|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Will Obama deliver?
RIDING A TIDAL wave of anger at Bush, the economy, and the Iraq war, the November elections saw a sweeping victory for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. There has been widespread celebration at the Republicans’ defeat and the election of the first African American president, an event of huge historic significance. Massive expectations have been aroused that Obama will carry out policies that will address the enormous problems facing workers and young people.
But as the euphoria wears off, hard questions will need to be examined. How will Obama and the Democrats use their new power? Will Obama make good on his promises, especially regarding the key issues of the economy, healthcare and the war in Iraq? Will there be the fundamental change that Obama voters are hoping for? Obama and the Democrats are taking power amid a massive crisis of US and world capitalism, with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, a projected trillion dollar budget deficit reaching 6% of GDP, and the unravelling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While millions hope Obama will take the country in a new direction, a closer look at the reality of his positions and record, as opposed to his vague calls for change, shows he is thoroughly tied to the big business establishment. The gap between the huge expectations of his supporters and the reality of Obama’s timid approach and corporate policies was graphically shown within days of his election victory. The New York Times reported: "President-elect Barack Obama has begun an effort to tamp down what his aides fear are unusually high expectations among his supporters". (6 November)
In another article it comments: "Obama’s soaring speeches have created such a well of anticipation that there is a deep danger of letdown. He talked during the campaign of a ‘new politics’ bringing Republicans and Democrats together. But if he really works with Republicans to find common ground on issues like Iraq, terrorism and climate change, he risks alienating his liberal base". (5 November)
AN EARLY INDICATION of Obama’s politics was revealed in his first major appointment, selecting congressman Rahm Emanuel to be his chief of staff. Emanuel is a central figure in the Democratic Leadership Council, which brings together the most conservative and pro-business section of the Democratic Party. As a key advisor in the Clinton administration, he was at the forefront of arguing for the Democrats to embrace North American Free Trade Agreement, ‘welfare reform’, and a law-and-order agenda. Running for Congress in 2002, he supported the Iraq war, and he recently played a central role in shepherding through Congress the $700 billion bailout for Wall Street.
Obama’s first post-election public appearance, held with his economic advisory board, was another indication of the direction his administration is headed. This group is almost entirely made up of bankers, corporate executives, and conservative Democratic Party economists, many of the same people responsible for the crisis they are supposed to solve.
The 17 members of the panel include the billionaire Warren Buffet, the richest man in the world, CEOs and senior executives of Google, Hyatt Hotels, Time Warner, Xerox, JP Morgan Chase, and TIAA-CREF (a private financial services company), as well as Ronald Reagan’s former Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker.
Obama’s economic team does not contain a single representative from the labour movement, which gave hundreds of millions of dollars to Obama and the Democrats. Nor does it have any representatives from any of the civil rights or women’s organisations. Obama no doubt heard plenty of advice from the big executives and bankers on his handpicked panel. But where was the voice of working people, the unemployed or those facing foreclosure?
Discussing how Obama will address the severe economic problems, Leon Panetta, who is heading up Obama’s transition team and was Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, told the New York Times: "You better damn well do the tough stuff up front, because if you think you can delay the tough decisions and tiptoe past the graveyard, you’re in for a lot of trouble... Make the decisions that involve pain and sacrifice up front". (5 November)
GIVEN THE MASSIVE budget deficits, running at 6% of GDP federally and forcing emergency measures in state governments, Obama’s ability to enact serious reforms to relieve working-class people will be limited. Nonetheless, Obama has been discussing with congressional leaders about a possible $100 billion for public works, extending unemployment benefits, winter heating assistance, food stamps and aid to cities and states that could be passed during a lame-duck session of Congress.
Even from the standpoint of big business, such limited proposals are necessary to prevent a further economic collapse and discrediting of capitalism. However, such measures will at best slow, but not reverse, the catastrophic declines in living standards that are already underway in working-class communities.
Furthermore, as he did with the $700 billion bailout in September, Obama has indicated support for further taxpayer handouts to corporate America. The big three automakers, who have seen catastrophic declines in their sales, are faced with the prospect of bankruptcy unless the federal government comes to their aid. Such aid, however, will not reverse the layoffs and wage and benefit cuts facing autoworkers. While Obama has supported bailouts for big business, there has been no talk from his camp of using the governments’ ownership of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and shares in the banks, to halt foreclosures for working- and middle-class homeowners.
It remains to be seen how rapidly or fully Obama will move to implement his other campaign promises, from health-care tax credits to closing Guantánamo Bay. In Iraq, Obama aims to reduce the US presence from 140,000 to 60-80,000 troops over 16 months, although it remains to be seen whether he will stick to this timetable. Even if he is able to implement this, which will not at all be easy given the danger of a US withdrawal triggering increased instability, the war will not be over, as tens of thousands of troops will be left behind to defend the interests of US imperialism.
Further, Obama wants to send troops from Iraq to escalate the brutal war in Afghanistan, in which US and NATO airstrikes have killed hundreds of civilians over the past few months. Already, US causalities in Afghanistan have overtaken those in Iraq, and the situation is rapidly deteriorating.
However, as the economic crisis deepens and demands for change grow, Obama may be compelled to introduce bolder, more far-reaching reforms than the limited measures already being discussed. Such steps would be carried out to save capitalism, not from the point of view of supporting workers and the oppressed. Already we have seen how the economic disaster forced the right-wing neo-liberal Bush administration to massively intervene in the economy in order to protect the system.
However, even limited reforms by an Obama White House will contrast sharply with Bush’s reign, and will likely give Obama a certain honeymoon period. Democrats’ call for patience in the face of the economic crisis, which they have blamed completely on Bush, will get an echo for a period.
Nevertheless, millions of young people, people of colour and ordinary workers have had their confidence raised. The wave of political awakening which Obama rode to power was not the creation of his campaign, and the radicalisation of the working class will not stop with the end of this campaign – just the opposite, in fact!
As movements develop in the next few years, they will inevitably come into sharp conflict with an Obama administration. While it is not possible to foresee the exact timescale, at a certain point events will expose Obama and congressional leaders as representatives of big business. As a result, the way will be prepared for a new political and class awakening in US society.
More than ever, the question of building a real political voice for workers and young people will emerge onto the political agenda. The idea of a new anti-corporate, anti-war political party, a party of working people, will gain traction in the minds of millions, as ordinary people struggle to find a way out of the economic and social crisis engulfing US society.