US: The ambiguity of ‘Hope’

Barack Obama becomes frontrunner in Democrats’ presidential race

The spectacular victories of Barack Obama in a series of the Democratic primaries are a reflection of several deeper processes taking place in the United States. While there is still quite a way to go until the presidential candidature nomination, and Hillary Clinton will use the undemocratic system of super-delegates to try to secure the nomination, Obama won ten consecutive primaries (Wisconsin and Hawaii were the latest), gaining momentum, including a majority of white voters in Southern states. He has electrified the youth and the African American vote, and organizing rallies of tens of thousands in sports arenas with his message of “change.”

Obama’s ascendancy has been a huge surprise for many pundits, ever since the start of the primaries. Already, there is clearly a sense of history being made and of another barrier been demolished, with an African-American so close to winning the nomination of the Democratic Party.

Fueling the excitement is the activation of the so-called “millennial generation” (those born after 1982) in this electoral cycle. Signalling a massive demographic shift underway in the US, 40% of that generation are African-American, Latino, Asian, racially mixed or they have an immigrant parent. Polls show Obama favored also among those with incomes over $100,000 and among independents, another indication of the likely defection of a large section of the Republican electoral base.

The Obama phenomenon is occurring at a time of the virtual unravelling of the Republican electoral coalition, with serious splits and in-fighting between the Christian right and the business wing of the Republican Party, as McCain seems to have secured the nomination.

This is happening as the economy is clearly headed for a downturn and there is serious anxiety about jobs, healthcare, housing foreclosures, massive indebtedness, and a massive erosion of the support for the military adventures of US imperialism in Iraq. Large majorities at polls are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the US and, therefore, all candidates are speaking about the need for “change.”

Obama’s politics

Aside from Obama’s unquestionable charisma and rhetorical skills, (which, needless to say, paint a sharp contrast to the current president,) the Obama phenomenon reflects the deeply-felt desire for political change from the now discredited policies of Bush and the Republicans, over the past decade. Obama, much more than Clinton, is able to appear as a Washington outsider, who represents real change, as well as appearing to be “anti-war” because he expressed opposition to the war while Hillary Clinton was supporting Bush’s war drive. In his speeches after Super Tuesday, Obama referred to his campaign as a “movement” to bring “change” to America.

Aside from the hopes for a better future projected on this candidacy by millions of Americans, Obama does not speak about any specific social reform or actual change. His references are primarily an appeal to ‘transcend’ partisan divisions, uniting everyone to a common purpose; an inchoate programme for ‘civic’ and ‘national’ unity.

Obama is not the product of the civil rights struggles or any real political movement. In many ways, his political origins have more in common with Colin Powell, the former black Secretary of State, and a whole new generation of black leaders who have been loyal servants of the ruling class. Obama’s campaign received serious support among sections of the establishment and Wall Street, from very early on, mainly as a counter-weight to Hillary Clinton’s establishment appeal. It is significant to note that according to the Federal Election commission, investment bankers now support the Democrats 2-to-1 over the Republicans, with equal donations to the Obama and Clinton campaigns.

This, alone, however does not explain the sudden shift of a large section of the political establishment behind a man who, four years ago, was only in the Illinois state senate. Obama’s political backers include liberal senator Ted Kennedy, and such pillars of the establishment as former national security advisor and Cold War hawk, Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as, Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, The Los Angeles Times, the former Fed Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker, and Warren Buffet, the second richest man in the US.

In an editorial endorsing Obama, the Los Angeles Times (February 3) commented approvingly that he understands “that some liberal orthodoxies developed during the past 40 years have been overtaken by history.” In other words, The Times feels reassured that Obama will not attempt to introduce social reforms that benefit the poor or the working class.

It appears that in the aftermath of the debacles of US imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan, a growing section of the US ruling class and the political establishment are looking at Obama as the multicultural face that can signal to the world a shift from the policies of unilateralism by the Bush-Cheney regime into a regime that would combine selective military force (in the name of a “war on terrorism” and “rogue regimes”, etc) with more diplomacy, the use of alliances, etc.

As the LA Times comments: “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…”

Contradictory features

There are, therefore, two contradictory features reflected in the Obama phenomenon. On the one side, is the genuine hope for change felt by millions of working people. On the other side, there is the desire of sections of the ruling class to use Obama to create a more ‘acceptable face’ for imperialism internationally and domestically.

But underlying the present political developments is a sharpening class polarization in US society which is compounded by a deepening economic crisis. Even before the current collapse of the housing market and the massive wave of foreclosures, American workers already faced stagnating wages, huge indebtedness, a collapsing dollar and huge increases in energy prices. All this is fuelling the illusions in the Democratic Party and Obama. This reflects a shift of the consciousness to the left and it is an anticipation of an increase in class struggles in the coming turbulent period of American politics.

But in the absence of a real political alternative from labor or the anti-war movement, the mass of workers and young people will need to go through the experience of a Democrat presidency to dispel their illusion that the Democratic party – a party owned lock stock and barrel by the corporate establishment – will affect changes to benefit working people and bring an end to the squandering of untold billions in Iraq. When these illusions are shattered, many more working class people will begin to understand the necessity of a movement of working people on the streets, as well as the need to break from the two parties of big business.

Growing populism

As the primary fight heated up, both Clinton and Obama were forced to try to tap into the broad anti-corporate anger that exists among large sections of the working class and even the middle class. In his recent speeches, in economically hard-hit states like Wisconsin and Ohio, where there have been massive job losses, Obama criticized the enormous inequality that exists in the US and the fact that the rich are getting richer while every one else is struggling the get by. Obama called for “shared sacrifice and shared prosperity.” He struck a more populist tone, calling for a $50 billion programme for alternative energy and a $6 billion a year programme to repair the country’s infrastructure (estimates show $1.5 trillion are needed). He also criticized the rich for “making out like bandits.”

In an editorial on 17 February, the Washington Post warned Barack Obama against stirring up “class warefare” 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.” Clearly, the establishment press realizes that there is a danger of the Obama campaign igniting the deep reservoir of social discontent.

Whoever gets elected president in 2008 will be faced with colossal crises, both at home and abroad. The Republican “revolution” has weakened the domestic support for the policies of US imperialism and capitalism. The Obama campaign, while fostering illusions of change and hope, is not a vehicle of social change that the liberals imagine, but it signals the opening of a new period of political and social instability.

Socialist Alternative (CWI in the US) calls for the strongest possible anti-war, anti-corporate challenge to the left of the Democrats in the presidential elections. In the present situation, we advocate a Nader-McKinney ticket as a protest vote against the two corporate parties. We also welcome the independent left challenge of anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, who is standing against the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, in California. Sheehan’s break with the Democrats, because of their refusal to take real steps to end the war or to impeach the Bush Cheney regime, for their crimes is the music of the future.

It is likely the Democrats will win November’s election. But they will be put to the test in dealing with the economic crisis, the war, health care and other issues facing US working people. And the Democrats will be found wanting. Such an experience could open up possibilities of steps being taken towards the establishment of a new political party, based on the interests of working people and the poor. The period opening up will create opportunities to begin popularizing this idea first to thousands of Americans and then to millions.

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February 2008