The descent into littleness: The State of the Union and the state of federal power

It's all about Slug Biden. (Poorly drawn political cartoon/comic by Katherine Cross)

It’s all about Slug Biden. (Poorly drawn political cartoon/comic by Katherine Cross)

The State of the Union address remains, for me, one of those “events” that actually occasions the rare gesture of sitting in front of a television for some good old fashioned appointment viewing.  Watching the glorious obsequiousness, gladhanding, strategic applause, and Vice President Biden’s megawatt grin in full HD retains a certain appeal that a YouTube window a few inches wide cannot quite contain.

But as a political event, it is slowly being drained of its life and blood.

President Obama’s speech had many soaring summits, and even an interestingly conversational tone at points that exposed the President’s frustration with an utterly recalcitrant Congress, but when it came to using the ultimate bully pulpit for concrete proposals the President remained vague; principled, to be quite sure, but dubious about the power of anything but his own pen.

Consider the fact that, as our own Chloe Angyal pointed out,

“at no point did the President mention sexual violence in the military. Despite the fact that a woman deployed in a combat zone is more likely to be sexually attacked by one of her comrades than she is to be killed by the enemy, he said nothing. Despite  the fact that the  number of acts of unwanted sexual contact reported in the military rose in 2013, to a total of about 26,000, he said nothing.”

This is, as she reminds us, a severe omission. Yet even if President Obama had mentioned it, it would likely have suffered from the same problem that the big feminist shout out of the night had. We all thrilled to President Obama’s Mad Men reference, and his invocation of the sobering wage gap between women and men, but let us ask ourselves: what was actually proposed to remedy these maladies? What policies did he propose to replace the Don Draper-vintage status quo?

This gets at the essential questions that can (and must) be asked about nearly everything in the President’s address: what does the President believe the federal government can actually do to ameliorate injustice? How can our elected officials help make the promise of our rights and liberties real and material? We can all cheer at vague platitudes, but we are also owed a clear road map.

President Obama rightly received a storm of applause and a rush of cheering standing ovations for his majestic statements of principle on women’s rights, and we should all be painfully aware of how a Republican president would never have even bothered to say that much—the bewildering chorus of GOP “official” responses makes that abundantly clear.

But the inescapable undercurrent of the State of the Union was a depressing resignation about the power of the federal government to achieve anything. What continues to elude this president with each passing State of the Union is a truly grand, coherent vision, of how we can make our society more equal.

A precious, lonely sentence, acknowledged that most low wage workers are women, but I grimaced when I saw that it was merely a segue into another topic rather than an issue he would use to build up to a cogent legislative programme. Beyond this, a meaningfully intersectional approach was nowhere to be found.

The President stepped back from concrete proposals on immigration, only averring that “something” must be done; no word was spared for deportations or the terrible impact our immigration system has on working and lower class women of colour and their access to healthcare.

There was no effort at painting a grand vision for how we could knit our riven society back together, no great effort to persuade on these core questions which affect millions of people left in the cold by alien systems and the reckless indifference of the powerful. Even existing, modest legislative ideas, like a (trans inclusive) Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which is meant to provide a legal remedy to those who suffer various forms of LGBT discrimination in public, remained silently shrouded. When we will find a president willing to mention the Equal Rights Amendment at every State of the Union until it is ratified? When will there be a vision for sex workers in this country who suffer daily from criminalisation? Or for the incarcerated for whom the statistics mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act keep piling up with no meaningful action to follow?

This is not a mere radical wishlist for name-checking the prescribed issues. This is a foundational question about what government is for. That question will grow more urgent as time goes on, and it is one that is much larger than Obama’s presidency or the obdurate Republican congress. It is a veritably existential concern for a feminist movement that agitates for urgent legal remedies.

Newly elected socialist Seattle City Councillor Kshama Sawant delivered her own response to the State of the Union which ought not be missed for at least being a breath of fresh air—if still long on platitudes and short on specifics—but her challenge to the President to acknowledge mass movements fighting for a 15 dollar an hour minimum wage, and follow their lead, is absolutely vital.

It is emblematic of the kind of grassroots-founded leadership our commanders in chief ought to be exhibiting. Sawant’s speech is a glimmering reminder in the dark of what could be done and what Obama’s leadership could look like.

If only this president could screw his courage to the sticking point and try.

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross has a lot of naive faith in democracy.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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