 percent sure seems like a pretty good return on investment over three years. Apparently the most profitable purchase a business can make is politicians, and President Obama is by far the best president for corporate profits since at least 1900.
Fossil fuels are flourishing. U.S. crude oil production is at its highest level since 1997, while natural gas is now extracted at record volumes. Indeed, the president has been an eager ally of oil and gas interests: early in his first term, he proposed an unprecedented expansion of oil and gas drilling up and down the Atlantic coast, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and along the northern coast of Alaska. Those initiatives were shelved after BP’s Deepwater Horizon drill rig exploded and the world watched in horror as a giant geyser of oil gushed into the Gulf. Yet the president has still presided over historic expansions of domestic oil and gas development on land, including federal land, and once again approved drilling in the pristine waters of Alaska. Oil output is surging so fast that the U.S. is projected to soon overtake Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, there has been very little action taken on climate change: 2012 saw record-breaking heat in July as the U.S. experienced its worst drought in decades (pdf) and more than half of all U.S. counties were declared disaster areas. Severe weather events pummeled the nation, including one that took a $50 billion bite out of the Big Apple and its environs.
The War on Terror is an unmitigated disaster. The Arab world’s opinion of the U.S. under Barack Obama is now worse than it was under Bush/Cheney, and the same U.S. policies that fuel the terrorism they purportedly prevent are only expected to expand during Obama’s second term.
The rule of law has been eviscerated. The most heinous of crimes committed by financial elites go unprosecuted; many are not even investigated, and those that are result in settlements that amount to a slap on the wrist. The most recent example is a typically absurd one: last December, the U.K.-based banking giant HSBC was issued a $1.9 billion fine — five weeks profit — by the Justice Department for what Matt Taibbi describes as “the largest drug-and-terrorism money-laundering case ever.” For many years the bank knowingly laundered money for fine folks like Al-Qaeda financiers, Colombian and Mexican drug cartels, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Russian gangsters and countries under sanction like Iran and North Korea. By 2003 the feds were on to the bank’s felonious shenanigans and sent HSBC a cease and desist letter. It was ignored. They sent HSBC another cease-and-desist letter in 2010. That was ignored, too. In the end, the bank was fined only a tiny fraction of its ill-gotten gains. Meanwhile, in 2009 a Pakistani man with a satellite television business was sentenced to more than five and a half years in prison for rebroadcasting Al Manar, a news channel run by Hezbollah, and selling it as part of a package to customers in Brooklyn. One in a hundred U.S. adults are behind bars, and more than half are low-level drug offenders. But there was never any question that the upstanding citizens at HSBC would ever spend even a single day in jail.
We have entered the territory of tyrants. This president has seized the most lawless, radical, tyrannical power any leader can yield: the right to assassinate U.S. citizens on his sole determination, far from any battlefield, anywhere in the world, without due process, oversight or accountability. Even Dick Cheney never reached that far. Dick Cheney.
I could go on, of course. Domestic law enforcement’s increasing militarization and entwinement with powerful corporations and CIA. Support for the most oppressive regimes in the Muslim world. This administration’s unparalleled war on whistleblowers. The abysmal state of U.S. health care. Why, if I were cynical I might even say … wait. I am cynical.
Of course I’m cynical, and I have at least two very good reasons to be: first, our “public servants” do not actually serve the public. Second, the public itself appears to be not only unaware of the actual state of the union, but by all accounts prefers it that way. So I’ll just come right out and say it: I think we have sufficient information to assign the state of the union a grade of F.