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Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein Respond to Obama’s First State of the Union

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President Obama delivered his first State of the Union address Wednesday night. A full two-thirds of the President’s seventy-minute address was devoted to the economy, the central theme of which was job creation. We get response from MIT professor Noam Chomsky and journalist and author Naomi Klein. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Park City, Utah, from the headquarters of the Sundance Film Festival, the largest festival of independent cinema in the country.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama renewed his criticism of the Supreme Court ruling, saying he hopes Congress passes legislation, quote, “that helps to right this wrong.”

President Obama delivered his first State of the Union address Wednesday night. The President did not lay out any far-reaching new policies, but instead used the occasion to call on Congress to move forward on issues already on the agenda, including economic recovery, healthcare reform and education.

A full two-thirds of the President’s seventy-minute address was devoted to the economy, the central theme of which was job creation. Obama talked through a series of steps his administration hopes to take to aid middle-class families and spur job growth. As expected, Obama proposed a three-year freeze on discretionary government spending, threatening to use his veto to achieve it.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will.

    I know that some in my own party will argue that we can’t address the deficit or freeze government spending when so many are still hurting. And I agree, which is why this freeze won’t take effect until next year, when the economy is stronger. That’s how budgeting works. But understand — understand, if we don’t take meaningful steps to rein in our debt, it could damage our markets, increase the cost of borrowing, and jeopardize our recovery, all of which would have an even worse effect on our job growth and family incomes.

AMY GOODMAN: Obama went on to urge action on energy legislation, linking success to the creation of new jobs. He called for construction of new nuclear power plants, new offshore oil drilling, and passage of climate change legislation. Obama also challenged Congress to supersede the Supreme Court’s ruling last week that allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to elect and defeat candidates. The President also vowed to end the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and urged Congress to pass legislation opening the military fully to gay men and lesbians.

For a response to President Obama’s first State of the Union address, we’re joined by two guests. Noam Chomsky joins us on the telephone from his home in Massachusetts. Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught for over half a century. He’s the author of dozens of books; his most recent is Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy. And joining us here in Park City, Utah is Naomi Klein, journalist and author. Her latest book is The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Noam Chomsky, let’s begin with you in Massachusetts. Your response to President Obama’s State of the Union address?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, one doesn’t expect to get much content from a State of the Union address, and there wasn’t very much. But that’s normal.

There were some proposals that made some sense. They weren’t very definite, but, yes, it’s a good idea to put Americans to work building the infrastructure of tomorrow, railroads, but not the interstate highway system. He said that. I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s a good idea to take $30 billion of the money Wall Street banks have repaid and use it to help community banks to give credit to small businesses and so on. It’s true that we should export more of our goods, but he didn’t mention the way that has to be done to do that, namely, lowering the inflated dollar, which the financial industries aren’t going to like, so I don’t think it’ll happen.

On freezing government spending, it’s not — it’s certainly not — it’s partially, but not totally, in accord with the public will. So, in fact, the recent, most recent poll I’ve seen by Pew on people’s priorities, the highest for increase in spending, by far the highest, over two-thirds was for education. Well, that’s being frozen. The next was veterans’ benefits; that’s frozen. Next is healthcare, which is partially frozen. Environmental protection, not there. Energy, not there. When you get down to about, I think it’s eleventh or so, you get the military defense, which is increasing — call it “defense.” Antiterrorism defense is thirteenth; that’s increasing. So, by and large, the priorities are, I wouldn’t say the opposite of, but not consistent with the spending block.

It’s a good idea to revitalize community colleges, to cut back, to modify the student loan program so it doesn’t go through banks. The childcare tax credit makes some sense. These are all — it’s also good to reverse the Supreme Court ruling, but he didn’t say — which was a horrible ruling, but he didn’t indicate how we should go ahead with that. And most of it is the kind of rhetoric you expect in a State of the Union address. There were a few scattered things like the [inaudible] be sensible if there’s — if there’s some way to carry them out.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, right now — well, you just flew into Park City, Utah just before President Obama’s State of the Union address. Your reaction to it?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, I mean, we knew the spending freeze was going to come, but to me, it’s really striking. I think what this moment represents is the decision, which we all feared would come, to pass the bill on from saving Wall Street, from saving the elites of this country from their own mess, a bill worth trillions of dollars, to regular people in need in this country. I mean, that’s what a spending freeze really means.

And we have to look at it in the context of the debt crisis that is occurring at the state level. There’s deficit — huge deficits being run up. California is the most dramatic example, but you’re already seeing how students are facing things like 30 percent tuition increases. Women’s shelters are being closed. So, you know, when the President says freeze spending, that’s saying to the states, “We’re not going to help you. We’re not going to bail you out.”

So this is really — this, to me, all comes back to the top-down bailout that should never have taken place in the first place, the decision that was made to throw the taxpayer dollars at the banks, at the elites, no strings attached, not to help the people losing their jobs, losing their homes. And now the bill is being passed on, because the debt crisis, the private-sector debt crisis, which started this, the banks racking up these huge debts, was never solved. It was just moved. It was just moved to the public coffers.

And now Obama is — this is a Hoover move. This is a Herbert Hoover move. And I think we have to say very clearly, he is not FDR. And, you know, in the spirit of Howard Zinn, who passed yesterday, I keep thinking, you know, what would he say about the State of the Union? And I think he would tell us to refuse to pay this bill, that we need a debtors’ revolt.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as you said, Naomi, hours before President Obama delivered his State of the Union, we learned the sad news that the pioneering historian and professor Howard Zinn had died. He died at the age of eighty-seven of a heart attack.

Howard Zinn was a frequent guest on Democracy Now! He last joined us at our old firehouse studio in May. At that time, I asked him for his assessment of President Obama.

    HOWARD ZINN: I wish President Obama would listen carefully to Martin Luther King. I’m sure he pays verbal homage, as everyone does, to Martin Luther King, but he ought to think before he sends missiles over Pakistan, before he agrees to this bloated military budget, before he sends troops to Afghanistan, before he opposes the single-payer system, which you talked about earlier in your program. He ought to ask, “What would Martin Luther King do? And what would Martin Luther King say?” And if he only listened to King, he would be a very different president than he’s turning out to be so far. I think we ought to hold Obama to his promise to be different and bold and to make change. So far, he hasn’t come through on that promise.

    AMY GOODMAN: When Barack Obama was running for president, asked in the debates who would MLK endorse, who would Dr. King endorse, he said, “None of us.”

    HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, that’s true, because King believed — and this actually is one of the themes of our people’s history, is that you cannot depend on presidents, and you cannot depend on elections and voting to solve your problems. People themselves, organizing, demonstrating, clamoring, they are the only ones who can push the President and push Congress into change. And that’s what we have to do now with Obama. We have to point to what Obama said in the course of the campaign, when he said we not only have to get out of Iraq, we have to get out of the mindset that brought us into Iraq. Obama, himself, has not gotten out of that mindset yet. And I think we, the people, have to speak to him about that.


    HOWARD ZINN: Well, these people that I saw on your program earlier who were demonstrating for the single-payer health system, which Obama is very, very reluctant to endorse, they were doing what needs to be done. They were committing acts of civil disobedience. They were going into offices where they were told to leave, and they wouldn’t leave. They were doing what we were doing during the movement against the war in Vietnam. They were doing what the black movement was doing in the South. And this is what we will need. We will need demonstrative acts which dramatize the fact that our government is not responding to what the people need and what the people want.

AMY GOODMAN: Historian Howard Zinn in our studio last May. Again, the sad news, if you’re just tuning in, he died yesterday at the age of eighty-seven. He was vacationing in Santa Monica, California. When we come back, we’ll continue with, well, Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein. Alice Walker will join us from Mexico, his old student, and also is co-editor and colleague Anthony Arnove.

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Next story from this daily show

Howard Zinn (1922-2010): A Tribute to the Legendary Historian with Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, Naomi Klein and Anthony Arnove

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