Barack Obama - a class act
Jim Creegan explains why ruling class support is likely to see a Democrat voted into the White House
Here in the United States, as in Europe, the media have recently featured retrospectives of 1968. Yet most have failed to note a then salient political feature of the two countries - France and the US - in which that year’s most memorable explosions took place: the absence or malfunction of two-party politics.
The ability to alternate parties is invaluable for any ruling class needing to adapt to changing circumstances. When one of the two major parties is discredited, there is another standing by, ready to govern within the limits prescribed by capital and undo the damage. It can disclaim all responsibility for the first party’s failures; with the proper slogans and symbols, it can channel discontent safely into the voting booth, restore ruling class credibility at home and confidence in the country abroad.
Such a party was absent in France’s Fifth Republic, where de Gaulle monopolised power to the exclusion of other bourgeois or social democratic formations; angry students and workers had nowhere to turn but to the Communist Party or to the streets. And it was the ‘lesser evil’ of the American duopoly, the Democrats, who in 1968 were pulverising Vietnam and conscripting the country’s youth. Not about to become Republicans, great numbers of blacks and students abandoned electoral politics for more forceful means of expression.
But that was then. Forty years on, America’s upper classes think they can rest easy in their boardrooms and gated communities. The two-party system is functioning to optimal effect. American capitalism may have run into a spot of turbulence, but nothing so far that cannot be fixed with a refuelling stop and a change of cabin crew.
The difficulties are mounting. The US has suffered a decline in imperial stature as a result of the Iraqi occupation, which has left its military hard pressed to deal with defiant regimes - Venezuela and Iran - and caused a lingering chill among European allies. This has given rise to consternation among much of the military and foreign policy establishment.
There are also rumblings of dissatisfaction from below. While far from comparable to 60s rage, a disillusioned mood is taking hold. The polls register over 60% disapproval of the Iraqi occupation. In November of 2006, voters elected a Democratic Congress with a clear mandate to withdraw. But, after a few desultory attempts to attach a withdrawal timetable to war-funding legislation, the Democrats caved in completely, giving Bush everything he wanted, and have since approved several war appropriations bills with no strings attached. However, since most of the sacrifice is limited to a pool of continually rotated volunteers and their families, anti-war feeling has not assumed Vietnam-era proportions.
Harder for everyone but the well-off to ignore are the plummeting prices for houses, in which so many Americans have invested their savings. The highest petrol prices in the history of this petrol-powered nation are biting hard, and creating many secondary inflationary pressures, especially on basic food items. The present recession comes on top of a more sustained attack on the standard of living of wage-earners, usually said to date from the election of Ronald Reagan, but which really began under the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter. Longer hours for lower pay, shorter holidays, vanishing pensions, ballooning medical costs and reduced health coverage by employers - all have left a cumulative mark.
Under these circumstances it is not hard to understand why the Republican con game, famously described by Thomas Frank in What’s the matter with Kansas (America)?, no longer seems to be working its diversionary magic.
How to advocate reining in ‘big government’ when government deregulation of the financial industry is largely responsible for the orgy of swindling that led to the current subprime mortgage mess? Or stir up anxieties about a gay couple moving in next door among families on the verge of having their homes repossessed? Even that most dependable of Republican bogeys - fear of another terrorist attack - is losing potency, as 9/11 recedes in time. Rudy Giuliani, New York’s take-no-prisoners mayor when the twin towers were hit, based his entire presidential bid on his self-advertised “coolness and determination” in the face of the attacks, only to be beaten badly in the Republican primaries.
Since he secured the Republican nomination, John McCain has been trying - unconvincingly - to distance himself from the discredited foreign and home policies of George Bush. Yet the make-up cannot conceal the wrinkles. When all is said and done, the Republicans have little to offer but scaremongering and trickle-down. McCain’s advanced age - at 72, he would be the country’s oldest president - serves to underscore the expired sell-by date on the wares his campaign is peddling.
He prattles on, with occasional lapses of memory and logic, about the need further to reduce corporate taxes to stimulate the economy and prepare for a (peaceful) hundred-year occupation of Iraq. A top campaign adviser recently created a minor scandal when he implied that a reprise of 9/11 is the only thing that could revive McCain’s hopes for the White House. Clearly, American capitalism has fallen into disrepute in Republican hands, and is in dire need of a facelift.
Belief you can change in!
Barack Obama is putting himself forward as the plastic surgeon for the job.
Ever since he joined the presidential contest in February of 2007, Obama has billed himself as the candidate of change. Just what kind of change is deliberately unspecified. Yet his candidacy has stirred the intemperate enthusiasm of millions hoping for deliverance from the long night of Bushdom.
During the primaries, Obama drew enormous and wildly exalting crowds. The candidate plays to their hopes, while keeping his options open. As he wrote in one of his autobiographies, “I serve as a blank screen, on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views” (The audacity of hope, quoted in The New York Times June 27). But to anyone willing to stop looking at the screen long enough to examine the record, it is clear that the change Obama is talking about is mainly in his own positions. As one wit has suggested, his official campaign slogan, “Change you can believe in!”, ought to be replaced by “Belief you can change in!”
During the primaries, Obama courted his leftish Democratic Party base. He stressed his political beginnings as a community organiser in Chicago’s South Side black ghetto. He liked to emphasise a speech he made against the invasion of Iraq before he was elected to the Senate from Illinois, as well as his current plan - the linchpin of his campaign - to withdraw US combat troops over 16 months.
But every feint to the left over the course of Obama’s career has been compensated by a less publicised swerve to the right. Unmentioned was the fact that the text of his anti-invasion speech was pulled from his website immediately after the invasion, when Bush was briefly popular; or that his withdrawal plan would leave non-combat troops in Baghdad’s Green Zone and redeploy combat troops to nearby countries, ready to re-invade if need be. Also lost amid the cheering are his calls for more troops for Afghanistan and the enlargement of the US military as a whole.
After arriving in the Senate, Obama voted to reauthorise the infamous Patriot Act, abrogatinghabeas corpus for non-citizens who are suspected of ‘terrorism’, the definition of which was greatly expanded. This vote was no doubt cast with approval of Senator Joseph Lieberman, the pro-Bush Zionist war hawk, who became Obama’s Democratic mentor in the Senate. Lieberman was no doubt beholden to his young protégé, who had earlier campaigned for Lieberman when the latter faced a challenge from an anti-war Democrat in his home state of Connecticut.
While fighting for the nomination, Obama was keen to contrast his fresh approach to that of Hillary Clinton, whom he painted as the consummate Washington insider. Yet his voting record in the Senate is virtually indistinguishable from hers, save in one particular: unlike Clinton, he voted for a class-action ‘reform’ bill, aggressively pushed by the insurance industry, which forms his third-largest bloc of donors. The bill would restrict the ability of groups of citizens to sue big companies. Obama also voted against an amendment that would have placed an upper limit of 30% upon interest charged on credit-card debt.
Obama has, moreover, surrounded himself with a team of foreign-policy advisers recycled from previous Democratic administrations. His chief counsellors are Zbigniew Brzezinski and Madeleine Albright. Many of Obama’s supporters may be too young to remember that it was Brzezinski, who, as Carter’s national security adviser, funnelled support to the Afghan mujahedin before the Soviet invasion in order to set a trap and give “the USSR its Vietnam war”; when asked if he regretted having armed islamic fundamentalists, Brzezinski replied that “some stirred-up muslims” were insignificant compared to the accomplishment of bringing down the Soviet empire (Le Nouvel Observateur January 15-21 1998).
For her part, Albright, while Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, famously opined on national television that isolating Saddam Hussein was well worth the price of the half a million Iraqi children who died as a result of US sanctions.
In a primary debate, Obama lambasted Clinton for her six-year stint as a member of the board of directors of Wal-Mart, the country’s leading retail chain and largest employer. Wal-Mart is, of course, infamous for its low-wage jobs and virulent anti-union stance, as well as for cheating employees (whom it calls “associates”) out of overtime pay, and locking night-shift workers into its stores to prevent employee theft and break-time “abuse”. Several “associates” were unable to get help when they fell seriously ill on the job.
Yet the head of Obama’s economic team is Jason Furman of the Brookings Institution, a leading propagandist for the Wal-Mart ‘economic miracle’. Furman has decried efforts to raise the wages of Wal-Mart employees as detrimental to working class living standards - because the company’s famously low prices might go up as a result. Reducing the company’s profit margins never seems to have occurred to him.
Another prominent Obama economic adviser is the University of Chicago professor, Austen Goolsbee, whom Naomi Klein, writing in the left-liberal Nation magazine, has located on “the left side of a spectrum that stops at the centre-right” (June 12). Goolsbee heaped fulsome eulogies on the doyen of the Chicago school, Milton Friedman, when he died in 2006, and is famous for his whispered assurances to the Canadian consulate that Obama’s talk of renegotiating the anti-worker provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement was little more than campaign bluster.
Both Furman and Goolsbee are disciples of Robert Rubin, a former head of New York’s leading investment house, Goldman Sachs, who went on to become Clinton’s secretary of the treasury. During the Clinton years, ‘Rubinomics’ became synonymous with a set of fiscal policies in keeping not only with the needs of capitalism as a whole (which Democratic policies have always been), but also with the immediate demands of Wall Street.
Yet if Obama’s leftish boosters found it convenient to ignore the continuity beneath the rhetoric of change, they could scarcely be oblivious to the fact that their candidate, immediately after securing the nomination, deliberately - almost gleefully - showed them the back of his hand. His rightward lurches have followed one another so rapidly that it is difficult to keep track. There was, to begin with, his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the mainstay of the Jewish lobby, in which Obama assured his audience of hardcore Zionists: “I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Everything in my power … everything” - and went on to surpass even Bush, who has called for negotiations concerning Jerusalem’s final status, in proclaiming his desire to make the holy city the “undivided” capital of Israel (The Nation July 21-28).
Then there was the announcement that Obama would forego public funding for his presidential bid, reneging on his earlier pledge to accept government money. Obama knew full well that such financing, which excludes funds from private sources and gives both candidates an equal amount to spend between now and November, is essential to the campaign reform he has long claimed to champion. But Obama had raised much more private money than McCain, and could not resist pressing his advantage.
There was also Obama’s criticism of the Supreme Court’s five-to-four decision not to allow the extension of the death penalty for child rape (Obama thinks child rapists should be executed), and his announced intention to maintain Bush’s ‘faith-based initiatives’ - the scheme whereby the Republicans have directed federal monies mainly to fundamentalist protestant churches for ostensibly charitable purposes, but really to circumvent public assistance to the poor and build a popular rightwing constituency. Such subventions violate the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.
But what rankled many supporters more than anything was Obama’s support for a version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This legislation provides a thin legal veneer for the sweeping and unconstitutional surveillance powers which the Bush administration has arrogated to itself. It also provides retroactive immunity to the big telecom companies, which are now being sued for their collaboration with the government in secretly wiretapping the overseas phone conversations of American citizens. Obama had earlier pledged to join other Democratic senators to prevent a Congress vote on this legislation through filibustering.
As Obama packs his bags for a trip to Europe and the Middle East designed to burnish his imperial credentials, and is beginning to backtrack on his timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, it fell to Paul Krugman, a liberal columnist for The New York Times, to break the bad news to Obama’s increasingly disquieted backers: “Progressive activists … overwhelmingly supported Mr Obama during the Democratic primary, even though his policy positions … were often to the right of his rivals’. In effect, they convinced themselves that he was a transformational figure behind a centrist facade. They may have had it backwards” (June 30).
Ambiguity of change
It is no longer quite true to say, as the left is inclined, that there ‘isn’t a dime’s worth of difference’ between the Democrats and Republicans. That may have been the case in the 1950s and 60s, when the empire was in its heyday, and neither party wanted to rock the boat too much. Now there is at least 50 cents worth of difference.
Many in the upper echelons of American power view the invasion of Iraq as a disastrous blunder. But now that the US is entangled in Iraq, and the invasion has just been sealed with a spate of lucrative exploration contracts for the oil giants, no ruling class faction will be in favour of leaving and letting the chips fall where they may. In future, however, many would like to see a little more diplomatic savvy in Washington, and a little less neo-con, boots-on-the-ground belligerency. Some would also probably support meeting the mounting economic distress at home with a few palliative government measures of the kind that the Republicans would like to banish forever from political discourse.
The legions of idealists busy writing blogs and ringing doorbells for Obama seek change of a different sort, at least implicitly. Many are truly revolted by the slaughter in Iraq and the depravity of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. They have no personal stake in the US empire and think its maintenance hardly worth the ongoing assault on domestic liberties. They would like to see a speedy withdrawal from Iraq. They are repulsed as well by the increasingly blatant social and economic inequality of recent decades, and hope for reformist measures of redress.
This is not the kind of change being sought by those in charge of the Democratic Party. Yet in the current political climate these two potentially conflicting agendas remain indistinct, at least in the minds of the many - union members, blacks, educated young people and a number of left liberals and even radicals - who view Obama as the bearer of their hopes. For his part, Obama continues to trade on this ambiguity under the all-embracing and meaning-deprived banner of “change”.
Despite growing doubts, it looks as if he will keep his supporters in tow and ride this banner to the White House. The ‘lesser evil’ party of capitalism will thus have served its stabilising purpose, at least for now.
A forthcoming article will examine the rationalisations and political psychology of those, especially on the liberal and radical left, who insist on supporting the Democrats no matter what.
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