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The Oldest Game In Washington

You can see how seriously Obama is taking the hot populist temper of the American people and their eagerness to strangle every banker in the entrails of every insurance executive. In an altogether welcome departure from past presidential form in State of the Union addresses at least since 1973 (the first time I listened to one) he shoved the rest of the world into less than five minutes near the end of an oration that lasted well over an hour, giving over at least 90% of his time to various pledges for economic clean-up on the domestic front.

Of course there was ritual backslapping for Uncle Sam’s benign role in the planet’s affairs, starting with valiant rescue work in Haiti, a nation for which every US intervention since the time of Thomas Jefferson has been an unmitigated disaster. But on Wednesday night, there was barely time for even a swipe at Iran and North Korea, reduced to offhand mentions, as opposed to the starring roles they formerly enjoyed as members of the “Axis of Evil” in George Bush Jr’s State of the Union speech in 2002. Yemen, surely a strong contender strongly for Axis ranking, wasn’t even mentioned. Plucky little Guinea elicited a nod for its corruption.

Instead, last Wednesday’s night’s Axis of Evil featured a home team, of the banks and the US Supreme Court, whose members were mustered in a small clump almost directly under Obama’s lectern. Last week the Court kicked away most of the few remaining restraints on the ability of corporations to buy the legislators and the laws they desire, and Obama — gazing down at Chief Justice Roberts, leader of the conservative majority of five out of nine on the court which overturned a century’s worth of laws and precedents — called on Congress to redress the situation with new laws. It was amid Obama’s speech last September to a joint session of Congress about health reform that a cracker congressman for South Carolina, Joe Wilson, shouted “You lie” at the president. This time Associate Justice Samuel Alito, an ultra-right Catholic on the Court, started mouthing objections and I thought we’d be treated to the lively spectacle of a member of the US Supreme Court heckling Obama but Alito, warned perhaps by the stiffening back of Roberts, who was sitting directly in front of him, shut his mouth.

As campaign speeches go, albeit dressed up as a State of the Union, Obama delivered his with jaunty aplomb, sometimes light-heartedly, matching the open merriment of Vice President Joe Biden, sitting directly behind him, next to House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi. It wasn’t always clear exactly why Biden was laughing, though I assume it was the same reason that stirred many in the chamber to snigger when Obama started urging them to pass laws ending fiscal excess, along with deficits, earmarks, and undue lobbyist influence on lawmakers. Obama himself seemed to chortle at the manifest absurdity of requesting Congress to do any such thing, and the legislators felt thus empowered to chortle along with him, at the one of the oldest Washington sports of all: running against Washington.

Obama got elected by pledging hope and change and calling for the nation to unite and banish divisiveness. This time he did admit room for undefined philosophical differences which he promptly tried to bridge by offering an anthology of pledges, culled from Carter (green energy), Reagan (line item veto and reducing the world’s nuclear arsenal to zero), earmarks (John McCain), plus the usual commitment to lower the deficit (mandatory in every state of the union speech in living memory.)

There was some fancy political footwork here, which may explain why in the wake of the Massachusetts debacle last week, Obama precipitously proposed a spending freeze on most domestic spending starting in 2011. His proposal was promptly savaged by leftish economists such as Joe Stiglitz and Robert Reich as being the worst possible wound one could inflict on a tottering economy, which is certainly true. It seems, so the economist James Galbraith suggests, that the freeze plan might have been quickly boiled up to head off a proposal for a bipartisan commission empowered by Congress to promote mandatory legislation involving politically horrifying tax hikes and budget cuts. Under cover of the unrealistic “freeze” the deficit busters will now have to content themselves with a mere “presidential commission” on deficit reduction, whose recommendations will be entirely toothless.

Neither bankers specifically nor corporations generally are popular right now. On Tuesday voters in Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest, voted to raise taxes on corporations and the rich. The measures romped through 54% to 46%, hiking taxes on households with taxable income above $250,000, and setting higher minimum taxes on corporations, with increased tax rates on upper-level profits. In Oregon, there hasn’t been this kind of popularly — sanctioned tax bite out of the backsides of the rich — since the 1930s.

This sets the political stage for the November mid-term elections, and every politician sniffs the popular mood. Hence Obama’s belated dash to head the populist jacquerie. But there’s virtually no chance of any serious financial reform transpiring. Already, in dead of night, Wall Street lobbyists in December — as reported by Andrew Cockburn on — crushed legislative language in a financial reform bill to ban Wall Street’s “dark markets” trading in over-the-counter derivatives such as credit default swaps. These were what impelled the financial crisis in 2008.

The bankers will resign themselves to a glancing blow like Obama’s proposed $30 billion levy. But they will surely fight off Paul Volcker, for months languishing in obscurity as head of Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, until mustered last week to the president’s side to preside over the White House’s Great Leap Sideways into economic populism. He’s been assigned the task of promoting legislation that will haul the banks back into the Glass-Steagall era when the paltry sums in one’s checking account weren’t immediately securitized and packaged into a CDO squared. Already the Los Angeles Times — normally in Obama’s corner — has editorially savaged Volcker’s plan, as have the Washington Post and, needless to say, the Wall Street Journal.

State of the Union addresses are mostly political window dressing. All those fine proposals have to become laws. It’s one thing to hail Michele Obama, as her husband did on Wednesday evening, for spearheading a movement to combat child obesity. It’s quite another to get through Congress a law banning Chicken McNuggets.

The longer Obama solemnly lectured the Joint Session about the need to change the way Washington does business, the more one had time to study the faces of the legislators and burnish one’s utter confidence in Washington’s unchanging ways. It was the one fact that evening that commanded total agreement, from Republicans, Democrats and the President himself.

Alexander Cockburn can be reached at

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