There were no memorable lines in President Obama’s second inaugural address. Certainly nothing like Franklin Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” which was in his first inaugural, or like John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
But there was plenty he said that was troubling.
The problem mostly wasn’t what he said. It was how he said it, and what he left unsaid.
Take climate change.
The president acknowledged the problem, saying: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
So far so good, but then he didn’t talk about any serious steps to do that, such as shutting down coal-fired generating plants and putting a stop to plans to import dirty, massively polluting and inefficient oil from Canadian and US tar-sands deposits. Instead he focussed on economic opportunities to be had if the US would start investing seriously in new energy technology. He did not take this unique opportunity to tell Americans honestly what the risks of inaction are: The extinction of half the species on the earth, including primary food sources that keep billions of us alive, and the risk of runaway warming that could raise the oceans by 16 to 60 feet. Instead he focussed parochially on storms and droughts and forest fires getting worse. This was a wasted leadership moment if there ever was one.
When JFK made his one inaugural address, the Cold War was at its height. He didn’t fudge the moment, and instead let Americans and the world know the gravity of the threat of mutual global nuclear annihilation by describing the situation thusly as “both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind’s final war.”
President Obama had the chance to lay the current even worse crisis out with equal clarity. He blew it, instead portraying the climate change crisis as simply an opportunity for the US to gain or lose the leadership in a new technological marketplace.
On education, he also narrowly focussed on schools as job training centers, instead of as transmitters of culture, saying: “…a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.”
What about training our artists, dancers, poets, historians, writers, musicians and philosophers? Today, in school district after school district, art and music teachers, librarians and others are being laid off by financially struggling school districts. Where is the president’s leadership in trying to preserve real education in America?
The president was also disingenuous, and no more so than when he spoke of war. At a time when the US killing machine is still going full speed in Afghanistan, and when he himself is cranking up the use of armed attack drones in countries around the globe, the president, departing from his prepared text, said that the US was “ending ten years of war.” There was particularly loud applause at that line, but it is simply not true. Not only is the US negotiating to keep over 10,000 US troops indefinitely in Afghanistan, but it is expanding its drone and Special Forces attacks in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan and elsewhere around the globe, while continuing to threaten Iran with an attack.
He also said, in his prepared remarks, “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” Yet he made no announcement of a plan to end Congress’s 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which over the past 12 years has turned the US into a police state, leading the federal courts to approve all manner of violations of the Bill of Rights and to grant the executive branch exceptional powers on the argument that the US is legally in a state of war and that the 50 states themselves are part of the battlefield.
The president seems content with this situation, which is by definition a “state of perpetual war.”
“We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law,” he said. And yet the rest of the world knows that America is violating the highest law, the UN Charter, with its drone attacks and its targeted killing programs, and by failing to prosecute those who authorized the illegal invasion of Iraq, the deliberate torture of captives in the Iraq and Afghan Wars. The president went on to say, “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear,” and yet there are no negotiations to end the half century long embargo of Cuba, or to resolve disagreements with Iran. Nor is the president demanding that America’s client state, Israel, dependent as that country is on billions of dollars of US military aid every year, cease its military occupation and subjugation of Palestinians and negotiate an end to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Surely the most jarring disconnect, though, was the inaugural celebration itself. There is no reason why a Constitutionally-mandated ceremony has to be financed by private money, yet the president’s Inauguration Committee solicited and had, by this last weekend, accepted over $124.3 million in contributions from corporations and labor unions, according to the Center for Public Integrity. That dwarf’s the $50 million that was raised in private donations for the president’s first inauguration. It also came in much bigger amounts, as the president this year dropped a $50,000 maximum donation limit he had set for his first term Inaugural. This time the limit was set at $1 million.
The list of corporations and labor unions seeking to buy influence through this unique funding opportunity provided by the president includes Bank of America, Coca-Cola, FedEx, AT&T, the health care management firms DC Health Care Inc. and Cetene Management Corp., East Lake Management & Development Corp., Financial Innovations, Inc., the electric generating company Southern Company Services and Exxon/Mobil. Exxon alone gave $260,000 to the committee.
Unions that donated included the International Association of Fire Fighters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, American Federation of Government Employees, American Postal Workers Union, International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, Laborers International Union of North America, Sheet Metal Workers International, United Food & Commercial Workers.
All these companies and unions are donating not out of some sense of civic duty but to in order to buy favors from the White House during the president’s second term.
These contributors–and especially the corporate ones, since at least the unions are representing large numbers of ordinary working people — make a joke out of the lines the President spoke when he said, “For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” and later, “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”
If he were being honest in saying those lines, he would not have sought or taken any money from those organizations that clearly put big money on the Inaugural Committee’s table, with the clear intention of controlling or influencing those debates and the country’s future course.
NOTE: A Presidents’ Day protest is being planned in Washington, DC on Feb. 17 to demand that President Obama take serious action on climate change. For information, contact Act.350.org
Also, check out a new film by photographer James Balog, called Chasing Ice, which uses time-lapse photography to blow away any doubts about what is happening to the world’s glaciers.