by Robyn Blumner

It was a liberal speech by a liberal president. That sums up the commentariat's assessment of President Barack Obama's second inaugural address. He focused his remarks on the best of what America has accomplished together, a collective vision of the past and future.

But Obama's speech didn't satisfy liberal longings in some key respects. He failed to defend unions and civil liberties, and without those elements, Obama is not going to succeed in putting the country back on a positive progressive track. Maybe he will make amends next month during the State of the Union address, but I doubt it.

Unions went unmentioned because while Obama, a former community organizer, may understand the role that collective action plays in political movements, he doesn't seem to appreciate how essential it is in granting people power over the conditions of their work.

Civil liberties went missing because Obama has failed miserably in delivering on his 2009 inaugural promise to reject "the choice between our safety and our ideals." On due process for terror suspects, domestic wiretapping and transparency, Obama has been only marginally better than his predecessor, if at all.

First, on unions. In his speech, Obama singled out the great historical civil rights events at Seneca Falls, N.Y., Selma, Ala. and the Stonewall Inn in New York City. But the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory didn't make the list, and neither did any pivotal moments in labor history. Obama doesn't appear to see civil rights and workers' rights as two sides of a coin, even though they are. Seneca Falls grievances included objections to women's "scanty remuneration." Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., when he went to stand with a group of striking sanitation workers. The Stonewall demonstrations launched a struggle by gays and lesbians to be open and remain employed.

As part of his declared national credo, which did emphasize that prosperity must rest "upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class," Obama should have credited labor unions for having once turned that hope into reality.

Here are the facts: From the 1940s to the 1970s, when unionization rates were at their peak, real wages rose in tandem with productivity gains, resulting in an expansive middle class. As union rates have declined, so have workers' economic prospects. And don't blame globalization or technology. Other developed countries, such as Germany, face the same pressures but have not seen workers lose nearly as much economic ground due to strong unions.

Obama showed how little he understood about the importance of unions to his stated goal of reducing income inequality when he didn't vocally object to the right-to-work measures in Michigan and Indiana.

Labor Department numbers tell the story. Under Obama, the total unionization rate is still declining. In 2012, it slipped to 11.3 percent from 11.8 in 2011, the lowest level since 1916. In the private sector, only 6.6 percent of workers are in a union, which is down from a high of 35 percent in the mid-1950s, even though polls show that a majority of workers would like to be in a union.

On civil liberties, the administration's record has been equally disappointing for liberals. Obama recently signed the National Defense Authorization Act which constrains his ability to close Guantanamo, something he promised to do four years ago.

Obama has not abated the use of the state secrets defense to hide the misdeeds of the CIA during the Bush years. He has prevented innocent victims of torture from obtaining justice and the country from learning exactly what was done in our name.

Last year, he signed the FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization, which extended for another five years the warrantless wiretapping program by the National Security Agency.

And Obama's use of drones to target and kill even American citizens abroad without any legal review is a dangerous expansion of executive power.

Liberals rejoiced when Obama was re-elected. But until he does more to reverse the declines in workers' power and in the government's respect for civil liberties, he is not the total package.

 

 

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