But Will He Deliver?
On Tuesday, voters delivered a decisive, historic defeat to the Republican agenda of corporate greed, corruption, and war. While the total voter turnout remains unclear, experts are estimating up to 64% of eligible voters cast ballots, the highest in at least 40 years, potentially the highest in a century.
As news agencies announced Barack Obama had secured the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency, millions of Americans gathered in bars, living rooms, and election night rallies, erupted in cathartic celebration. Spontaneous street parties and raucous marches filled city streets late into the night. The reign of George W. Bush, the most hated president in modern history, is over.
On top of that, the election of an African-American as president of the United States, less than 50 years since legal segregation, is being greeted with widespread euphoria. Across the globe millions are in celebratory awe at the image of a black man, with the middle name of "Hussein," replacing the hated Bush regime. There is enormous hope that Obama's election night promise of "a new dawn for America" is indeed in progress.
But will Obama and the Democratic Party deliver? Facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, a projected trillion dollar budget deficit reaching 6% of U.S. GDP, and a new unraveling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama and the Democrats come to power amid a massive crisis of U.S. and world capitalism.
Their problems are worsened by a sharp contradiction between the massive expectations for change among millions of workers and the actual big-business agenda Obama intends to carry out. In particular, it will be the same fierce economic anger which propelled Obama to victory which will, at a certain stage, push growing layers of the multi-racial U.S. working class into active opposition to his administration. The stage is set for a new, tumultuous period in U.S. history.
The Democratic victory was overwhelming. Obama won 52% of the vote to McCain's 46%, defeating McCain by 7.4 million votes. Obama's victory with the undemocratic Electoral College was even more decisive - 349 to 163 - with the Democratic candidate taking several states previously considered Republican strongholds. In Congress, the Democrats picked up five Senate seats, with several races still undecided, though they will not likely reach a filibuster-proof 60 strong caucus. While several races remain undecided, in the House the Democrats have secured 20 more seats, which added to the 30 seats they gained from Republicans in the 2006 elections, gives them a decisive 254 to 173 majority.
According to exit polls, Obama won majority support in almost every demographic. Seven out of every ten urban voters supported Obama over McCain. The same proportion held for young voters and first time voters. In small cities, Obama won 59% of the vote, as well as 50% in suburbs. Only among rural voters and those over 60, did McCain win.
Obama's stunning fundraising advantage was another factor, allowing his campaign to dramatically outspend McCain in advertising and get-out-the-vote organizing. This was fueled in part by historic numbers of small donations, but more significantly big business and the financial oligarchs of America gave Obama their backing, filling his campaign coffers with over $640 million. The wealthiest Americans, making over $30 million a year, gave to Obama 3 to 1 over McCain.
Obama has rewritten the book on presidential elections, and not just by the sheer amount he raised or his decision not to take public financing. Obama received 3.1 million financial contributors. His Facebook page has 2.2 million supporters and he has more than 700 campaign offices in every state in America.
Among African-American voters, who turned out in historic numbers, 95% supported Obama. While only 43% of whites voted for Obama, this is a higher percentage than Clinton or Kerry received, and roughly half of white working-class voters backed Obama.
Though racism is by no means extinguished in the U.S. - indeed the McCain campaign's thinly veiled racist attacks revealed that deep pockets of bigotry remain - nonetheless Obama's ability to win support in regions and constituencies previously dominated by Republicans reveals a very real process of change in Americans' attitude toward race.
Obama's victory itself does nothing to assure genuine change for the majority of African-Americans who continue to languish under poverty, de facto segregation, and police repression. At the same time, the symbolic importance of electing the first black president should not be underestimated. In a country where less than fifty years ago Jim Crow laws assigned African-Americans to second-class citizenship and where dogs and water cannons were put on those who fought against this, Obama's victory will no doubt be a catalyst for further inroads against racism.
This will be seen as a victory not only for African-Americans, but also Latinos, Asians and Americans of other races who have been shut out of power throughout the long racist history of American capitalism. Today workers from Mexico and Latin America are being arrested, their families split up, in racist immigration raids.
For African-Americans, the election of Obama could have a huge galvanizing effect. The New York Times describes a 55 year-old African-American janitor who registered to vote for the first time a month ago. "This is huge. This is bigger than life itself. When I was coming up, I always thought they put in who they wanted to put in. I didn't think my vote mattered. But I don't think that anymore." (11/2/08)
David A. Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington stated: "It's not just a question of Obama as the first black nominee; it's also that African-Americans have suffered substantially under the Bush years and African-Americans have been the single most anti-Iraq-war group in the population." (NYT 11/2/08)
Obama's election could be a spark that helps ignite a new movement to fight for better conditions among African-Americans. However, any such movement would rapidly find itself in opposition to the big-business agenda Obama will inevitably pursue. While Obama will likely pursue limited measures to address the impact of the deepening economic crisis on working people, resolving the mass poverty and unemployment in the black community will require a colossal public works program, funded by heavy taxes on big business, something Obama has shown little inclination towards.
The dominant issue which emerged in this election was the economy. The war in Iraq was a crucial backdrop to this at the beginning of the election process and will remain a running sore. After two decades of wage stagnation, leaving families to work more hours and more jobs to get by, working-class people have seen a real fall in their living standards in the last few years. The Bush administration's blatant pro-business rhetoric and its outrageous handouts to corporate friends caused a large target to be painted on the back of any Republican candidate. The economic meltdown in October sealed their fate. In October 2008 an astonishing 85% of Americans said the country is on the wrong track.
Attempts by Republican candidate McCain to redefine the dominant issue of this election totally failed. Similarly, their attempt to paint Obama as a friend of terrorists, a Muslim, culturally 'different' (code for racism) and finally as a socialist, failed to affect most voters. The tried and trusted Rovian method of blatant misrepresentations, which they used to bury Democratic Party candidates in 2000 and 2004, failed to stick with a more politicized and attentive attitude among the voting mass. Interestingly, the attempt to define Obama as a 'wealth re-distributor 'actually helped expose how unequal America has become due in part to the Republican-initiated tax cuts for the rich, while stimulating a national discussion on "socialism."
The ability of Obama to present himself as the agent of change has been decisive amongst an electorate desperately looking for an end to the disastrous consequences of a Republican-dominated agenda in Washington. What Obama has managed to conceal is how similar his policies are to those policies.
In a demonstration of how far this electoral system is from a democratic system, those candidates who could have offered a fundamental alternative to these polices were shut out of the debate. In particular, Ralph Nader was barred systematically form the media and from the debates. Cynthia McKinney, candidate for the Green Party, was also excluded. By offering a $10-an-hour minimum wage, ending the for-profit health care system that plagues the majority of Americans' lives, ending the war, and exposing the corporate funding that defines the policies of the two major candidates, well-known consumer activist Ralph Nader would have transformed the debate by shining a bright light on Obama's refusal to move beyond a promise of change.
Under these conditions, Nader's vote was squeezed to less than 1%. Despite this, the 2008 Nader campaign's ability to achieve ballot status in 45 states and to raise $4 million demonstrated the potential for building a national electoral challenge in years ahead.
Astoundingly, it was left to the right-wing Republicans and Sarah Palin to use the term "working class," and attempt to explicitly tap the class anger in U.S. society. Palin looked to appeal to the deep alienation working-class Americans feel toward the political system. However, the majority of voters understood this was just another trick by Republicans to confuse voters. The spectacle of Palin firing up the right-wing base, and effectively running her own political campaign, merely exposed ever further the fissures in the Republican Party, the gulf between old Corporate Republican leaders like McCain and the alternative agenda of the right wing.
The opposition and ridicule Palin inspired among the broader voting public shows how diminished the far right has become. Defections from the GOP have increased as Bush's economic policies were felt by millions of "red-state" workers. The situation was epitomized in a photograph depicting a homemade sign with the Confederate flag and the words: "Rednecks for Obama. Even we've had enough."
One can expect to see a fierce battle for the soul of the Republican Party in the coming months and years, as these two wings wage a battle for domination of the party. Their problems are worsened because candidates representing the traditional big-business wing of the party lost more seats in the House and Senate than the far-right wing. Now the ideology of the party is increasingly dominated by what The Economist describes as "southern-fried moralism."
Lacking from most post-election analysis was the crucial role played by big business in the election. With their money, their control of the media, and their political influence, the U.S. financial elite helped elect Barack Obama. Confident that an Obama White House will not defy them or shake things up too much, Corporate America opened their wallets to his campaign. Despite his carefully scripted comments about not receiving donations from corporate lobbyists, Obama's candidacy has received far more corporate dollars than McCain's (opensecrets.org).
Of course this does not discount the significance of donations made by historic numbers of working-class Americans to Obama's campaign. However, it will not be ordinary working-class people who will be sitting in his cabinet, or advising him on policy issues. It will be the same Wall Street and corporate executives and established pro-imperialist foreign advisors who have been in the cabinet of the US presidents for the last 120 years. They will be the ones driving Obama's domestic and foreign policy.
Here lies the contradiction in Obama's victory. Obama has managed to speak to Americans of all incomes, including the very rich and the poor. He has received money from regular workers and from corporate CEO's. He has promised to govern one America. However, we don't live in one America. We live in two Americas. One that has grown fabulously rich, and another that is taking it on the chin, with working people scraping by, working unstable jobs, just a layoff away from losing their homes or apartments. One America for the billionaires and another for the rest of us.
During the election, this contradiction could be papered over. However, once he starts governing, Obama will be forced to decide between the two classes.
On Wednesday Obama announced his transition team, with the conservative chairman of the Democratic Caucus Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff. Emanuel emerged as a major power-broker in Washington after he engineered the Democrats 2006 election victory, which saw the strengthening of the so-called "Blue Dog" conservative Democrats. In several cases, Emanuel used his control of Democratic Party money to engineer the defeat of more liberal Democrats in the primaries, even where these candidates were more competitive than their favored conservative rivals.
Clinton's former chief of staff, Leon Panetta, was reportedly the main architect for Obama's transition plan, which has been crafted over months. Discussing how Obama will address the severe economic problems, Panetta advised, "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." (NYT, 11/5/08)
A long honeymoon?
Given the massive budget deficits, which is 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. The relatively minor new taxes he is proposing on the wealthy will not change the equation substantially, given the overall fall in tax revenue as the recession bites.
Nonetheless, Obama has reportedly been discussing with congressional leaders about a "possible $100 billion for public works, unemployment benefits, winter heating assistance, food stamps and aid to cities and states that could be passed during a lame-duck session the week of Nov. 17." (NYT, 11/5/08) Even from the standpoint of big business, such limited proposals may prove necessary to prevent a further economic collapse and a more complete 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 the financial elite and big business. The big three auto-makers, who faced catastrophic declines in their sales last month, are faced with the near-term prospect of bankruptcy unless the federal government comes to their aid. Such aid, however, will not reverse the waves of layoffs and wage and benefit cuts facing autoworkers.
It remains to be seen how rapidly or fully Obama will move to implement his various other campaign promises, from health-care tax credits to closing Guantánamo Bay. In Iraq, Obama's pledge to draw down troops will be complicated by the failure of the Iraqi government to formally agree to a continued U.S. troop presence, and the renewed tensions between the Sunnis, Kurds, and governing Shia. In Afghanistan, the situation is unraveling fast with many warning that Obama's plan for a troop surge there will only provoke further conflict.
Nevertheless, even limited reforms by an Obama White House will contrast sharply with Bush's reign, and could 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.
However, the experience of the 2006 elections must be remembered, when the Democrats swept into power in Congress on promises to end the war and hold Bush accountable. Their failure to do either provoked rapid and sharp outrage among a more politicized minority of workers and youth. Cindy Sheehan, who broke with the Democrats in the summer of 2007, represented a small but important tendency. With expectations so high, Obama will undoubtedly eventually disappoint millions in office, and a radical minority will open to far-reaching conclusions about the need for a political alternative.
Millions of young people, people of color and ordinary workers have had their confidence raised. Many will be inspired to step forward into political activity as a result of this election. Many of them will see the need to mobilize campaigns and protests in an attempt to keep Obama's attention on those who elected him. Others will be forced into struggle to defend themselves against the cutbacks and attacks resulting from this recession. The wave of political awakening which Obama rode to power was not the creation of his campaign, and the radicalization of the U.S. working class won't stop with the end of this campaign - just the opposite, in fact!
Movements that develop will inevitably come into sharp conflict with an Obama administration. 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 U.S. society. Consciousness of the need to break with the Democratic Party will grow. More than ever, the question of building a political voice for working people will emerge onto the political agenda. The idea of a new anti-corporate, antiwar political party, a party of working people, will gain traction in the minds of millions, as ordinary people struggle to find a path toward genuine change, a way out of the economic and social crisis engulfing U.S. society.
Ty Moore and Tony Wilsdon, Socialist Alternative (CWI USA)
November 6, 2008