On November 4, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, with the significance of being the first African American to achieve that. The Democratic candidate attained an ample victory (bigger in the difference of electors than in the percentage of the popular vote) over the Republican McCain-Palin ticket, and his party obtained a majority in both Houses of Congress, achieving the biggest electoral result since Lyndon Johnson’s election in 1964.
Obama’s election campaign, centered on a vague promise of “change,” managed to excite millions of young people and workers, who hope that his administration will effectively lead to a radical change from that of George Bush and to reversing the “conservative revolution” of the last few decades. These expectations go beyond US borders, and at an international level, millions have the illusion that, under Obama’s administration, the main imperialist power will have a more “benevolent” policy towards the rest of the world.
However, Obama’s victory is not owing to his “personal qualities” or his “ability in oratory”, nor is it the victory of the idea of “equality of opportunities” or of the “end of racism,” as most analysts in the liberal press claim; rather it is the result of the disastrous situation in which the burden of two unwinnable and unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is combined with the outbreak of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of 1930. In that sense, it recalls, with all the differences of the case, the victory of the Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt over his Republican rival Herbert Hoover at the end of 1932, in a complete economic depression.
Obama will take office at a very critical moment for US imperialism. From the beginning, his presidency will be under the pressure of the economic crisis, which is already being expressed as a social crisis, with thousands of layoffs, as well as a growing number of families that have lost their housing, and challenges to US authority in the world. Without going further, Wall Street welcomed Obama’s victory with a fall of 5% in the Dow Jones Index, the same as the NASDAQ and Standard and Poor’s, showing that what predominates is the economic crisis and the recession, rather than the supposed enthusiasm for “change.” As some analysts say, the real news of the day is not his victory, but the ever clearer confirmation of a “forced landing” of the Chinese economy, the other pillar, next to US overconsumption, of the growth cycle of the world economy of the last few years, which is abruptly coming to its end.
Between the illusions of the masses and the interests of the establishment
Obama’s victory represents an important cultural change and has a strong symbolic impact for the African American minority and other oppressed minorities like Latinos (who voted for the Democratic candidate by more than 70%), in a country that originally based its “greatness” not only on the enslavement of blacks, but also on the fact that racial discrimination was legal in many states until scarcely 45 years ago, when the civil rights law was approved, and racism continues to be very strong in broad sectors.
The massive vote for the Democratic Party expresses, in a distorted manner, the popular rejection of the politics of the Bush era, identified with the disaster of the war in Iraq and an aggressive imperialist policy, with the enrichment of bankers, businessmen and the elite of corporate directors, with the tax cut for the rich, in short, with a monumental transfer of resources towards the richest 1% of the country. However, the determining factor was the leap in the world economic and financial crisis in the month of September (so-called “Black September”), when Obama’s “responsible” attitude contrasted with the autism of the Republican candidate, who was denying the very existence of the crisis. Without the economic crisis underway, Obama’s victory possibly would have been unthinkable, in spite of Bush’s deterioration.
Although detailed analyses of the composition of the electoral base of each party were not available by press time, the geographical distribution of the vote shows that the Republican Party, although it is in a very big crisis and an intense internal division, that casts a shadow over one of the fundamental legs of the two-party system, kept its traditional base in the states of the so-called “Deep South,” like Arizona and Texas and in the rural states of the center of the country (although they lost key places like Florida, Virginia, Iowa, Colorado, among other states that had been won by Bush in 2004). In spite of the enormous repudiation and extremely low popularity of the Bush administration, the Republican Party kept a significant electoral percentage, making it clear in its campaign that a strong right wing [sector] exists in the country. For its part, the Democratic Party swept [its rivals] in the eastern and Pacific coastal states and in the industrial states, like Ohio, which would indicate that significant sectors of the working class – especially union members – voted for Obama.
Popular expectations of “change” concretely mean measures to protect jobs, help for those who are about to lose their only housing, a health service that covers the more than 43 million US inhabitants that lack medical insurance, legalization of immigrants, policies against racism, increasing taxes on the rich, the end of the war in Iraq, and a radical change regarding the unilateral and militarist policies of the neo-conservative administration.
But after Obama’s victory, these are not only the expectations of young people, workers, blacks and Latinos, but, above all, the decision of the ruling class establishment that, faced with the crisis and the deterioration of the Republican Party, chose Obama some time ago as the best candidate to fix the situation of the US in the world again and to wrestle with the social discontent that could be unleashed as the crisis and economic recession deepen. That is why the main Wall Street firms financed Obama’s campaign, and among his advisors you will find the most experienced imperialist politicians, like, for instance, Brzezinski, the intellectual author of supporting the mujahidins against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Bush’s former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who began the war against Iraq, Paul Volcker, head of the Federal Reserve in 1979, who kicked off the neoliberal offensive with the rise in interest rates, causing a deep recession, and Clinton’s former Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin. One of Obama’s main economic advisors is none other than Warren Buffett, the richest man in the world.
Before taking office, Obama already indicated that he will defend the interests of the capitalist class. He voted and lobbied for Paulson’s bailout plan, that is, saving the bankers with $700 billion of government money. The Democratic vote was actually crucial for congressional approval of that plan, given the opposition of most Republicans in Congress to the plan of their own administration. This sum of millions contrasts with the modest $50 billion that Obama promised in his campaign, for public expenditure on public works and social expenditures, and scarcely $10 billion for those who owe on their mortgages.
The thing is, beyond his race, Obama belongs to the political elite that governs in favor of the interests of the imperialist bourgeoisie, with their two main bosses’ parties, Republicans and Democrats, alternating in office.
Obama and the crisis of US hegemony
On the international plane, Obama will have to struggle with the heavy inheritance of the Bush administration and its “Preemptive war” that led to the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars that the US did not manage to resolve in its favor. This strategic error, by the neoconservatives who sought to take advantage of the S-11 attacks to strengthen US authority in the world with an aggressive imperialist policy, by appealing to military supremacy and unilateralism, qualitatively weakened the position of the US, gave rise to unprecedented anti-Americanism, mainly in the Middle East, Latin America, and, to a large extent, in the “old” Europe, and facilitated the emergence of other political actors on the international scene. This situation of weakness was obvious during the war between Russia and Georgia, an US ally, where Bush could not line up the European powers behind his policy, especially Germany, which favored its own interests concerning Russia, the same as France, in spite of the pro-Americanism of its President, Sarkozy. Far from the illusions of activists and the anti-war movement, the foreign policy that Obama set forth during the campaign is particularly centered on gradually withdrawing troops from Iraq and concentrate military power in Afghanistan, where the Talibans have recovered, and the conflict spread to Pakistan, to get an imperialist victory there. Unlike the hard position of John McCain, essentially continuing Bush’s policy, Obama declared himself to be a supporter of a “dialogue without conditions” with Iran, in order, through diplomacy, to try to get a wing of the government inclined to US interests. Although it is still not clear what Obama would have up his sleeve to tempt the Iranians, this policy contradicts the maintenance of the unconditional alliance with the State of Israel, which is pushing for a more offensive policy against the Iranian regime. If an arrangement with the regime of the ayatollahs is not achieved, Obama’s promise to withdraw troops from Iraq could remain up in the air, given the vacuum that the withdrawal of US troops without a clear agreement would cause in the region. Finally, the newly President-elect declared himself to be in favor of a more multilateral approach, to permit collaboration by other powers, essentially centered on seeking European cooperation in the war in Afghanistan, a matter that does not elicit much sympathy among the European governments, in spite of their semi-naive enthusiasm over the newPresident-elect.
Whatever the political orientation that he ends up defining, the complex international situation will quickly test the viability of his policy. The profound economic crisis, combined with the military failures, is seriously questioning the bases of US power. Although no power is able to contest US hegemony, significant regional powers like Russia or China and even their main allies, like the European powers, could indeed dispute the terms of US authority.
A preview, perhaps, of what is coming is the coldness with which Medvedev’s Russian government welcomed Obama’s victory by reaffirming its policy of locating short-range missiles on the eastern border of Russia, if the US goes ahead with its plan to install a missile system in Eastern Europe.
In this scenario, where, for the first time since 1973, the whole world is marching towards recession, it is most likely that the rivalry among capitalist corporations and their states will break out again, which will facilitate the development of regional conflicts and open a period of great instability and inter-government tensions on an international level.
Perspectives after Obama’s victory
In the next few weeks, it will be seen which tendencies the composition of Obama’s cabinet expresses; until now, he has been surrounded by key figures from the Clinton administration. The transition from the election to becoming President on January 20, 2009 (in reality, this process can last beyond the formal dates, owing to the process of congressional approval of all candidates) could be a period of great political instability, both in the US and internationally, with unexpected challenges that seek to test the new President.
But the big challenge for his own administration could, in this case, come from within the US, given the magnitude and heavy burden that the monumental economic crisis entails. Earlier rather than later, the illusions and expectations of the workers, the black and Latino minorities, and the millions that see their livelihoods threatened by the recession, will collide with the reality that Obama’s administration will not defend their interests, but the interests of the big imperialist corporations and banks.
Most of the “progressive” sectors that, with more or less enthusiasm, called for voting for Obama, justified their position in that his administration will be more susceptible to pressure from workers’ struggles. Roosevelt in the 1930’s, Kennedy in the 1960’s, and Obama in 2009, confirm once and again that beyond “liberal” (or “leftist”) rhetoric, or “populist” policies, like the New Deal, the Democratic Party, together with the Republican Party, defends the interests of the imperialist bourgeoisie. It should be sufficient to recall that during Kennedy’s presidency the US invaded Cuba, the Democrat Johnson began the war in Vietnam, and that Roosevelt himself, when his New Deal policy appeared incapable of revitalizing the US economy, and a new crisis occurred in 1937, changed the New Deal into the “War Deal”, that is, he changed the direction of the economy toward war preparation in 1938, to challenge Nazi Germany and Great Britain for world hegemony. It was this “war industry” that effectively permitted the recovery of the economy and allowed the US to enter the war and come out as the only hegemonic power in 1945, although on a worldwide scale, it shared authority in the world with the Soviet Union. We say this, although it still remains to be seen if Obama will make a significant change of direction in economic policy in the context of defending the bourgeois imperialist regime. Nor can we rule out a clearly protectionist drastic change, as some election rhetoric from the former candidate and the Democratic majority of the two Houses of Congress could presuppose.
Historically, the “lesser evil” strategy has favored the Democratic Party’s acting to contain the “progressive” middle class sectors and the tendencies of the advanced workers to radicalization, as occurred in the 1930’s, with Roosevelt’s cooptation of the CIO’s militant trade unionism, or at the end of the 1960’s with the movement against the war in Vietnam. This has been a big obstacle for the political independence of the workers, the majority of whom vote for the Democratic Party.
The depth of the economic crisis and the new historical period that is beginning will probably accelerate the experience with Obama’s administration. Illusions or frustrated expectations could translate into class struggle and the emergence of new political phenomena, as occurred in the 1930’s with the rise of the CIO (at first, “Committee for Industrial Organization” and from 1937, “Congress of Industrial Organizations”), which in a few months attracted to its ranks thousands of unskilled workers, that were rejected by the union bureaucracy of the AFL (“American Federation of Labor”). This phenomenon of workers’ activism was part of a rise of combative strikes by employed and unemployed workers, like those of the Toledo automotive workers in 1934 or the Minneapolis Teamsters.
It is true that history does not repeat itself, but it also true that we are in a crisis of a historical magnitude similar to that which gave rise to the most intense processes of radicalization of the US working class. In the coming period, the possibility will be open that the working class, which has been struck hard since the Reagan administration, and which has suffered harsh defeats in the last 30 years of neoliberal offensive, during which its union representation was reduced to only 12% of the workforce, will recover its organization, and that the opportunity will be opened for US workers and the oppressed minorities to break with the parties of the exploiters.
Translation by Yosef M.