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Professor Inderjeet Parmar gives his reaction to Obama’s final State of the Union address
Politics & Law Series: Expert Comment

Building a legacy

Reaction to President Obama's final State of the Union address, by Professor Inderjeet Parmar

by City Press Office (General enquiries)

The standout point from Barack Obama’s final State of the Union speech was that he invoked the name of Martin Luther King Jr. This is striking because, during his time in office, the President has failed to do enough to uplift African-Americans’ lives.

A similar argument can also be made for his failure to improve living standards across the middle class, or stop the triumph of Wall Street interests over Main Street. Obama bemoaned the greater concentration of income and wealth at the top of the US social system, yet he failed to mention that it increased during his tenure and under his leadership.

The address was not quite what he had said it would be – all about the future. The President bigged up his own record on several fronts too – saving capitalism, creating jobs, making General Motors profitable again and healthcare reform. He also lamented political polarisation and partisanship, indirectly attacked Republicans who deny climate change and criticised Trump’s shrill intolerance.

The complaints Obama makes, all reasonable, are ones about which he did little or actually helped make worse – especially those on income and wealth inequality. And that has had continued knock-on effects on election financing ahead of the 2016 presidential vote – with just 158 wealthy families contributing 50 per cent of all funding in the primaries up to this point.

The complaints Obama makes, all reasonable, are ones about which he did little or actually helped make worse.

Obama raised millions from Wall Street banks for his election campaigns in 2008 and 2012 and appointed several elite corporate figures to the Treasury to oversee the bailout of the banks after the Great Crash. This includes men such as Timothy Geithner, who had been head of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, overseeing financial institutions as they built up steam and collapsed in 2007 and 2008.

Obama’s attitude to the issue can also be seen in his book Audacity of Hope, in which he says that he spent more and more time with corporate donors during 2007 and 2008 and began to see the world through their eyes and not through those of ordinary people. And that ‘class’ – Obama used that term in relation to corporate executives – do not see anything wrong in amassing as much income and wealth for themselves as possible and at the expense of US society.

Despite the inspirational quotes of social aspiration used by Obama in his final State of the Union, his speech did not relay the reality of inequality in the USA today. The wealthy still hold on to political power – especially among Republicans, but also over the Clinton campaign – and this leads directly to the selection of the most conservative candidates, who support tax cuts for the rich, cuts in welfare and benefits for the elderly, and who oppose gun control. 

Professor Inderjeet Parmar is Head of the Department of International Politics at City University London. He was the Director of the Obama Research Network and has co-edited two books on Obama.

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