Will Obama be Able to Make a New Deal?

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There’s a long and no doubt bitter election campaign still ahead before we can start talking about “President Obama”. But sober observers of the US political scene are confident enough to predict that the first African-American to get this close to the White House is going to win – and win big.

Immanuel Wallerstein argued recently that Barack Obama

“is going to sweep the elections with a large majority of the Electoral College and a considerable increase in Democratic strength in both houses of the Congress … [John] McCain is currently at the top of his strength. The Democratic Party is now reunifying and hungry for winning. Obama will lose almost none of the traditional Democratic percentages among women and Jews. He will increase the national percentage among Latinos and will bring in a very large number of young people and African-Americans who otherwise would not have voted. He will also get the votes of the considerable number of independents and Republicans disillusioned with Bush.”

Wallerstein went on to insist that “his election will mark – mark, not cause – the end of the counter-revolution of the world Right of the 1980s.”

Let’s assume that Wallerstein is correct. What does it mean for the US, and for the world? The best starting-point is to make that important distinction between Obama as a symptom of change, and as a cause – and explore it a little further.

Almost regardless of what Obama stands for himself, the possibility that the Republicans are facing a heavy defeat can only be welcomed. We’ve grown so accustomed to Bush-bashing over the past eight years that it’s easy to get blaisé about the subject, so let’s not forget – the Bush-Cheney team represents what is probably the worst form of right-wing politics to have won power in a capitalist democracy. Conservative strategists like Karl Rove and Grover Norquist calculated that it would be possible to force through an agenda of open class warfare on behalf of rich elites, unrestrained and proudly imperialist war-mongering, and relentless attacks on civil liberties, just as long as they stirred up hatred against minority groups and sent out their media attack-dogs to slander and demonise anyone who objected.

Despite the absence of a labour or socialist party in US politics, despite the stultifying bias of the media and the weakness of trade unions and other social movements, the Bushites appear to have failed. If the Republican Party goes down heavily this autumn (even after choosing a “war hero”[1] instead of a smirking, frat-boy draft-dodger as its candidate), it will be a refreshing vindication of Lincoln’s remark that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Whatever else may be said about Obama, there is no doubt that he has positioned himself as the candidate of “change” and reform – the fact that people in the US are willing to vote for a clear break with the practices of the Bush years is a hopeful sign for the future.

Obama’s race has become an issue in the campaign almost in spite of his plans. I can’t be the only person who read the comments of the much-maligned Reverend Wright and thought “I wish he was the candidate”. It’s too much to hope that Obama would have endorsed the sensible and accurate views expressed by his pastor about the impact of US foreign policy. But his celebrated address on the race issue was much better than the usual fare you’d expect to hear from an establishment politician in the States. US socialist Malik Miah, who is well able to resist the lure of “Obamamania”, argues nonetheless that

“the most interesting aspect about the Obama campaign for me, and what should be for those on the left of the political spectrum, is the mass consciousness unfolding in front of our eyes in support of a ‘colour blind’ or non-racial society. It is evident in all 50 states where ‘race does not matter’ the way it did in the past. Obama’s speech on race, and more importantly his campaign, has initiated a broad discussion about American history including its violence, racist past and why young people need to engage in politics. It could not happen if that change in attitudes weren’t taking place.”

It’s widely recognized that the ethnic and racial divisions which have poisoned US society for so long have played a major role in aborting the development of class politics and a real progressive challenge to the structures of economic privilege. Obama isn’t going to be the man to lead that challenge – but he may help clear the way for those who will.

What, then, of Obama as a potential agent, rather than a symbol, of change? It would be wise to maintain a sceptical view in this regard. As Naomi Klein pointed out, he has recruited an advisor on economic policy from the dreadful “Chicago School” tradition responsible for a trail of social wreckage from Santiago to Johannesburg. There is no sign yet that Obama is willing to break with the economic orthodoxy that has inflicted so much pain on working-class people in the United States.

The same dose of scepticism is very much in order so far as foreign policy is concerned. One of Obama’s first acts as the confirmed Democratic nominee was to address the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee and endorse the hard-line Zionist agenda. The oppression of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state, which dwarfs anything experienced by African-Americans in the post-slavery United States, didn’t merit the attention of the Senator’s undoubted eloquence.

When it comes to Latin America, the same line-toeing has been in evidence: Obama attacked Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez as a “demagogue” whose “perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and cheque-book diplomacy” must be challenged. You can find some of the most tiresome and malign features of US foreign-policy discourse in that statement: the ignorant assumption that “America” stops at the Mexican border, the readiness to denounce a democratically-elected leader as a tyrant because his government challenges US hegemony in the region, and the hypocrisy of references to “cheque-book diplomacy” from a state which has never thought twice about using its immense economic power to bully poorer nations into submission.

Frances Fox Piven argues that such critical points, while valid, do not invalidate the claim that a victory for Barack Obama would mark a significant turning-point:

“Focusing on the modesty of Obama’s proposals misses the point. When FD Roosevelt campaigned in 1932, his specific policy proposals were limited. Nevertheless, his bold rhetoric and the surge of voters to the Democrats set in motion a process that changed the United States, whether FDR intended it or not. The 1932 election created a huge new political space in which insurgent movements flourished, nourished by the sense that the new administration could not afford to ignore their demands. It was the movements of the unemployed, of the aged, of industrial workers and farmers that forced Roosevelt to act on relief and public employment, labour rights, farm supports and old age pensions. They pressed FDR hard, and because they did, they helped to forge the policy initiatives that we now know as the New Deal. An Obama victory – if it’s big enough – could usher in another such transformational moment in American politics.”

Could she be right – will the combined impact of the disastrous war in Iraq, the light shone on domestic poverty by Hurricane Katrina, and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression give the US political system an almighty jolt and break the stranglehold of the radical right?

In the article referred to earlier, Malik Miah presents a more cautious view, while agreeing that there may be a greater opening for progressive victories than we have seen in many years:

“The mass sentiment for the Obama campaign … indicates a possible shift in political consciousness, which can either lead to broad-scale disillusionment or begin to awaken the new young generation to engage in more radical politics when the first African-American president acts like all his predecessors in defending the imperial state.”

Either way, there could be interesting times ahead …

[1] Of course, there’s little chance that anyone will point out the obvious when John McCain’s “heroism” is wheeled out for admiration – McCain served in the US Air Force while it was bombing a desperately poor country that had never attacked the United States “back to the Stone Age”, as one military chief aptly put it. Not quite the stuff of which heroes are made.