Obama: what kind of change can we expect?

Obama has appealed to people’s hopes for change, writes Lance Selfa, but what he really offers is a good deal less.

THE END of the Democratic presidential primaries presents U.S. voters with an historic choice. For the first time ever, an African American will head the ticket of one of the two major parties in American politics. Senator Barack Obama’s achievement is even more historic when you consider that he will lead the Democratic Party—originally the party of slavery and the Confederacy—into the November election.

That an African American stands on the verge of being elected president is surely an indication of how far the U.S. has come in only a few decades since the civil rights movement knocked down the last vestiges of Jim Crow. The Obama campaign has already given millions of people the hope that change in the American political landscape is finally at hand.

To get to the nomination, Obama had to fend off a strong challenge from Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who embodied much of the thinking and strategy of the Democratic establishment in the last two decades. Clinton’s campaign could have been remembered for its own historic quality as the most successful campaign for president by a woman. Instead, it may be remembered as one of the last attempts to use “white backlash” politics, pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s, in a major national campaign. Clinton’s lowest point came in early May, when she invoked the classic racist stereotype of “lazy” African Americans, telling USA Today that Obama’s appeal was weak among “hard-working Americans, white Americans.”

Although early June national opinion polls show a close race between Obama and Republican nominee Senator John McCain, this should be cold comfort to the Republicans. As an enthusiastic advocate of the Iraq War, McCain is tying himself to the central policy of the most unpopular president in polling history. And even though he admits that economic policy doesn’t much interest him, McCain also promises more of the same Bush policies that numbers approaching a super-majority of Americans say they oppose.

Even conservative columnist George F. Will, writing in Newsweek, cautions that McCain supporters shouldn’t read too much into the current polls:

Because of [McCain’s] cultivated persona as a “maverick” Republican, many—perhaps most—voters do not know he is pro-life. When the fact that he is becomes well publicized, and Democrats will make sure it is, Clinton’s female supporters will stop sulking in their tents and will rally round Obama.

Something that millions of Americans think they know about Obama—that he is a Muslim—is injurious. When they are disabused of this idea, he will rise. McCain might think Obama cannot rise high enough to win because he, McCain, can get the support of white, blue-collar, culturally conservative Democrats who decisively preferred Clinton to Obama in the primaries.

But there are fewer of these “Reagan Democrats” than there were when that category was identified 28 years ago. That label might not yet be as antiquated as, say, “Wendell Willkie Republicans,” but its significance diminishes as the economy and the educational and social profile of the electorate change. War-weary Americans are preoccupied with domestic discontents, but McCain sounds at best perfunctory when talking about things other than those that really interest him, things that fly or explode—the sinews of national security.

The amount of corporate money that has flowed to the Democratic side this election season shows that a large segment of Corporate America has already decided that the Democrats will win. According to left-wing journalist John Pilger,

Despite claiming that his campaign wealth comes from small individual donors, Obama is backed by the biggest Wall Street firms: Goldman Sachs, UBS AG, Lehman Brothers, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse, as well as the huge hedge fund Citadel Investment Group. “Seven of the Obama campaign’s top 14 donors,” wrote the investigator Pam Martens, “consisted of officers and employees of the same Wall Street firms charged time and again with looting the public and newly implicated in originating and/or bundling fraudulently made mortgages.”

Even conservative media magnate Rupert Murdoch has thrown his support to Obama. The reason? They know that the political system has taken a severe beating under Bush and they believe Obama can revive its credibility and blunt opposition. “Politicians are at an all-time low and are despised by 80 percent of the public,” Murdoch commented, “and then you’ve got a candidate trying to put himself out above it all. He’s become a rock star. It’s fantastic.”

This means that not only will the Democrats have a vast money advantage that they can use to fight McCain even in so-called red states, but it means that an important part of Corporate America, the media, will give Obama the benefit of the doubt.

Aggressive political campaigning is still available to the Republicans. Their operatives are gearing up for a season of attacking Obama for his choice of church, his lack of military service, his sometimes neglect to wear a flag lapel, and a host of other trivialities. Will it work? With a campaign that will feature subterranean appeals to racism, it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility.

But in an environment where a failed administration leads a failed war, where all but the richest Americans face economic distress, and where opinion polls show what appears to be a long-term evolution away from the type of politics and agenda that the GOP has championed for three decades, a Republican win in November is less likely than a Democratic sweep.

So given that, what can we expect from an Obama administration? Obama has made “change” the mantra of his campaign, so it is only fair to ask what kind of change we might see. The atmospherics of an Obama administration—coming to power in what may be the biggest Democratic landslide in four decades—should be a breath of fresh air after decades of mainstream political domination by the Right.

On the other hand, it’s clear that Obama is already shifting away from the inspirational “yes we can” message of his primary campaign—which was always more rhetoric than substance—into a more cautious and “responsible” posture for the general election. He already shifted to the right in response to Clinton’s attacks on him. With the nomination in hand, Obama appeared before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and pledged his commitment to Israel and to doing whatever is necessary to subdue Iran. “I have been proud to be a part of a strong, bi-partisan consensus that has stood by Israel in the face of all threats,” he assured the crowd. He made no mention at all of Israel’s brutal strangulation of Gaza, saying that, “We must isolate Hamas unless and until they renounce terrorism [and] recognize Israel’s right to exist.”

He repeated the Bush administration’s phony claim that Iran poses a nuclear threat to Israel,

The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the region. It pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms race, and raise the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to terrorists. Its President denies the Holocaust and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.

Obama has also shifted his position on withdrawal on Iraq. Writes journalist John Pilger, “Obama has now ‘reserved the right’ to change his pledge to get troops out next year. ‘I will listen to our commanders on the ground,’ he now says, echoing Bush.” His criticism of McCain on foreign policy will revolve around the fact that current policy is failing to secure U.S. interests in the Middle East, not call those interests into question.

Obama is tapping into a deep reservoir of sentiment for real change, but there is a tremendous gap between that sentiment and what he actually offers. The things that ordinary Americans want—decent jobs, housing, access to health care, and an end to the Iraq War, are not really on offer by either candidate.

Journalist John Pilger recently compared Obama’s campaign to that of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, and it is an apt description:

Kennedy’s campaign is a model for Barack Obama. Like Obama, he was a senator with no achievements to his name. Like Obama, he raised the expectations of young people and minorities. Like Obama, he promised to end an unpopular war, not because he opposed the war’s conquest of other people’s land and resources, but because it was “unwinnable”…

The vacuities are familiar. Obama is his echo. Like Kennedy, Obama may well “chart a new direction for America” in specious, media-honed language, but in reality, he will secure, like every president, the best damned democracy money can buy.

Issue #60

July 2008

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Iraq war veterans speak out
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