Revolutionary traditions and realities of power
Barack Obama invokes the traditions of the first and second American revolutions and the 1960s civil rights movement. As Ted North shows, this has created huge popular expectations
One would have had to be hiding deep in the Amazon to have avoided the news that Barack Obama is now the 44th president of the United States of America.
As a result he is head of both the state and the government, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and has considerable powers in relation to law in the world’s most powerful state. Thus far people have seen him as more of a symbol than a cog in the state machinery. The American ruling class is desperate for a show of national unity, at a time when America is entangled in effectively unwinnable wars and sliding into deepening economic crisis.
Just after 12 noon on January 20, the words his supporters had been eagerly awaiting crossed Obama’s lips, as he stood on a building built by black slaves; “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will try to the best of my ability to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States, so help me god.”
The inauguration event was given the title ‘A new birth of freedom’ and comparisons between Obama, who appeared to follow the minutiae of US establishment protocol down to the last detail, and Jesus Christ indicate the way in which many commentators see the new president.
On one level, of course, the excitement is completely understandable. Not only the first black president, but one who seems to carry with him all the hopes of America’s poor and oppressed. So the amount of melanin in the new president’s skin cannot simply be dismissed as irrelevant. True, the election of a rich black man does not resolve the question of ‘race’ - there is Barack Obama and there is also Mumia Abu-Jamal. However, not only the symbolism, but the perception of it are very real material factors which do indeed open up new possibilities.
It is easy to show that Obama is whatever you want him to be, even if this does mean embodying mutually exclusive ideas. To American capitalists he is a welcome safeguard for the troubled ‘free’ market. To black and Latino people he is, kind of, one of them.
He constantly references Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Nevertheless, to the influential Zionist lobby in the US he is considered a safe pair of hands when it comes to the alliance with Israel - the massacre in the Gaza strip, timed to coincide with the vacuum created by the presidential transition, was met by an almost complete silence from Obama. To liberals and anti-war activists, though, he offers salvation after the dark years of the Bush administration.
The unifying theme of Obama’s politics is the American dream. The rhetoric of the “change” slogan embodied his entire political project. Enough to lure in the potentially dangerous forces of the radicals, the young and ethnic minorities, yet vague enough to be of no concern at all to the American bourgeoisie - who, in fact, also have great hopes in what Obama can achieve.
The point is, however, what effect will dashed expectations have on the various forces, not least those below?
Playing by the rules
Obama’s message was underlined during the inauguration: he will play by the rules and do everything he can to promote American interests. After the divisive war in Iraq, the people who pull the strings are certainly keen for a show of American unity. The secret service codename for Obama, ‘Renegade’, is ironic in this light.
The contradictory nature of Americanism can be seen in the route Obama took to his inauguration. He took a train from Philadelphia to Washington DC, the same journey Abraham Lincoln took 150 years ago. Lincoln was a timid moderate who ended up presiding over the second American Revolution which ended slave labour and posed the necessity of ending wage labour. Bill Clinton made a similar gesture on his inauguration, travelling to the capital from Thomas Jefferson’s estate in Virginia. Jefferson was one of the leaders of the first American Revolution, which won independence from the British crown and created the flawed and incomplete US democracy.
Obama and his team of ex-Clinton employees, unreconstructed Zion-ists and former free marketeers who have been quick to embrace the lurch to Keynesianism arrived to a huge party. Thousands of workers and tens of millions of dollars ensured the type of event which Americans are used to: more ‘reality’ television than the rule of the people. Like the sterile party conventions, the gaudy grandeur of the inauguration was described by Obama as a “celebration of the American people”, while the ceremony would “carry the voices of ordinary Americans to Washington”.
In reality the voices of “ordinary Americans” were, as intended, drowned in the deluge of celebrities, the political establishment and big business reps, all vying for political leverage. Dozens of balls and parties took place, with no expense spared. Bars had extended licences, helping to add to the delerious atmosphere before the cold touch of reality returns.
The fact that Obama’s tuxedo had been made by the Hart Schaffner Marx company, which uses unionised workers, was considered newsworthy and full of political connotation. And in a sense it is: Obama extends a limp left hand to the working class, whilst his right firmly clasps the reactionary establishment.
But there is no denying his popularity. The massive crowds at the inauguration are unmatched in American history. By contrast there were boos for Bush, whom Obama thanked for his “services to the nation”. Expectations were high prior to his speech and for the most part he was able to meet them. On the one hand, he outlined the new challenges facing America, and, on the other, stressed traditional values mixed with the magical “change”.
The new president was quick to say that America was “in the midst of crisis”, mentioning wars, the economic situation and climate change. The economic crisis, casting its shadow over all other problems, was the product of “greed and irresponsibility on the part of some”. Nevertheless, the market was a fundamental source of freedom, merely requiring a “watchful eye”.
In terms of America’s relationship to the rest of the world Obama thanked the “brave Americans” who by killing people in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere were “guardians of our liberty”. Vague talk of withdrawing from Iraq and making peace in Afghanistan was deliberately non-specific. In reality he wants troops withdrawn from Iraq, to the extent this is compatible with the maintenance of American control, in order to redeploy them to Afghanistan, where Obama’s attitude to Pakistan potentially threatens a regional explosion. Even as president he kept quiet on Gaza, where the post-slaughter dust has barely settled. The spectre of war on Iran remains - indeed with sanctions it has in a sense already begun. US imperial ambitions remain undiluted - Americans must “once again become leaders of the world”.
Obama’s new America is basically the traditional one of the founding fathers and the constitution, but cleansed of its racist stain.
Last week’s Weekly Worker front page, bearing the headline “World’s #1 terrorist” above a picture of Obama’s face, has met with mixed reactions from regular subscribers and new readers alike.
While a lot of people were extremely positive about it, many tell us that we are being unfair, that we should give Obama a chance. Let us look at things from another perspective. What kind of president do the ‘bad men’ want?
The overall context is the relative decline of US power. Add to this the more recent problems of potential ‘imperial overstretch’, with America unable to win its wars, and the economic crisis. Clearly the suitable candidate would be able to lure in sections of the working class, yet he must not threaten private property and American nationalism. Obama ticks the boxes so far.
The prominence of gender and skin colour in the election campaign also clearly tells us something. The powers-that-be in America need to bring the young, ethnic minorities and women back into the fold, or even regain their enthusiasm. In other words, Obama is exactly what the ‘bad men’ want. He understands the game.
The chief symptom of Obamania is raised hopes (in the abstract), whilst all around him have fought hard to keep concrete expectations low. One would have to look hard in his inaugural speech to find anything which is beyond a platitude.
Maybe an Obama presidency will trigger a crisis of expectations? An equally likely outcome is apathy and despair. But America is changing - that is for sure - and US communists will not be looking for quick-fix solutions, which have repeatedly shown themselves to be even quicker to break Their number one task is to organise themselves and to organise the working class.