Curtain Raiser

Time for Serious Housekeeping, Colltalers

The bloody revolts in Egypt and Ukraine; the bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan; the testy peace talks on Syria; killings and prejudice in the streets of Africa; the unrest in Brazil. The world in 2014 hasn’t gone much far from exactly resembling the world in 2013.
For heaven’s sakes, even the Pope’s ‘peace doves’ were seized and probably slaughtered yesterday by a crow and a seagull – presumably the kind that lives away from the sea – right after he blessed and released them from the Apostolic Palace window to the stunned St. Peter’s Square crowd.
But little if any of such incendiary foreign policy issues will be mentioned tomorrow by President Obama, at his State of the Union address, a mostly pro-forma tradition that has hardly any impact on the country’s year ahead. It’ll be, nevertheless, a crucial speech for the president.
Most likely he’ll focus on two major challenges facing Americans today: the widening inequality gap, which contrasts with the official rhetoric about the future, and the very role of the government, as the scandal of NSA spying on citizens continues to mine our trust on his sincerity.
To be fair, as of today, the U.S. has put some distance from the terrible consequences of the Great Recession of 2008, and economic indicators have indeed pointed to a slow but seemingly steady recovery, depending on whether one agrees with the way such numbers are computed.
And the president’s bound to reaffirm his commitment to human rights, even thought his tame lectures on the importance of reliable intel against terrorism clashes with the reality that, despite its growing budget and de facto free reign, the NSA has failed to produce palpable results.
But as a nation with such a vibrant history of political independence, and defense of individual freedoms, whose constitution is modeled after Greek ideals of equality and the pursuit of happiness, the U.S. today seems closer to a backwater republic whose citizens simply gave up hope.
Despite such glowing economic indexes of recovery, a cross-section of some 40 million Americans remain jobless, homeless, uneducated and

mired in insurmountable social conditions preventing even the most recognizable self-attribute of America’s pride: the power of social mobility.
With a nominally Democrat leadership, both in the White House and the Senate, the legislative powers that lost two presidential election cycles nevertheless have managed to methodically dismantle support networks responsible for 75 years of social stability in this country.
Under his watch too, the power of the unproductive part of the economy, its financial system, have exercised an undeserved sway over policies affecting all segments of society, consolidating the reign of the stock market and money managing over everything else citizens really need.
As a result, a prohibitive price was placed on what was once America’s treasury, its free educational system, which fueled its leadership role in innovation and technological advance for years. In some areas of scientific research, the U.S. is no longer even among the top 10 in the world.
The president’s legacy achievement so far is Obamacare, which against all odds, has indeed started to make a difference. Even as it kept and boosted health insurers’s profit, it’s on target to reach 10 million Americans covered by the end of March, many of them for the first time ever.
It remains on the defensive from spurious attacks, which may postpone its inevitable evolution to a single-payer system, or Medicare for all, that should have been its main goal all along. As it stands, however, is already the one social change the president’s has managed to accomplish.
But the whole mood of the country has tone down dramatically in the last decades, and more now than ever, dropping from the enthusiasm and drive of the 1960s to the low, simmering resilience of contemporary America. Rampant disengagement seems to be the tenor of our era.
No wonder, old cultural battles are being restaged, mostly to undermine hard-fought achievements in women, voting, and human rights issues. New allowances to how money can be injected and spent in our electoral system mean that elected officials now have a price, unaffordable by grassroots and progressive movements. No major political figure may emerge without compromising at some level ideas in exchange for funds.
Thus, at the start of the last two years of his administration, legacy and how far it may have already strayed from his campaign promises may be the president’s main concern. From candidate of high hopes, he may have turned instead into the leader who presided over low expectations.
As for the world at large, burning as it is, it’s not so much that it ceased being a U.S. concern, but that it may temporarily be shoved to the noisy background that it’s always been, and guess what? if diplomacy gets all the empowerment it needs, it may just be enough to get the job done.
Because, let’s face it, the U.S.’s role has been for far too long less than of a peacemaker in most issues, and at one time or another, many an ally has wished we could’ve just shut the hell up and listen for a change, instead of being the fully-armed, unstable menacing bully in the room.
So it’s unlikely that the world’s missing the input (read, the killer drones and the faulty war strategy) from the expensive American defense complex. We may have, in fact, overstayed our welcome even in countries we’re currently engaged. If we seriously want to help, we’d better leave. If we really want to build consensus, it’s time to pay attention to others. Overall, it’s doubtful we have anything else at add at this point.
President Obama has achieved many firsts, even before taking the oath of office: first African-American at the White House, first Nobel Prize winner. Even his oratorial gifts have placed him at the very top of the American presidents, and tomorrow won’t be an exception.
Problem is, time is running out for him to match the arousing power of his words to concrete actions. Just talking about inequality, without going after Wall Street elites which bankrupted the country and never had to face jail; about the NSA, without setting clear judicial limits to its unhinged power; about gun violence, while allowing the gun lobby to influence policy, just won’t do it this time.
He can move us all to tears talking about his poor upbringings and the fortunate curve his life’s been, closely tracking the American Dream. But it’ll mean little if he’s not willing to prevent higher education to become an untenable goal to millions; and even less if banks are not criminalized for continuing to push subprime lending while enforcing widespread foreclosures on those who can’t keep up with rising rates.
Two years go very fast, and the president may have wasted too long a time just picking wrong battles and turning his back on the constituency that brought him to Washington. Tomorrow’s speech may need to be more than arousing: it may also need to be truthful. Have a good one. WC

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