US – Obama and the Democrats in power

One year on… what has really changed? One year ago, on 20 January 2009, the largest gathering of people in US history witnessed the inauguration in Washington DC of Barack Obama as president of the United States. For many older African-American workers, this was viewed as the most important political event of their lives. Millions of young people gained a renewed sense of optimism after growing up with an instilled hatred against Bush and the Republicans.      

After eight years of a widening wealth gap, adventurist wars, declining civil liberties and an increasingly embarrassing circus in the halls of power, people deeply desired a sharp shift away from Bush and company. With Cheney, Rove and Bush on their way out, big business needed to restore credibility to an important institution of US power and prestige, the presidency.

In the 2008 elections, even Republicans were running their fastest to distance themselves from Bush. Anti-establishment sentiment was funnelled towards Obama’s campaign in massive numbers and some towards the “rouge hockey mom” Sarah Palin. The landscape was swept up in a desperate mood for change as politicians of every stripe struggled to be considered an ‘outsider’. Hillary Clinton and John McCain could not attempt to match the outsider credentials of Obama.

Still, big business had concerns about the enthusiasm of young people and African-Americans becoming engaged in politics. In an editorial on 17 February 2008, the Washington Post warned Barack Obama against stirring up “class warfare” and cautioned him from making promises “implying that he would pay for new domestic programs with an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and in exaggerating the ‘millions’ of job losses attributable to trade agreements.”

After the conventions of both parties, the McCain/Palin ticket was gaining, even leading in some polls. Then the financial sector collapsed. As the subprime crisis raged on, McCain said “the fundamentals of our economy are sound.” Both sections of big business and voters swung decisively behind Obama and his hallmark of “change” in the fall of 2008.
Promises and reality

Despite the rhetoric, the same people are running Washington; the top stockholders of corporate America. After one year of the Democrats in power, fundamental change has not come. Controlling both houses of Congress and with Obama in the White House, the ruling party cannot point to a single significant accomplishment that will improve the lives of working people or the future for youth.

In the euphoria of Obama’s surge towards power, he declared ordinary Americans “will have as much access and influence over the course and direction of our campaign that has traditionally [been] reserved for the wealthy and the powerful.” Now, Obama is surrounded by former executives at Goldman-Sachs and established corporate politician kingmaker Rahm Emmanuel.

Matt Taibi wrote in Rolling Stone: “The aid that Obama has provided to real people has been dwarfed in size and scope by the taxpayer money that has been handed over to America’s financial giants” (12/9/09). The big banks are compensated for triggering the financial crisis to the tune of trillions of dollars. Meanwhile, state and local budgets face the most colossal cuts in the history of the country in coming years.

Real unemployment figures are in the double digits. The days of not having a job being a ‘personal problem’ or a ‘family issue’ in the US are gone for good. Social services will come under attack as the politicians and their big business masters cut budgets. Privatisation of public services like water and even education is occurring at a more rapid pace.

Meanwhile, executive bankers are giving themselves massive bonuses from their record profits. These profits were gained through cynically taking taxpayer dollars and then funnelling the money back into the markets at lowered rates. This will continue to fuel the class anger in US society which will eventually find an industrial and political expression.
Healthcare crisis

When Obama was in the Illinois state senate, he was an outspoken proponent of a single-payer health system, similar to Britain’s NHS before the attacks of the recent years. On the campaign trail, Obama was asked how the US could achieve a single-payer health system. The passionate response was, “first, we have to take back the White House, the Senate, and the House…” Done, done and…done!

Still, the healthcare debate was reserved for the “wealthy and powerful.” When doctors and nurses from Physicians for a National Health Plan politely requested a hearing on the floor of Congress, they were arrested!

Meanwhile, pharmaceutical and insurance companies sat down with the politicians that they fund in order to agree on how the sickness vultures can make more profits.

The health bill now in the process of becoming law is a far cry from single-payer. At the very beginning of the debate, Obama and other top Democrats declared that single-payer was “off the table.” The bill does not even have the strong “public option” that labour and community activists had hoped for.

While some pain may be relieved for the 45 million people without health insurance, the very basis of the crisis – a health industry dominated by massive profits for insurance companies – will remain intact and can only worsen.

The new health bill is also an attack on women’s right to choose when and whether to have children. In the House, a Democrat named Bart Stupak initiated a successful amendment to make sure that no future “public option” or even government-subsidised private plan includes abortion. In the Senate, another Democrat (Ben Nelson) put forward a somewhat similar amendment.

With both parties clearly favouring big business and war, women’s rights is often pointed to as a defining difference which makes the Democrats worthy of support. This is clearly not the case.
Black history month

February is Black history month in the US. On this occasion, we now have a full year’s experience with the first ever black president. The fact that Obama was elected will always be seen as a marker in race relations in this country. The fact that white voters helped elect Obama shows a step away from racist attitudes amongst ordinary Americans.

While Obama is still hugely popular amongst African-Americans, polls show that enthusiasm is waning. After all, institutional racism is still a massive factor in US society.

In 2009, a year of immense job destruction, the unemployment rate for blacks averaged around 15%-16% and climbing. One of the most shocking facts of life for black youth is the catastrophic rate of unemployment. In November 2009, over 48% of African-Americans 16-19 years of age were unemployed. The rate for whites of the same age was half of that.

The subprime crisis was severe in African-American neighbourhoods, promp-ting a housing activist in Boston to say: “The amount of black people left without homes in Boston over the last two years is bigger than the amount of people displaced in New Orleans. Boston is Katrina without the water.”

If the social misery created by economic injustice were not enough, racial discrimination is also rampant in the policing and legal systems. There are daily risks and humiliations in communities of colour, where police behave like an occupying power.

While blacks are only 13% of the total population, they make up half of the prison population. Over half a century since the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Project annual report shows that 39% of blacks now attend intensely segregated and underfunded schools.

Yet, there is not a single Obama policy aimed at specifically addressing the racial disparity in unemployment, foreclosures, or mistreatment by the police and legal system. What Obama has offered to African-Americans can be narrowed down to his presence in the White House along with some stern lecturing about personal responsibility.

The existence of Obama in the White House has massive symbolic significance as the elimination of another racial barrier. But in the long run, the symbolism will not have much meaning without real initiatives to challenge institutional racism and the capitalist system that it helps uphold.
Workers’ rights

The relationship between labour leaders and the Democrats in election years is much like the Santa Claus myth. The politicians say, ‘if you’re good, you’ll get a present’. The promised present this time was the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).

EFCA would have made it much easier to join a union and much harder to fire workers for union activity. Thousands of workers every year in the US are sacked for pro-union activity.

The labour leaders upheld their end of the bargain. They spent hundreds of millions of workers’ dues dollars on getting Democrats elected. The number one reason, of course, was EFCA. Now, EFCA is “dead in committee.”

The original Congressional signatories of EFCA have now switched positions and are firmly against. Obama had promised to sign EFCA if it reached his desk, probably knowing full-well it never would.

For their part, the labour leaders have been trained in defeat, demoralisation and dwindling influence since the early 1980s. A mass mobilisation, beyond the realm of thought for many top labour leaders, could have won EFCA and built the labour movement in the context of the colossal anger against the bailouts that had politicians running scared from their constituents in the fall and winter of 2008.

On the issue of education, Obama is actually worse than Bush. Bush wanted to privatise elements of US education and bust the unions, but he wanted to do it through the back door. Obama is knocking right on the front door with a proposal for “merit pay” which would tie students’ high-stakes testing performance to teachers’ pay and security. Underfunded schools could then be called “failing” as a precursor to privatisation. This has happened in areas locally, but it was never put forward as a consciously national scheme before Obama.

Merit pay and education cuts are part of an overall attack on the public sector, particularly the unions that were set up across the country after the wave of Civil Rights struggle that inspired workers in the 1960s. There are battles looming, and in some places have already begun.

In the 1990s, when Democratic president Bill Clinton passed the North American Free Trade Agreement and virtually ended welfare, many labour activists revolted politically.

In this period, Socialist Alternative was the only organised force to put full support behind the historic initiatives towards political independence, the Labour Party and Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign. Should an industrial struggle break out openings like these will re-emerge with potentially longer-lasting opportunities.
War and occupation

Many youth are disappointed and even infuriated with Obama’s war policies. The Democrats are a party of imperialist war, from World War One to Vietnam to Iraq. Still, Obama flaunted anti-war credentials on the campaign trail for having opposed the war in Iraq before it started. Well, just recently, Obama asked Congress for another $33 billion in war appropriations. A further 30,000 troops are being deployed to Afghanistan.

During the later stages of his campaign, Obama let big business know that he could be fully relied upon to carry out their international interests militarily. He spoke to the main pro-Israel lobby in the US called AIPAC, declaring that the US would back Israel in potential military actions against Iran. Naming hawkish Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State sent a clear message that the US ruling class will still use its military might.

The ruling class needed Obama for a policy shift of imperialism. The unilateralism and anti-diplomacy of the Bush days can no longer be employed. A massive power in relative decline needs a friendlier face to attempt to assert a dominance that is no longer as all-encompassing.

The Los Angeles Times commented in February 2008: “An Obama presidency would present as a distinctly American face, a man of African descent….with a childhood spent in Asia, among Muslims. No public campaign could do more than Obama’s mere presence in the White House to defuse anti-American passion around the world…”

Despite a certain change in foreign policy, the death and destruction inflicted by US military dominance will continue until capitalism is challenged.

The contradictions of perception and reality were fully on display when the Norwegian Nobel Committee granted Obama the Nobel Peace Prize. Obama’s acceptance speech defended the US use of military might just one week after announcing the troop surge in Afghanistan. Socialist Alternative helped to organise anti-war protests on the day that Obama received the Prize.

Anti-war actions are likely to be small for a period of time due to the Democrats occupying the halls of power, but it will be a more politicised section of youth and workers who will want to take action against the financial and human costs of war as our jobs and services are left to crumble.
Forced to the Right?

Many liberals will apologise for Obama by saying that he was “pushed to the right” because the US population “isn’t ready for change.” This is absolutely 100%, unequivocally false. The majority of people in the US wanted single-payer health care before the debate broke out. Despite all the right-wing propaganda, a broad majority still support a strong “public option.”

Most people in the US want all troops home now from Iraq. Even Afghanistan, a war tied in people’s minds to the tragedy of 9/11, is unpopular, with most opposing the troop surge and wanting a withdrawal of forces. Over 80% of people in this country say big business has too much control over their lives. Ordinary people want jobs. Ordinary people want services. Ordinary people want peace. The US public is not holding Obama back from providing change.

Big business is the force stopping progress, and the Democratic Party is more than tied to big business. Democrats are bound, gagged and held by the puppet strings of corporate America.

While the general population is not pushing Obama to the right, there are populists on the right wing that will gain from the growing discontent. They will scapegoat immigrants as the economic crisis continues. They will even cite the bailouts as “socialism.” While the accusations of socialism didn’t undermine Obama, they did provide both an increased interest in Marxism and a fuelled hysteria for the ultra-right.

Without a mobilised labour movement and other struggles to confront Obama’s policies, there is a danger of a growing extreme right both inside and outside of the Republican Party. With a Republican base feeling further isolated from a society that they had the illusion of controlling, this could be quite a dangerous scenario.
Winning real change

In California, deemed a “failed state” by capitalist commentators, a revolt of trade unionists and youth is taking place, with strikes and demonstrations culminating in a day of action on 4 March. This could be the music of the future. The test for public sector unions is coming. Reaching out to the people using those services would be necessary to achieve victory.

A few winning struggles could potentially rebuild a labour left in the US that would have to rapidly face the issue of a break with the Democrats and the need for anti-cuts, anti-war election candidates. Otherwise, the right will build out of the discontent, and the labour movement will become further isolated.

Socialists built the unions in the US, were the backbone of the Civil Rights movement and were the driving force in the struggle to end the Vietnam War.

Socialist ideas will again be discovered by a new generation moving into struggle. Real change will not come from big business politicians. It will come from movements built by ordinary workers and youth fighting in their own interests.


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