USA - Obama: one leap forward – and ten steps back

FRFI 206 December 2008 / January 2009

With Barack Obama’s election, the United State has taken a big leap forward – not because it has elected a black person President, but because of what had to happen for him to be elected.

Leap forward
In its analysis of the US, FRFI has emphasised the changes in the US working class: the declining importance and power of the better-off workers, the labour aristocracy, and the growing significance of people of colour - particularly of the Latino population. We argued four years ago that the decline of the labour aristocracy and the political demoralisation of the most oppressed workers had undermined the class coalition with liberal middle-class whites which formed the political basis for the Democratic Party – and that this cost it the Presidential election in 2004: ‘This Presidential election marked the exhaustion of the political strategy which the Democratic Party has been following for the last half-century’ (FRFI 182). We have argued that political progress in the US can only be achieved if the left organises with the most oppressed workers, black people and Latinos.

The necessity of doing this and the possibilities it opens up have been demonstrated in the recent election. The Democratic primary election between Hillary Clinton and Obama was a competition between the old political strategy and a new one. Clinton was the candidate of the Democratic Party machine. In order to succeed, Obama had to build a completely new political machine outside the traditional party structure, aim it at the youth and the black and Latino communities and go directly to the electors, knocking on doors and talking instead of relying on TV advertisements alone. This strategy included voter registration drives, bringing in several million new voters, generating huge enthusiasm, particularly amongst the black community. The campaign motto ‘Yes we can!’ was taken from the mobilising slogan used by the Latino community during the ‘Mega marches’ against immigration repression: ‘Si se puede!’ The result was to inject real political life into these communities and bring them into national politics for the first time, not on the basis of some sectional issue like Civil Rights or immigration, but around the future of the United States. In the election, 55% of whites voted for McCain. But 72% of Latinos and 95% of blacks voted for Obama.

Change – for the worse?
Unfortunately, the change that brought Obama to power will bring few progressive changes to US foreign or domestic policy. The Bush coalition of the politically reactionary, the administratively incompetent and the mentally unhinged is being replaced by Obama’s seasoned team of professional bourgeois politicians. But the imperialist agenda remains. Most of them are veterans of the Clinton administration and they include the current Defence Secretary, Robert Gates. The important post of Secretary of Homeland Security looks as if it will be filled by Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who has been fanning anti-immigrant hostility and actively helping militarise the border with Mexico by mobilising the National Guard. His National Security adviser is expected to be retired Marine General James Jones who used to work for John McCain. The anticipated Secretary of State (foreign secretary) is Hillary Clinton who is tight with the Zionist lobby – as is Obama himself. When Obama mentioned change, he forgot to add that he meant changing personnel, but only fine-tuning the policy – less Gitmo and Iraq, more Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has also spoken of reasserting US power in South America. Real change? No way.
Asked what Obama’s progressive supporters would do, adviser Stephen Walt cynically responded: ‘They have nowhere else to go’. Not yet, that is: it is up to the US left to take advantage of the huge political stir created by Obama’s election to prepare for the deep disappointments which are coming and to point the awakening movement in the direction of real change.

Steve Palmer, US correspondent