Barack Obama's election isn't the end of the process, but the start
of the possibility of bringing about real change.
November 19, 2008 | Issue 685
FOUR YEARS ago, a shroud of despair and fear descended after George
W. Bush's re-election.
Bush's victory--legitimate this time, as opposed to the stolen
election of 2000--was seen by many as a popular endorsement of his
administration's right-wing agenda at home and abroad, and
confirmation that the U.S. had become "red-state America," with
Republicans looking forward to a "permanent majority" in government.
Four years later, the mood could not be more different.
Obviously, reason number one is that the other side won. Barack Obama
beat John McCain by twice the margin that Bush managed over John
Kerry in 2004, and the Democrats added to their majorities in both
houses of Congress.
But it's how Obama and the Democrats won that has greater meaning now.
A country founded on slavery and maintained through systematic racism
elected its first African American president. Even McCain and the
Republicans were forced to recognize the historic meaning of the
victory of a man they reviled for "palling around with terrorists."
In this sense, the celebration of Obama's win isn't just of one side
beating the other, but of history being made. A generation ago--maybe
even a few years ago--it would have been impossible to imagine an
African American winning the presidency. Two generations ago, Blacks
across the U.S. South couldn't vote for president, much less hope to
But on November 4, that accepted truism of American politics was
upended, along with any number of others. Case in point: the idea
flogged in the media throughout Election 2008 that working class
whites wouldn't vote for a Black candidate. Instead, Obama won a
higher percentage of the white vote than any Democratic candidate
since the 1970s.
"Almost every assumption about America that was taken as a given by
our political culture on Tuesday morning was proved wrong by Tuesday
night," wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich.
This larger political shift away from an era of conservative
dominance was as much a part of the Election Night celebrations as
Obama himself. "The festive scenes of liberation that Dick Cheney had
once imagined for Iraq were finally taking place--in cities all over
America," Rich wrote.
The hopeful enthusiasm has continued into the transition period
before Obama takes office. As USA Today summarized the results of its poll:
Expectations for Obama are high across the board. Eight in 10 said he
will improve conditions for minorities and the poor, and 76 percent
said he'll increase respect for the United States abroad.
About seven in 10 said he'll be able to improve education and the
environment. More than 60 percent said he will reduce unemployment,
bring U.S. troops home from Iraq, improve the health care system,
create a strong economic recovery and keep the U.S. safe from terrorism.
More than half said he will be able to bring troops home from
Afghanistan, reduce U.S. oil dependence, heal political divisions and
control federal spending.
Some of these conclusions are far ahead of what Obama has actually
said--he is, for example, on the record as favoring an increase of
U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
This is a critical development for anyone who hopes to see the
promise of change raised during the campaign become a reality. The
most important starting point of any struggle is the belief that
something different is possible--and that it matters what we do to
bring that about.
There's no better example of the new mood than the reaction to one of
the only bitter notes from the election--the passage of Proposition 8
in California, which strips same-sex couples of the right to marry
that they won earlier this year through a California Supreme Court decision.
Angry supporters of equal marriage rights--central among them, many
of the 18,000 gay and lesbian couples who married after court
ruling--took to the streets starting the night after the election and
continuing every day for the rest of the week. On November 15, a call
for a national day of action on a newly created Web site led to
demonstrations in 300 cities across California and spreading around the U.S.
The contrast with 2004 couldn't be starker. Then, the right wing was
able to push through ballot measures to ban same-sex marriage in nine
states, as the leading edge of their agenda of social conservatism.
The gay marriage movement went into retreat, accepting the
conventional wisdom that by being too radical, it had given the right
wing an advantage to exploit.
This time, however, supporters of marriage equality are on the
offensive. One constantly repeated slogan on the demonstrations is
"Yes, we can"--a reference to the Obama campaign's message of hope,
an echo of the "Sí se puede" chants from the May Day mega-marches for
immigrant rights, and a symbol of the sentiment among supporters of
same-sex marriage rights that they will overcome this defeat because
they're on the right side of history.
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OBAMA AND the Democrats recognize this mood of raised expectations.
But they regard it with a sense of concern. "It's important that
everybody understands that this is not going to happen overnight,"
said Robert Gibbs, a campaign strategist for Obama and soon-to-be
White House press secretary. "There has to be a realistic expectation
of what can happen and how quickly."
Why the nervousness? Because Obama's powerful message of hope and
rhetoric about change was never matched by a commitment to radical
policies and political positions.
Obama comes out of the political mainstream of the Democratic Party
leadership--so it's no surprise that he is staffing his White House
with veterans of the last Democratic administration of Bill Clinton.
Leading the way is Obama's choice for a chief of staff: Rahm Emanuel,
notorious as one of Clinton's political enforcers, particularly when
it came to whipping into line organized labor and liberal
organizations disgruntled with the administration's embrace of
There will be plenty of other blasts from the Clinton past in the
weeks to come--including, according to rumors as this article was
being written, Hillary Clinton taking over as secretary of state.
But that doesn't mean we should expect a repeat of the triangulated
policies of the Clinton era. The difference is that Obama has become
president after the discrediting of the right-wing agenda that
dominated U.S. politics for the last three decades, including the
On the economy especially, Obama faces a severe crisis that won't
respond to the tame government measures popular with policymakers in
the neoliberal era.
Even during the campaign, Obama had to shift from his cautious
response to the mortgage crisis, when he refused to call for a
moratorium on home foreclosures like Democratic rivals Hillary
Clinton and John Edwards.
Obama has said he wants Congress pass a further stimulus package, but
the price tag has risen continually--currently, his advisers suggest
a proposal that could add up to $600 billion. Plus, Obama has put his
stamp of approval on an attempt by congressional Democratic leaders
to give the ailing Big Three automakers access to funds from the $700
billion bailout bill for Wall Street.
In short, the scale of the problems and questions the U.S. faces--not
just economically, but in the areas of foreign policy and more--is
driving Obama toward a different agenda.
But the exact shape of that agenda will be determined by how much
pressure he feels from below.
Obama is certain to enact some changes right away, but others won't
go through without a fight. Thus, he will almost certainly extend
unemployment benefits. But will Obama take on the looming corporate
opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act that would dismantle
anti-labor laws and make joining unions easier?
Obama said he will close the Guantánamo Bay prison camp set up by the
Bush administration to evade rules and laws against torture. But will
he close the Guantánamo base altogether--and change the U.S.
government's hostile attitude toward the Cuban and Venezuelan governments?
Will his economic team at first fall back on familiar neoliberal
prescriptions, or will they turn to a more dramatic intervention?
Obama has said he will have a program for infrastructure
improvements, but will his proposal put a priority on creating
good-paying union jobs?
How those questions are answered will depend in important measure on
how our side organizes to make its hopes felt in Washington.
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OBAMA'S ELECTION represents a historic change in U.S. politics. But
that change is just the beginning.
The dam on expectations erected through 30 years of conservative
dominance has broken. But this is only the first stage of the
struggle. The election of the candidate who promised change wasn't
the end of the process, but only the beginning of the possibility for
bringing about that change.
As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass famously said:
If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to
favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops
without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and
lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its mighty
waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one,
and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle.
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.
There are significant challenges ahead in mobilizing that struggle.
Conditions for working people have worsened steadily over the past
several decades, and unions and social movement organizations have
declined, both in numbers and influence, and in their political visions.
But that situation can shift rapidly, as we have already seen around
the issue of same-sex marriage in just the few weeks since the election.
The central importance of Obama's victory is that it has broken
through the bitter prejudice that nothing much can change in society.
If those committed to organizing for a different vision of society
can relate to the hopes that this has inspired--and the newfound
confidence that justice is on our side--then we can make the Obama
years an era of struggle and political progress.
Obama's Victory: A Socialist Perspective
A Socialist Action Editorial
Barack Obama, a Black man, has been elected President of the United
States. Few, if any, thought his victory was even a remote
possibility in racist America when capitalism's two-party
multi-billion dollar electoral charade began twenty-one months ago.
When Obama's win was projected early on as a certainty by television
stations across the country Black America took to the streets in
jubilant celebration. Ninety-six percent had voted for Obama, the
highest percentage ever. In 2004 George W. Bush received 11 percent
of the Black vote. McCain in 2008, four!
Sixty-seven percent of Latino voters joined the Obama landslide,
which saw the nation's 44th and first Black president winning the
Electoral College by a margin of better than two to one and the
popular vote by an overall margin of 53 to 46 percent.
Sixty-two percent of the electorate cast 135 million votes,
surpassing the 2004 total by 13 million. By European standards voter
turnout, 62 percent, was low, but it was a significant increase from
the usual 50 percent or less that has been the U.S. norm in recent
decades. Indeed the turnout would have been higher, along with an
even wider margin for Obama, were it not for the racist voting laws,
procedures and practices that are kept in place to disenfranchise
oppressed nationalities and the poor.
The exuberant outpourings in cities and towns across the country
hailing the Obama victory were multi-racial and youthful, although
broad swaths of the general population joined in the celebrations. A
majority of white voters under 30 voted for Obama. They too
enthusiastically joined in the spontaneous mobilizations to register
their contempt for Bush-era politics. And they were one with Black
America in believing that Obama's promised "Change" was on the order
of the day.
While not receiving a majority of white voters, Obama surpassed the
41 percent totals of John Kerry's 2004 campaign by three percentage
points, the highest white vote for a Democrat since the 1964 election
of Lyndon Johnson.
Obama's victory was at least in part a product of what might be
called a perfect political storm the simultaneous combination of
massive attacks on working people as whole and Blacks in particular,
a capitalist economy in the early stages of a meltdown not seen since
the Great Depression of 1929, a war in Iraq and threats of war
elsewhere pursued with murderous vigor in the face of the majority
opposition, a looming environmental catastrophe and a Republican
Administration that appeared helpless in the face of all of it.
Never in memory has the contradiction been greater between the
illusions of the masses that change was possible with an Obama
victory and the reality of capitalist politics and prospects today.
Obama took great care during his Grant Park, Chicago victory rally of
120,000 to dampen hopes that change would come quickly, referring
vaguely to his next term as a possible timeline for significant
results. Illusions and great hopes aside, Black America understands
full well that racist inequality will not be erased from the American
scene without continued struggle.
he warmongering and racist Democratic Party will in the not to
distant future destroy whatever illusions remain as they once again
demonstrate that they are equally the party of the tiny ruling class
minority whose very existence depends on the exploitation and
oppression of the great majority.
Barak Obama can represent the interests of this vast majority no more
than capitalism can be transformed into anything other than the
predatory, racist instrument of the corporate ruling elite who run
Obama missed no opportunity to make this clear. He promised more
spending on war, "national security" repression and the military, not
less. He supported every measure proposed by the Bush Administration
to bailout the rich to the tune of unprecedented trillions of
dollars. He offered no let up in the racist ICE raids aimed at
terrorizing immigrant communities.
His initial appointments are creatures of the Clinton Administration,
which eliminated more social programs than the combined presidencies
of the three previous Republican Administrations.
Following talks with Obama's team, reports from top Iraqi officials
indicate that there will be "no fundamental change" in U.S. Iraq
policy and no firm timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops,
Obama's vague election promises notwithstanding. Whatever
"timetables" that are "negotiated" with the U.S. puppet government
will be subject to the interpretation of the occupiers.
The November 7 New York Times noted with some accuracy, "Mr. Obama
has said that a contingent of American troops would probably stay for
a more extended period to train Iraqi forces, to protect the
American Embassy and to root out terrorists." In combination with
the largest "privatized" or mercenary army ever deploy, U.S. forces
will insure that American capitalist interests are defended with
whatever force and violence is necessary. Like President Bush,
President Obama will not leave Iraq in other than total colonial
subjugation, no matter how long it takes or how many lives are taken.
His chosen Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, is an ardent cold warrior
hawk and an unqualified Zionist defender bent on backing Israeli's
every move toward the obliteration of the Palestinian people.
The $640 million Obama spent on his campaign exceeded any other in
history. Obama was the favored candidate of corporate America,
military-industrial complex America and the America of
institutionalized racism, sexism and homophobia.
Were this not the case, his carefully-orchestrated candidacy would
have been relegated by the corporate media and the billionaires
behind it to insignificance. Instead, the Democratic Party, the
historic graveyard of all progressive social movements, mobilized its
corporate sponsors to place in a timely manner a Black man of great
personal achievement in the office of the presidency.
Indeed, the ruling class has chosen a brilliant Black man to cover
the face of a cruel capitalism in crisis that has nothing in store
for working people other than more of the same and worse, much worse.
They have calculated that they can proceed with this task with the
least opposition and the longest possible "honeymoon" with a Black
Democrat holding the position of capitalism's chief executive officer.
Ralph Nader was off the mark when he stated on Fox TV following
"As the first African-American president we wish him well. The
question is, will he be Uncle Sam for the people or Uncle Tom for the
giant corporations which are driving America into the ground?"
Socialist Action has another view. We see Obama as the chief
representative of the Democratic Party wing of capitalist America's
bi-partisan attacks on all working people. We do not wish him well.
We stand in solidarity with the oppressed and exploited of this
nation who voted for Obama in the vain hope that his promise of
change would be fulfilled. But we did not join them at the voting
booth or lend credence to their illusions. Truth, however unpopular
at times, is essential in revolutionary politics. Socialists will
have their day when the masses are won to their liberatory cause and
prepared to fight for it. Lesser evilism, whether in the direct form
of the Democrats and Obama or the reformist politics of the Greens
and Ralph Nader, serve to disorient and mis-educate those social
forces who are essential for a real challenge to the capitalist order.
We fully understand that millions of Blacks, Latinos and others
believe that Obama's victory is an important blow against the racist
prejudice that permeates every aspect of American life. The fact that
unexpected millions of whites voted for Obama is an indication that
racism is on the decline and that working class unity has better
prospects in future struggles. But we do not share in the view that
prospects for Black and white America will be advanced by Barack Obama.
We disagree with Ralph Nader on a more fundamental question. In our
view, there is no "question" about what Obama can or will do. As with
all capitalist candidates before him, he will be the chief
representative of the ruling rich and not the people. There is no
"choice" in the matter of Obama's options.
Nader believes that Obama does have such a choice. He believes that
capitalism, can be reformed if only the right Democrats are in office
and if they return to the mythical values that he falsely believes a
kinder the gentler capitalism of the past once embodied. His has
always been the path of "third party" lesser evilism, crystallized in
his past two campaigns where he urged a vote for the Democrat in
close races and a vote for himself when it didn't make a difference.
Socialist Action, despite many important differences, supported the
presidential candidacies of three small socialist parties that posed
a working class and socialist alternative in the 2008 elections. We
urged a vote for Gloria LaRiva of the Party for Socialism and
Liberation, Roger Callero/John Harris of the Socialist Workers Party
and Brian Moore of the Socialist Party. The SWP received some 9800
votes, the PSL, 7400 and the SP 6600, all miniscule votes but
nevertheless votes of working class principle won in the full vortex
of an election whose outcome was made to appear as a historic turning
point in American politics.
Victories for working people of all races have never been the product
of the election of any ruling class candidate or party. They have
been and will continue to be the outcome of the independent and
massive mobilization of capitalism's victims on the field of struggle.
Socialist Action is an unswerving advocate of working people building
their own political party to defend and advance their own class
interests, a mass Labor Party based on a reinvigorated, democratic
and fighting trade union movement in alliance with the oppressed and
exploited everywhere. Karl Marx was on the mark when he wrote 160
years ago, "Capitalism creates it's own gravediggers." With no
solutions to the mounting and multiple crises before it other than
repression and deeper inroads into the quality of life of U.S.
workers, revolutionary socialists intent on mounting a fundamental
challenge to the capitalist order will find common ground with the
millions of fighters who will inevitably take the field and bring
about a new social order where capitalist plunder and barbarity will
become distant memory.
Is Obama Killing his Honeymoon?
The Third Clinton Administration [by Ralph Nader]
Some Cyanide to Go With That Whine? Obama's Victory and the Rage of
the Barbiturate Left
[by Tim Wise]
This is Change? 20 Hawks, Clintonites and Neocons to Watch for in
Obama's White House
http://www.alternet.org/story/107666/ [by Jeremy Scahill]
Liberals Conned Again: Obama picks foxes to guard henhouse [by Robert Scheer]
Obama's "seamless transition" to endless war
Obama's transition: A who's who of imperialist policy
Obama appointees signal continuing aggression and war
The Gates appointment: Obama slaps antiwar voters in the face
Obama's victory and the inevitable struggle ahead
Green Party Presidential Candidate Cynthia McKinney Responds to Obama Win
An Open Letter to Barack Obama [by Ralph Nader]
The Obama '08 Phenomenon: What Have We Learned?
Can We Talk About the Real Obama Now?
The Climate for Change [by Al Gore]
Obama's Victory [by Institute for Policy Studies]
Barack Obama: The Empire's New Clothes
Obama answers liberal critics on personnel choices
Obama: Change 'comes from me,' not his appointees
The 2008 Election [by Michael Lerner]