BARACK OBAMA took office January 20 riding on the high hopes of millions who looked to his election as a signal of the change they so desperately want. The scene of nearly two million people turning out on the National Mall to witness Obama’s history making inauguration as the first African American president of the United States illustrated this better than any political opinion poll could.
Many commentators (including this publication) have noted that Obama’s election crystallized the growing anger among the majority of Americans at the reactionary policies of the Bush presidency. Indeed, the 2008 presidential election demonstrated the degree to which mass consciousness has shifted leftward just as decisively as Ronald Reagan’s election nearly three decades ago signaled an ideological lurch to the right.
For the millions who are losing their jobs, their homes, their retirement savings, and more, the crisis of the economic system has already undermined the mantra of deregulation, tax cuts, free trade, and privatization that accompanied the conservative dogma of the last generation. Millions who have heard the bipartisan warnings that national health care is just too expensive, ask themselves why is national health care too expensive when at the drop of a hat the U.S. government can come up with trillions for bankers and Wall Street, with no strings attached?
The neoliberal agenda championed by the leaders of both major parties has been thoroughly discredited—but what will replace it has yet to be determined. The fact that this new era in U.S. politics occurs during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression presents the opportunity to chart a new course for a wide range of political and class issues in the months and years ahead.
Obama’s rhetoric alone is a refreshing departure from the hate mongering of the contemptuous Bush administration. But his first month in office has fallen short of the substantial change he has promised to deliver. As a creature of the U.S. political establishment, Obama still remains deferential to conventional wisdom and its many purveyors in Washington and academia. The tension between new possibilities and old assumptions will mean that there will be many contradictory qualities to Obama’s policies, as he seeks to placate both the right and the left.
By the end of February, Obama showed glimpses of the contradictory pulls on his administration. His first act as president was signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which allows employees to more effectively challenge unlawful pay discrimination based on gender, race, age, and disability. He then lifted the Bush administration’s global gag order that had denied funding to any institution that provided abortion referrals or services. Obama also announced the closing of the prison facilities at Guantánamo Bay within a year.
But these liberal reforms were accompanied by throwbacks to the Bush administration. Obama has already ensured that the practice of rendition—sending prisoners to other countries to be tortured—will remain in place. “Obviously you need to preserve some tools—you still have to go after the bad guys,” remarked one Obama administration official.
Obama has reaffirmed Bush’s position on the importance of faith-based charities, and he has come under fire for seeming to make exceptions to his strong verbal stance against double standards in Washington. Several of his high-profile appointees, including his choice to lead his health-care reform effort, former Sen. Tom Daschle (who made $5 million last year), were forced to withdraw over news that they had failed to pay taxes.
At least in his initial moves as president, Obama seems to have forgotten that the Republican Party and the free-market nostrums that it and its Democratic Party imitators have peddled for years stand discredited in the minds of the majority of Americans. Obama wasted weeks courting Republican congressional votes—netting only a handful of them at the cost of watering down the $800 billion-plus “stimulus package” that was to be his first signature achievement.
After chasing the chimera of “bipartisanship” so beloved among the American political elite, Obama may end up with a result that doesn’t arrest the economic slide and which offers more tax cuts for the wealthy.
That anyone should pay attention to what the GOP and its acolytes have to say today is incredible given that the November election and the 2006 congressional elections delivered about as solid a blow against the conservative status quo as the American political system affords. On some level, Obama understood that too, as he amped up his rhetoric against the conservatives: “Don’t come to the table with the same tired arguments and worn ideas that helped to create this crisis.” But, despite his grass-roots, movement-influenced rhetoric and the hopes for change millions place in him, Obama remains a capitalist politician subject to the influence of a cabinet (which he helped craft) that is staffed by Wall Street insiders and pro-Iraq War hawks.
To be sure, Obama remains overwhelmingly popular and his early tussles with the Congress could be old news by the time this editorial appears. But his early days were instructive for what they tell us about what has changed—and what hasn’t—since Obama’s election.
As with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s, the scale of the crisis today will continue to force the Obama administration to take actions that move further beyond the old economic and political paradigms. First of all, there will have to be more assistance to those who are being thrown out of work and out of their homes. According to a New York Times report, “Despite soaring unemployment and the worst economic crisis in decades, 18 states cut their welfare rolls last year, and nationally the number of people receiving cash assistance remained at or near the lowest in more than 40 years.” If the administration is to manage the growing anger that will erupt in this country, it will have to take more mitigating action.
Already there is talk of nationalization. The Obama administration may not be eager to go down this road. To quote David Sanger in the New York Times, there is a fear that “if the government is perceived as running the banks, the administration would come under enormous political pressure to halt foreclosures or lend money to ailing projects in cities or states with powerful constituencies.” In short, the hesitancy to nationalize is not just an ideological hangover of neoliberalism, but comes from a fear of becoming a bigger target of popular expectations. Nevertheless, the depth of the crisis may force their hand. Adam S. Posen, the deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, argues that as the economy continues to deteriorate the Obama administration will be forced to “bite the bullet” and begin nationalizing the banks.
Obama’s appeal to shared sacrifice had resonance with voters who felt that what he was saying was that Wall Street, and not just “Main Street,” should be made to pay for the crisis. But the truth is that it is not possible to serve the interests of both corporations and the workers they exploit. When it comes to issues like health care for all or the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), there is no “bipartisan,” easy solution that is going to satisfy both business and working people. The Democrats and liberals’ compromised position vis-à-vis big business means there will be definite limits to how far they will go to fight for health care or labor law reform. And they are unlikely to challenge the main planks of Obama’s foreign policy. So it will be up to people who want to see more far-reaching change to organize and push from below to achieve it.
Obama’s victory convinced large numbers of people of some basic sentiments that lie at the heart of the great struggles of the past: something different is possible, and what we do makes a difference to the outcome. But there’s another lesson to be drawn from the experience of the civil rights movement, the fight for women’s suffrage, and the struggle for unions: Their strength rested on the willingness to remain independent and mobilize for justice, no matter which president was sitting in the White House.
Chris Kromm, director of the Institute for Southern Studies, a progressive think tank that deals with issues of race, poverty, and workers’ rights in the South, recently wrote:
What will happen when the Obama movement comes face-to-face with the disappointments that will come—and for some, have come already—as Obama makes the inevitable compromises and back-steps from his commitment to social progress?
Real change will be possible if and when the Obama Generation develops the political maturity and self-confidence to realize they don’t have to wait on leaders or symbols to bring about a better world: They can and must organize to make history on their own.
Obama himself opened the door to drawing such conclusions when he said in a Democratic candidates’ debate during the primaries:
I believe change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up. Dr. King understood that. It was those women who were willing to walk instead of ride the bus, union workers who are willing to take on violence and intimidation to get the right to organize. It was women who decided, “I’m as smart as my husband. I’d better get the right to vote.” Them arguing, mobilizing, agitating, and ultimately forcing elected officials to be accountable. I think that’s the key.
By building, organizing, and politicizing that nascent movement from below, the left can grow, and in so doing seize the opportunity to turn the tide at long last in favor of workers and the oppressed.