US: Obama takes power

What change will the Democrats bring?

Obama’s victory in the 2008 election was historic. It signified a clear rejection of the Bush administration, its war on Iraq and ultra-free market policies. Voters also made history by electing the first black president in a country that was built on slavery and racism.

The Obama campaign mobilized a tremendous amount of support, particularly among young people and African Americans, and aroused massive hopes that change is coming to America.

For the first time since 1994, the Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress. They won 256 out of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives (59%), and they almost have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Meanwhile, the Republicans’ defeat has sent their party into a crisis. Party leaders have been quarrelling about how to modify their politics to try to regain public support.

Obama is taking power with 65% of the public expressing confidence in his leadership, according to a January Gallup poll. Against the background of the hated Bush regime, Obama will undoubtedly enjoy a “honeymoon,” potentially for an extended period.

At the same time, though, Obama and the Democrats are immediately being put to the test by an incredible array of enormous challenges. Obama is facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, a federal budget deficit of $1.2 trillion, wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the recent carnage in Gaza strip, and a global warming catastrophe.

When Obama takes office, he will chart a different course than Bush. He will probably begin withdrawing troops from Iraq (while sending more troops to Afghanistan) and enact a major economic recovery plan. But after these initial measures, what key domestic and foreign policies will Obama and the Democrats pursue?

Obama’s Administration

Those appointed by Obama to lead his administration speaks volumes about the incoming president’s plans. Although anti-war voters propelled him to victory, Obama has selected a hawkish foreign policy team that even includes figures from the Bush administration. Obama is keeping on Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, even though Gates is the man responsible for overseeing the troop surge in Iraq.

Obama selected retired Marine General James Jones to be his national security adviser even though Jones is a former NATO commander and currently a US Chamber of Commerce executive who backed John McCain for president.

And Obama selected Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state, even though voters supported Obama in the Democratic primaries in large part because Obama counter-posed his opposition to the Iraq war to Clinton’s support for the war. To this day, Clinton has refused to apologize for voting for the criminal invasion of Iraq.

It is extremely revealing that the outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney praised Obama’s foreign policy team, saying: “I must say, I think it’s a pretty good team…I’m not close to Barack Obama, obviously, nor do I identify with him politically. He’s a liberal. I’m a conservative. But I think the idea of keeping Gates at Defense is excellent. I think Jim Jones will be very, very effective as the national security adviser… I would not have hired [Hillary Clinton, but], I think she’s tough. She’s smart, she works very hard, and she may turn out to be just what President Obama needs."

Another very disturbing selection was Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. Warren is a far right-wing pastor well known for comparing abortion to the Holocaust and gay marriage to pedophilia and incest.

Obama threw the labor movement a bone by selecting Hilda Solis as his labor secretary, but he also upset workers and environmentalists by nominating Ron Kirk as the US Trade Representative. Corporate America, in contrast, was delighted with Kirk, an outspoken “free trade” advocate.

The fact that Obama’s chief of staff, his White House counsel, and his economics, energy and environmental advisers all served in Bill Clinton’s administration clearly shows that Obama’s administration will be part and parcel of the corporate political establishment. “Most members of [Obama’s] economic team are veterans of the Clinton Administration who tilt towards Wall Street. In the Clinton era, financial issues routinely trumped labor concerns” (NY Times, 12/28/08).

Saving US capitalism

Obama has clearly assembled an establishment administration that will act in the interests of the business elite, both at home and abroad. However, the underlying economic and political situation has drastically changed from what Bill Clinton faced in the 1990s.

Unlike Clinton and all major governments in the past 30 years who aggressively pursued extreme neo-liberal free-market policies, the deep economic crisis has compelled the ruling class to sharply change their course toward massive state intervention in the economy to shore up the capitalist system.

As hard-working people have lost their jobs and homes, they have grown furious at Wall Street executives who fabulously enriched themselves from reckless investments and taxpayer bailouts. Key sections of the ruling class have recently shifted away from discredited free-market policies toward Keynesian policies that regulate corporations in an attempt to avoid an even worse economic and political crisis.

Obama is responding to these pressures by enacting starkly different policies than Clinton’s and Bush’s free-market policies, but for the same purpose — to further the interests of the profit-driven capitalist system.

Even Bush was recently forced to toss aside his free-market ideology and nationalize or partially nationalize failing banks and financial institutions to save the economy from the brink of collapse. Obama, too, is being forced to intervene to save major sections of the economy, such as the auto industry.

Obama plans to spend $775 billion to $1 trillion, over two years, to create or save 3-4 million jobs through public works programmes, green energy technology, aid to states, expanding the length of unemployment compensation, food aid, and other initiatives. However, 2.6 million jobs were lost in 2008, and some economists estimate another 4 million might be lost in 2009. So, the number of jobs lost from the recession could still end up being twice the number of jobs that Obama creates.

This exemplifies how Obama’s reforms will be designed primarily to stimulate the capitalist economy rather than protecting workers and their families. Obama’s policies will not adequately address the problems workers and young people are facing. His stimulus package may well soften the blow of the recession, but it will not be able to prevent the deepest downturn since the 1930s and a sharp fall in the living standards of workers and even sections of the middle class.

Obama revealed his priorities when he recently announced that, under the cover of the need to deal with the economic crisis, he would put off his more left-wing campaign pledges such as “renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, overhauling immigration laws, restricting carbon emissions, raising taxes on the wealthy…allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military … [and passing the Employee Free Choice Act] to make it easier for workers to form unions” (NY Times, 1/11/09).

On the issue of tackling racism, while it is certainly regarded by millions in the US and around the world an important step forward to have a black president, Obama has not indicated that he is going to do much concretely to improve the worst paying jobs and living conditions that most blacks and people of color face.

On foreign policy, US imperialist strategists are desperately searching for a way to extract the US from the untenable, disastrous occupation of Iraq. Reflecting this, Obama is planning to withdraw some US troops, but he still plans to leave 60-80,000 troops, military bases, and approximately 140,000 “contractors,” many of whom are, in reality, soldiers hired by private US corporations.

However, he may not even be able to successfully carry out these limited aims, given the difficulties US imperialism will encounter in Iraq. A reduction in the US troop levels threatens to trigger an increase in violence and instability in Iraq, which could lead to a wider regional war, which the ruling class is desperate to avoid.

Another reason Obama plans to withdraw troops from Iraq is to free up 20-30,000 troops to send into the worsening occupation of Afghanistan, practically doubling the US troop presence there. However, escalating the war in Afghanistan will only plunge the US deeper into a quagmire. Even General Petraeus, director of the troop surge in Iraq, admits that the Afghan insurgency is far more complex and difficult than Iraq’s.

Struggles on the horizon

Compared to Bush’s obviously disastrous policies, Obama will feel like a refreshing breath of fresh air to most people. Obama will be a more intelligent and flexible representative of US capitalism than Bush. For these reasons, Obama will enjoy popular support for a time.

It will take time and experience for wider layers of workers and young people to realize that the Democrats’ reforms are designed primarily to benefit US capitalism and to restore faith in the political system, while benefits to working-class communities and the environment will only be of secondary concern.

However, as economic conditions worsen and the volatile occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan unravel, more and more workers and youth will realize that Obama and the Democratic Party are thoroughly tied to corporate interests. They will be compelled to move into struggle to defend their living standards, the environment, and their rights.

The fact that Obama has aroused expectations has already emboldened an important layer of people to get politically active to ensure that their hopes are realized.

In the coming period, workers and young people will increasingly draw the conclusion that we need to build our own mass movements—and our own independent party that is prepared to take on Corporate America—to bring about real change.

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