Occupy’s Influence on Obama’s State of the Union Address

Allison Kilkenny

A protester affiliated with the Occupy Miami protests stands with a U.S. dollar bill taped over his mouth on October 15.

Income inequality was a major theme in President Obama’s State Of The Union address last night. As I wrote yesterday, the fact that politicians are now openly talking about class in America, a country almost absurdly proud of the fact that its citizens don’t discuss class relations, is a major triumph of Occupy Wall Street and other economic disparity-focused groups.

Obama called economic fairness the defining issue of our time,” adding that we can settle for a country where a shrinking numbers of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

That message of fairness has been at the heart of OWS since day one, and the widespread uprisings provided a framework in which the president could finally get specific about his proposal for a Buffett Rule”: 

a requirement that anyone making more than $1 million a year pay no less than 30 percent in taxes. And, he added, anyone making less than $250,000 a year – the case for 98 percent of American families – should not see a tax increase.

The president threw around the C” word fearlessly, a telling strategy that indicates a populist tide change.

In the past, Democratic politicians ran from accusations of class warfare, but in his address last night, Obama confronted those allegations head on. 

Now, you can call this class warfare all you want,” Obama said, anticipating the Republican rebuttal. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”

Last night’s speech marked the moment the president finally fell into step with the majority of American people who want higher taxes on the wealthy. 

However, the overall theme of the SOTU was a curious one. On the one hand, Obama accepted the role of reluctant class warrior, and called for a new era of corporate responsibility. Whether that proposal will ultimately have any teeth down the road with actual pieces of legislation remains to be seen, or if Obama just plans to ask corporations super nicely to pretty please not offshore jobs and dodge paying their taxes. 

Regardless, Obama’s rhetoric was strong, but on the other hand, he repeatedly called for unity from an overwhelmingly wealthy Congress who would be taxed at higher rates under the Buffett Rule, not to mention risk losing the support of their wealthy donors who would also experience tax increases.

Such is the danger of putting wealthy individuals in charge of crafting economic policies. They tend to stack the deck in their own favor. 

The fear among Occupiers is that, yes, Congress will express unity, but that unified front will be in direct opposition to the 99 percent.” 

Occupy responded to the SOTU last night. The following message was read via the People’s Mic and protesters took turns reciting the lines.

In the response, Occupy recommits itself to the agenda of combating economic disparity, and predictably, makes no reference to Obama, an indication that Occupy intends to remain an oppositional force outside the political system.

Mic check! [mic check] Mic check! [mic check]

Fellow Americans, good evening! [Fellow Americans, good evening!]

We are men and women of the 99 percent

Many of us have spent many months at Occupy Wall Street

and at other Occupations across the country and around the world

We are here tonight to report on the State of the 99 percent in America

Of course most Americans know the state of the 99 percent very well

But sometimes the one percent, on Wall Street and in Washington, need a reminder

Financially, the state of the 99% is not strong.

That is an understatement.

Never in our lifetimes have so many hard-working Americans faced so many difficulties, so many uncertainties, so many indignities…

Some of us have had it rougher than others.

And it turns out living in camps is no picnic either.

But we do not give up easily.

And we take inspiration from the brave Americans who came before us.

From Dr. King, who gave his life fighting for economic justice.

From the Suffragettes, who insisted the voice of women be heard.

From all of those brave or foolish enough to believe in America’s defining idea: the idea of democracy.

That we are all created equal.

And we all have an equal voice in shaping the laws we all live by.

America. Let’s be honest. When our courts tell us corporations have more right to speak than we the people do, that’s not democracy.

When pepper spray and midnight raids make a joke of the 1st Amendment right to assemble. That’s not democracy.

When defrauding clients, blowing up our economy, forging thousands of documents and seizing people’s homes illegally is not a crime, but protesting all that is a crime, that’s not democracy.

Our America is not a democracy, not yet.

We all know why: Wall street owns Washington.

Bribery is legal, and the laws we live by are for sale to the highest bidder.

That is why our government serves the very rich and powerful at the expense of the rest of us

It protects the bonuses of bankers and Wall Street executives, while failing to keep hard-working families in their homes; it shields offshore tax havens for the very wealthy, while letting our bridges, schools, and infrastructure fall apart;

There have been dark periods in our nation’s history, when corruption became the norm when grave injustices stood in the way of America living up to its best ideals.

But time and time again, Americans stepped up to take back their government and correct our course.

Today Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement step into this proud American tradition.

But fear not, one percent!

We are not here just to help the 99% at your expense.

We are here to help you too.

For when you’ve begun to think rigging the game is fair game

When you regard hard-working Americans as undeserving of a middle-class life and unworthy of the profit their own work creates

When you treat the people who build your buildings and serve your food and raise your children and patrol your streets without respect, you have not only lost touch with our humanity, you have lost touch with your own humanity.

You need to find it again, for everyone’s sake

Real democracy will do you good.

We are the 99%.

We are here to create the democracy we have all been promised.

We are the 99%.

Our finances are weak, but our spirit is strong.

We are the 99%.

Our spring is coming.

Allison Kilkenny is an In These Times Staff Writer and the co-host of the critically acclaimed radio show Citizen Radio. Her blog for In These Times, Uprising, focuses on efforts around the world to address the global economic crisis.
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