THE ELECTION of Barack Hussein Obama as forty-fourth president of the United States is a watershed event. In a country where Africans were brought in chains, were slaves until 1865, where legal (or de facto) segregation was the rule, and where the majority of African Americans were not given the right to vote until 1965, Barack Obama’s election is historic.
The election also represents a repudiation of the Bush administration, indeed of a whole era of right-wing politics to which the Democratic Party had acquiesced and contributed.
And, of course, Obama overcame a rabid right-wing onslaught that aimed to label him a Muslim who consorted with terrorists, and a socialist. In the end, these attacks failed, and some may have worked in his favor—a strong indication of the sea-change in popular consciousness that has been building up under the Bush administration over the war in Iraq, rampant corporate greed and corruption, the mishandling of Katrina, and a host of other issues.
Finally, the election came amid the rapid unfolding of what is likely to be the worst economic crisis of the post-Second World War era, a crisis whose depth has upended the dominance of free-market “neoliberalism.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks was not exaggerating when he wrote that the election marks “the end of an economic era, a political era, and a generational era all at once.” The character of the new era, however, is still an open question.
The election has undermined the conservative paradigm of the United States as a “center-right” country. Obama won the popular vote by eight million, becoming the first Democrat to win over 50 percent of the vote since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Blacks voted overwhelmingly for him, and Latinos and young people voted for him by a two-to-one margin. Notwithstanding the media chatter about a white working-class voter backlash, a majority of union members voted for Obama, and he won battleground states like Pennsylvania and Ohio where some were predicting that white working-class voters might sink him.
If the mantra in 2004 was a more resigned “anybody but Bush,” this election aroused a sense of hope and passion among ordinary people that hasn’t been seen for some time. One needed only to look at the multiracial celebrations in Grant Park in Chicago, the singing and dancing on the streets of Harlem or in downtown Seattle, to get a sense of the excitement, hope, and expectations that things will be different. It wasn’t accidental that people chanted, “Yes we can!” an echo of the massive immigrant rights protests of a few years back, “¡Sí Se Puede!”
There is, however, a large gap between what Obama promised (and what he didn’t promise), what he can or will do, and what millions expect of him. Politically, Obama ran substantially as a centrist Democrat, and his cabinet appointments in this light are not surprising. “Virtually every major position in the Obama administration is going to a figure associated with the Clinton White House of the 1990s,” writes Lance Selfa, in Socialist Worker: “Rahm Emanuel, often called Clinton’s consigliere, will be Obama’s White House chief of staff. Bill Richardson, Clinton’s UN ambassador and energy secretary, is expected to be appointed commerce secretary. Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers will head Obama’s National Economic Council. Clinton lawyer and Justice Department official Eric Holder is reportedly Obama’s choice for attorney general. And the list goes on.”
Lawrence Summers, a former president of Harvard who resigned after he argued that women were less intelligent in math skills than men, was a free-marketeer whose policies destroyed Lithuania’s economy in the early 1990s so much that they voted the communists back into power. He once famously wrote a World Bank memo advocating dumping waste in Africa on the grounds that it was more cost-effective. Mark Ames in the Nation expressed the frustration of liberals when he wrote, “hiring [Summers] to fix the economy makes as much sense as appointing Paul Wolfowitz to oversee the Iraq withdrawal.”
However, to conclude from these appointments that Obama’s will be a carbon copy of the Clinton administration—with its commitment to free-trade neoliberalism—is mistaken, for the simple reason that these are different times. The scale of the economic crisis had already forced the Bush administration to intervene in the economy—despite their ideological hostility to such an idea. As Robert Borosage of the liberal Institute for America’s Future put it, “The era of big government is over is over. In the crisis, we are, as Richard Nixon once said, ‘all Keynesians now.’ Former Clinton Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, until recently notable deficit hawks, now call for substantial fiscal stimulus—deficit-funded federal spending—to get the economy going.”
Obama was supported by a wide spectrum of the ruling class for a straightforward reason: His job is to restore the profitability of the system and to overcome the disaster that was the Bush administration—domestically and internationally.
However, to what extent these changes will primarily reflect the interests of Wall Street and to what extent they answer to the needs of ordinary people will depend on the level of struggle from below. The possibility of a renewal of struggle exists not only because of the gap between expectations and what Obama delivers, but because more people are willing to act on those hopes and expectations.
There is no doubt that millions heard a message of change in Obama’s speeches. His references to the civil rights movement, his paraphrasing of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass (“Power concedes nothing...we are going to have to struggle”), and his message of hope—however vague, and despite the limited nature of his actual program—has helped raised expectations of significant change.
Some writers have missed this aspect of the Obama election. Noam Chomsky, an internationally known radical voice, for example, argues, “There is a lot of talk...about how Barack Obama energized a lot of young people, a great organizing achievement and so on, but that’s misleading. In fact the media, which approve of it, have it more or less right. What they point out is that he’s organized an army which takes instructions.” This is, at least, an overstatement. No doubt, many liberal organizations will ask that Obama be given “breathing room,” and that protests be shelved or moderated. But that does not reflect the attitudes of many who were energized by the election.
Many feel that they played a part in Obama’s election; they were politicized by the experience, and are ready to take action to make sure that they get the things they want.
This sentiment has already found expression in three important struggles—the immediate national outpouring of protest in response to the passage of the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in California, organized for the most part by people who had never before been involved in protest; the successful six-day occupation by 250 workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago; and the unionization victory for 5,000 workers at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina.
Cat Kim and Ryan Rudnick, leading organizers for the November 15 anti-Prop 8 demonstration in San Francisco, expressed the changed political atmosphere in a Socialist Worker interview:
“I wasn’t involved in politics before the election,” says Ryan. “Obama won by such a large margin that people really feel like ‘I’m not a freak anymore.’ Especially living in San Francisco, we’ve felt like freaks—now, we’re not alone anymore.” Cat expressed a similar idea: “I think we can start seeing people engaged. There’s the thrill of having Bush gone and having a candidate that says he will listen to us. A lot of people got interested in politics, and that’s not just going to go away. They can’t just tell people to go back home now as if they haven’t changed.”
The Republic Windows occupation was undertaken by workers who had been given confidence by a combination of factors: the mass immigrant rights protests of 2006; a successful effort to oust a company union and replace it with United Electrical Workers (UE) in the plant; and the new political climate created by the bailout of Wall Street and Obama’s election. The mood of the workers, one that connected with the national mood, was: Why can’t banks that have been given billions in bailout funds bail us out? Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Studies program at University of Illinois, was quoted in the New York Times predicting that this struggle will embolden other workers: “If you combine some palpable street anger with organizational resources in a changing political mood, you can begin to see more of these sort of riskier, militant adventures, and they’re more likely to succeed.”
If Obama pushes (as he promised) for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which allows workers to organize by getting a majority to sign cards rather than go through a grueling ballot process, the confidence of workers to organize and resist will go up immeasurably more. Of course, it isn’t guaranteed that he will do this; it all depends on how much pressure the employers put on his administration and how much pressure he feels from the other end. In any case, it is clear that we are in a different political climate regarding labor’s confidence to fight for its rights.
At the Smithfield plant, workers voted 2,041 to 1,879 to bring the United Food and Commercial Workers to the 5,000-strong Smithfield hog plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. The victory is important, given how hard the company has worked to keep the union out. The union lost the vote in 1994 and 1997 after the company intimidated and fired supporters. A recent federal crackdown on undocumented workers at the plant—also supported by the company to weaken union support—led to the flight of 1,500 workers from the plant, which is now 60 percent African American. Richard Hurd, a labor relations professor at Cornell University, told the New York Times,
The union didn’t win by a big margin, but it’s an important positive sign for labor. They may be able to use it as leverage to organize other meatpacking plants in the South. The victory may be tied to the political environment. The election of Barack Obama may have eased people’s concerns about speaking out and standing up for a union.
More than that, the election of the first African American president, though it of course does not do away with the extreme racial disparities in our society—creates an environment in which racism can be more easily challenged, and this too will make it possible to rebuild the labor movement. As Sharon Smith notes in a Socialist Worker column,
Racism—stoked and enforced from above—has held a chokehold over the U.S. labor movement since its inception, as evidenced by the failure of unions to gain a foothold in the South. As long as white workers mistakenly believe that they share more in common with their white exploiters than with their Black or immigrant fellow workers, labor loses. At long last, the working-class movement is poised to begin moving forward after decades of decline.
In this respect, Obama’s election is comparable to that of Franklin Roosevelt’s in the 1930s, whose election came on the heels of the world’s worst economic depression and the discrediting of the free market. Roosevelt’s first state interventions were implemented chiefly to bail out big business. It was only under mass pressure from below—the biggest unionization wave in history—that the content of the New Deal shifted to respond to the demands of labor. Section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, which granted workers the right to organize, helped give millions of workers more confidence to fight back.
Most importantly, there is now a bigger ideological opening for radical alternatives, and this will create conditions in which a new left can be rebuilt in this country.
First, the free market has failed. The economic crisis has revived the idea of state intervention and regulation of business, including nationalization; and this in turn has opened up class questions as to who gets bailed out (banks) and who does not (workers) in times of economic crisis. The intervention thus far reflects a new shift toward state monopoly capitalism designed to save the system from its own destructive tendencies. Nevertheless, the move toward greater state involvement in the economy raises questions as to why the state cannot offer more support—better transportation, national and affordable health care, and so on—for the working class and the poor.
These themes were reinforced during the election campaign, when the McCain campaign began accusing Obama of wanting to “redistribute wealth” because he pledged to lower taxes for workers and eliminate some of the Bush tax cuts for the rich.
It is high time that we take advantage of these new conditions to build a new left that is capable of linking the struggles around issues of oppression—like gay rights and racism—to economic and class questions that the crisis has raised.
Obama and imperialism
When it comes to foreign policy there is much more continuity between administrations of the two main political parties than there are differences.
Obama’s choices for foreign policy advisers and staff are revealing in this regard. Hillary Clinton—an Iraq War hawk—will be secretary of state, and Susan Rice, a former Clinton State Department official who served under Madeleine Albright and who supports “humanitarian intervention,” will be UN envoy. Obama has chosen to retain Robert Gates, a former CIA director, as his defense secretary, and James Jones—who just as easily could have turned up in a McCain administration—as National Security Adviser. And it looks likely that Obama may pick Gen. Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency (NSA) under Bush, as the next director of the CIA. The president-elect was one of fifteen senators who voted against the confirmation of Hayden as NSA director because of his support for warrantless wiretapping.
Though written in July, Robert Dreyfuss’s analysis of Obama’s likely foreign policy seem on target:
Even as he pledges to end the war in Iraq, Obama promises to increase Pentagon spending, boost the size of the Army and Marines, bolster the Special Forces, expand intelligence agencies and maintain the hundreds of US military bases that dot the globe. He supports a muscular multilateralism that includes NATO expansion, and according to the Times of London, his advisers are pushing him to ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates to stay on in an Obama administration. Though he is against the idea of the United States imposing democracy abroad, Obama does propose a sweeping nation-building and democracy-promotion program, including strengthening the controversial National Endowment for Democracy and constructing a civil-military apparatus that would deploy to rescue and rebuild failed and failing states in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Obama’s job, as far as the foreign policy establishment is concerned, is to rehabilitate the image of the United States abroad as part of a plan to strengthen the power it has lost under Bush’s disastrous reign. Obama himself told the Chicago Tribune recently that, “I think we’ve got a unique opportunity to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular.” Note that the aim is not to reboot its role internationally, but merely its image. Gilbert Achcar, in a recent issue of this magazine, expounded on this theme:
In my opinion, repairing the damage caused by the Bush administration could be facilitated by such a profound and radical change...of image for the United States. An “imperialism with a Black and human face” could restore the image of the United States that was so greatly tarnished by the disaster of the Bush administration.
In international polls, the image of the United States has never reached such lows, even during the period of Vietnam. The majority sectors of the American dominant class feel the need to reconstruct the image and the reputation of the country. A figure such as Barack Obama could facilitate this makeover and reconfirm key elements in the American ideology: democracy, social mobility, etc.
There is a ruling-class consensus that the Bush Doctrine has botched U.S. foreign policy, making a mess of Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, the open and flagrant use of torture and detention without trial will likely be eliminated, along with the prison at Guantánamo—though this should not be mistaken for the elimination of those instruments of foreign policy that long predate, and will certainly postdate, the Bush administration. The Obama administration will be more likely to seek alliances to pursue its aims, and in that light, will be more willing to use diplomacy before it uses force.
The doctrine of “preemption” will likely, and quietly, be shelved. And Obama will revive one of the foreign policy strategies of the Clinton administration—engaging in foreign military intervention under the guise of humanitarian missions.
The Obama team is tasked with the job of finding ways to increase the strength of the military and free it up from the Iraq occupation in order to have more room to maneuver elsewhere. It is in this light that Obama’s promise to draw down troops in Iraq—though he wants to keep some there to fight al-Qaeda and wants “over the horizon” troops that can intervene when necessary and shift some of them to Afghanistan—should be seen.
Certain things will not change: the commitment to back Israel as Washington’s most important garrison state in the Middle East; the commitment to the “war on terror” and escalating troop levels in Afghanistan; increasing the size of the U.S military, including beefing up the Special Forces; and the commitment to maintaining and extending U.S. military bases around the globe. Obama has even said that he wants to “establish an expeditionary capability” for the departments of State, Homeland Security, Justice, and Treasury.
Even Obama’s commitment to pull troops out of Iraq is fuzzy. His plan for withdrawal within sixteen months was never for a complete withdrawal, as he calls for leaving a “residual force” of at least 40,000 troops (almost the same number of U.S. troops that are currently in Afghanistan), which would be adjusted depending on what the generals told him. These policies reflect the fact that though Obama opposed the invasion of Iraq, he is committed to defending Washington’s toehold in the Middle East that occupying Iraq represents.
Part of rebooting the image of the United States is not directed solely to improving its image abroad, but also at home. The facelift, involving appeals to American citizens to perform “service” to community and country, is part of winning people at home back to the idea that it is legitimate again to feel “good” about the United States, to join its armed forces, and to serve overseas. Last year, Obama told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that the United States must “lead the world…in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.”
The Bush Doctrine aimed to use the window of opportunity provided by the 9/11 attacks to accelerate a program to assert U.S. domination on a much more aggressive basis, that is, to cut off potential rivals before they can become a more serious threat to U.S. dominance. That it has backfired does not mean that the U.S. is folding up its tent. On the contrary, it is partially moving back toward the more “intelligent” and prudent post-Cold War imperialism of the Clinton era. But it is also retaining some of the new elements as well; such as going after “non-state” threats. And the aims are the same: to ensure U.S. dominance as the unchallenged world military and economic power into the foreseeable future. The United States will continue to view everything through the prism of who is “with us or against us,” as all imperialist powers have done. However, they will not say those words anymore.
Particularly ominous are the rumblings around Sudan. UN envoy nominee Susan Rice and another Obama adviser, Anthony Lake, who was Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, coauthored a 2006 article advocating bombing, a naval blockade, and a possible ground invasion of Sudan. Rice has promised if necessary to “go down in flames” demanding such measures. Obama has been less sanguine, calling only for a “no-fly zone” over Darfur. Yet after the declaration of no-fly zones over Iraq following the first Gulf War, these statements are more unsettling. Of course, given how overstretched the U.S. military is, these things may not come to pass, or at least not immediately. Nevertheless, it is clear that the U.S. has increased its “footprint” in Africa and is eyeing ways to assert itself there more forcefully.
Anyone who believes that Obama will not fulfill the mission that all American presidents are expected to fulfill—that of ensuring U.S. global hegemony—is about to be rudely awakened. Our ally in weakening this hegemony and giving the oppressed nations of the world some breathing room will continue to be, as before Obama’s election, the resistance to U.S. imperialism abroad and at home.
But above all, the importance of this moment should not be lost: After decades of conservatism, a liberal administration is in power. It is confronted with the worst economic crisis in thirty years—and at the same time, tremendous hope, tremendous expectations, and resentment, despair, and anger. This is an explosive combination. Expectation and hope can undoubtedly be dashed by what happens with Obama in office—but it might also engender a new left—a radicalization on the scale of the 1930s or 1960s.
The left in the 1930s used the slogan “the president wants you to join a union” to capitalize and amplify its position. Today, we should use President-elect Obama’s words in a similar way. As he put it: “change comes to Washington, not from Washington.” That is, any real change will require ideas, struggle, and organization. Engagement is the order of the day.