Obamalaise hits home

James Turley looks at the first year of the Obama presidency

Last Wednesday was January 20 - not a particularly important date most years, except to astrologers. On that date last year, however, Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States of America - to a rapturous reception from a war-weary and crisis-ravaged US population, and indeed well beyond that country's borders, where his predecessor, George W Bush, was feared and reviled.

The coming around of his first anniversary has provoked the expected deluge of 'balance sheets' of his first year in office. Unfortunately for Obama - should he be concerned for his legacy - January 20 fell within yet another bad week for the commander-in-chief.

Having eagerly inherited the Afghanistan war from Bush, Obama has received nothing but aggro for his troubles. On December 1, he announced a troop surge in the country to the tune of about 30,000 (strong echoes, of course, of Bush's 21,000-strong 'surge' in Iraq three years ago), and was also drawn to set the beginnings of a timetable for withdrawal - due to commence July 2011. The effectiveness of more troops, however, was always in doubt. A briefing by the senior American intelligence officer in Afghanistan, whose notes are helpfully available on the internet, came later that month. The hardest point to swallow was one with which we can concur completely - "the Afghan insurgency can sustain itself indefinitely."[1]

So how to advance the war - or rather, advance American interests by hook or by crook? Obama's team appears to have made a major shift on the issue. Hamid Karzai, whose victory in the farcical national elections this summer returned him - just - to the Afghan presidency, has recently been attempting to win over 'moderate' Taliban fighters, effectively by offering bribes. Defectors would be offered jobs, education and other benefits if they would lay down their arms.[2] Karzai is now expected to use the January 28 London conference to make an appeal to Taliban leaders and offer them seats in government if they renounce violence.

The US, of course, is pulling the strings. During his 24-hour visit to Pakistan defence secretary Robert Gates indicated that America no longer believes that force alone can decide the matter. The US troop surge is therefore intended not so much to crush the Taliban as to encourage them to come to the negotiating table. He is quoted as saying: "We and our many allies are increasing our capabilities in Afghanistan to try and change the momentum and bring the Taliban, those elements of the Taliban that are willing to reconcile, into government".[3]

This marks a huge shift in thinking. For many years US administrations have painted the Taliban as being hand in glove with al Qa'eda and Osama bin Laden and therefore jointly responsible for the September 11 2001 attacks. Significantly, on January 26, a key United Nations security council committee removed five former senior Taliban officials from its international terrorist blacklist. All were high-ranking members of the former Taliban government in Kabul and will no longer be subject to international travel bans and asset freezes … therefore they will be free to enter negotiations with the Americans.

Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, ahead of the London conference, said that it was necessary to "establish a trust", worth many millions of dollars, that could be used to buy off the Taliban. Rasmussen admitted there was no 'plan B' and urged people to be patient.[4] However, the Taliban appear unwilling to surrender. In a statement published on its website, the organisation dismissed the London conference as a "waste of time" and rejected the idea of giving up their cause for the sake of bribes.[5]

In point of fact the Taliban seem convinced that all they have to do is play a waiting game. For good reason. Obama sweetened his troop surge with a pledge to begin the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in July 2011. True, there has been a considerable retreat on this, with officials in Washington already queuing up to emphasise that the date is provisional at best. Nevertheless, this looks like one hostage to fortune too far, in the prosecution of a pretty chaotic war.

Domestically, the augurs are not much better for Obama. In Massachusetts, last week saw an important by-election to the US Senate - the Democrat icon, Edward Kennedy, vacated his seat, along with this mortal coil, last year. Massachusetts is a solid blue state - all of its 10 lower-house representatives are Democrats, as are both of its senators (including 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry). Alas, they will not be for long; the voters returned Republican Scott Brown by a narrow margin on a mediocre turnout. In Kennedy's last run at the senate in 2006, he managed to top the poll in every county in the state, with the smallest margin of victory in any of them at 62%. Were a party's vote to collapse so substantially over four years - a 20% swing - in almost any other circumstance, the only explanation would be a local or national crisis of that party. Scott Brown was not seriously expected to win until days before the election.

Disillusionment, in Massachusetts at least, seems to have hit hard. The liberal campaigning website, Moveon.org, conducted a poll of voters who turned out for Kennedy in 2006 and Obama in 2008, but stayed at home or voted for Brown this time around. The largest part of those interviewed came out on issue after issue as disappointed in the lack of liberal or progressive change under Obama's administration.[6]

The symbolic importance of a Republican sitting in Ted Kennedy's seat - the last of the Kennedy brothers, and the only one to die of natural causes - is considerable. Yet the significance of this poll is more than symbolic. When Brown replaces the Democrat interim senator, the Democrats will go from having 60 seats to 59. Still, in a sane world, a usable majority - but 60 is, in the US Senate, the 'magic number' of senators, as it is the minimum required to cut short a filibuster. Now, provided that he who giveth taketh not away any members of their own caucus, Republicans can torpedo any legislation they choose, giving them negotiating power wholly in excess of their presence.

There is a juicy target for them - Obama's healthcare plan. It was already hollowed out by concessions to the Democrats' staunchest neoliberals in the House of Representatives by the time the latter approved it, with some particularly unnerving clauses related to the provision of abortion. Not only will it be impossible for anyone on a government health plan to have an abortion (which is bad enough): it will be impossible for anyone else on the same plan paying their own dues. Obama supporters - who rallied to his at least formally bold statements on the subject on the campaign trail and in the first months of his administration - are increasingly hostile to a bill which many view as a regression from the present set-up. Moveon.org's polling data is clearer on this than anything - about half the lapsed Democrat voters claimed to oppose the bill, and of these, almost half the non-voters and 37% of the Brown voters - the largest part in both cases - believed it "doesn't go far enough".

This is not the first time a reforming Democrat president has hit mortal opposition from the other branches of government. When Supreme Court judges threatened to rule the 'new deal' unconstitutional, Franklin D Roosevelt faced them down, threatening to keep nominating allies to that body until he had the majority he needed - for that and anything else he might find troublesome. The court blinked. Obama's situation in Congress is not an impossible one, either. The power of the filibuster is not such an awesome thing that it cannot be challenged by Democrats. Indeed, the latest extant Supreme Court ruling on the subject considers it the prerogative of each house to set its own rules, and the right to filibuster could be overturned by a simple majority.

Those are not the noises coming from the Democrat hierarchy - indeed, as American liberal commentator Keith Olbermann acidically noted, it was "as if that [Massachusetts] victory had given the Republicans a 41-seat majority".[7] A briefing sent out to its senators proclaims it "mathematically impossible for Democrats to pass legislation on our own". It proposes instead that Republicans "come to the table" in a "non-obstructionist" manner - pretty laughable for anyone who has been following the dire Congress healthcare debate so far, and the behaviour of the 'grand old party' in it.

As we have seen, there is no "impossibility" at all on this point - even in the grossly undemocratic 'democracy' that reigns in Washington. Why has nobody on a blue ticket bared their teeth? To scupper the filibuster would not just remove it from the Republican arsenal, but also from the Democrats'. Should Democrats find themselves in a Senate minority, they will no longer be able to impose their own terms in the same way - and, under such circumstances, Republicans would not be very much minded to restore the filibuster and obstruct their own legislation. Like all big-time bourgeois politicians (and bourgeoisified workers' politicians, for that matter), the Democrats are fully integrated into the state apparatus. This integration - which it shares with its rightwing rival - is supported by things like the filibuster, which are in the last instance mechanisms for giving the bourgeoisie (or even a minority of that minority class) a veto over anything on offer.

Barack Obama was never a radical. Although his opponent in the Democrat primaries was a Clinton, Obama was and is in substance every bit as much the rightward-drifting career politician as either of them. The emptiness of his rhetorical prestidigitations expresses a cynical contempt of the masses, who must rally behind a semi-sanctified leader with the good moral fibre to pursue their interests. Machine politicians need the machine intact and functioning.

The political situation in America is fluid, and any number of shifts could happen between now and the next congressional elections this year (let alone the 2012 presidential poll). Still, it is difficult to see the Democrats doing more than shoring up their defences. Obama's failure to deliver even on the slender concrete proposals that slipped into his sweet airy stump-speech nothings has had a deleterious effect which is unlikely to be remedied by his cowardly dependence on the bureaucratic apparatus of the state - recapturing the American population's imagination is probably impossible. Obamania has given way to Obamalaise.

These days are certainly a far cry from the jubilation of November 2008, when Obama beat Republican hawk John McCain to the top job, having not looked like losing for some months. The rapturous enthusiasm of sundry bourgeois liberals was to be expected - that workers' organisations were to be found among the starry-eyed is a cause for concern. We are used, of course, to the persistent capitulation of the American trade unions to the Democrats, which has been going on for decades; the same is true of the remains of the 'official' communist movement (including our own Morning Star/Communist Party of Britain).

Yet, in spite of its popular-frontist method, I expected better at the time from the Socialist Workers Party. Its paper urged a certain amount of caution, but nevertheless more than caught the bug; Weyman Bennett, first among philistines on the SWP central committee, described the confidence Obama's victory had given to people - especially black people - over here. Bennett had heard about "black post workers" coming to work chanting the ultimate Obamaniac slogan, "Yes, we can!"[8]. The SWP celebrated Obama's victory with a special Love Music, Hate Racism concert (more proof that, in politics, you get the fans you deserve).

Later, when Obama's coronation coincided with a brutal Israeli assault on Gaza, about which he was almost silent, our own paper carried a front page designating Obama the world's number one terrorist (for us, not an epithet, but a job description). It had a considerable impact on that week's mass demonstration against the slaughter - not least among members of the SWP, who took mortal offence at the poster (which, of course, spoofed one they had made about Bush). We were cutting ourselves off from 'the movement', we were told. "Try selling that in Brixton!" challenged an SWPer.

Well, we all but sold out on that 100,000-strong demo; it turns out that the masses are not as gullible as the SWP thinks - possibly even including the masses of Brixton. The SWP, meanwhile, faced with an obvious opportunity to expose Obama as a barely disguised hawk complicit in a bloodbath (a hypothetical piece hardly a million miles from SW's 'house style'), buried a short critical piece in the middle pages, out of sight of passing normal folk.

The comrades can at least take heart from their latest, unannounced turn on the issue. Recent cartoons by SWP photomontagist Leon Kuhn depict Obama swinging by to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize from 'Oslo city hall' ... in a tank. Then there is the skull of imperialism replacing its Bush mask with that of Obama. Unsubtle, but a definite improvement, comrades. Sell that in Brixton.


  1. www.defensestudies.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/isaf-state-of-the-insurgency-231000-dec.pdf
  2. New York Times January 17.
  3. Financial Times January 23-24.
  4. The Daily Telegraph January 27.
  5. www1.voanews.com/english/news/asia/Taliban-Dismiss-London-Conference-on-Afghanistan-82799512.html
  6. http://pol.moveon.org/brownpoll/results.html
  7. www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3036677/#34964590
  8. Socialist Worker November 15 2008.