Lessons from Obama’s Win

by John Haylett

Morning Star

WHAT a difference a period of four years makes. Barack Obama’s initial presidential victory in 2008 sparked hope and expectation across the globe.

This time round expectations were muted and the overwhelming feeling is one of relief that his opponent did not carry the day.

Many commentators have pointed to the litany of political letdowns that Obama has perpetrated, from his failure to confront vested private health interests over universal healthcare provision to his personal involvement in choosing targets for the assassination-by-drone campaign.

The sense of disappointment is palpable, but it was still correct to advocate, as US labour did, another four years for Obama.

Yes, he is a creature of Wall Street, committed to monopoly capitalism and US imperialism, but neither socialism nor working class international solidarity was on the ballot paper.

Nor was it possible to state that there were no qualitative differences between the candidates of the two big business parties.

While Obama opted for the Keynesian approach of investing for growth to deal with the crisis unleashed by the banks, Mitt Romney remained hooked on his small-state austerity agenda.

Given the state of the US economy in the wake of the subprime mortgage scandal and the banking fiasco, which have delivered homelessness and unemployment, conventional wisdom dictates that he ought to have picked up his cards yesterday.

But his response to the hurricane Sandy emergency, mobilising federal resources to save lives and property while his opponent lost his tongue, reversed the tide of opinion and carried him over the finish line.

There are lessons for Labour politicians to be learned from Obama’s success in plucking victory from the jaws of defeat.

The first is that there is no future in echoing the Mitt Romney-David Cameron line that deficit reduction is the priority.

Investing in economic expansion, through manufacturing and public services, can reverse rising unemployment, poverty and slashed welfare entitlements.

Increased government tax revenues by dint of enhanced economic activity and higher employment rates will be more effective in trimming government debt than the Romney-Cameron slash-and-burn formula.

US elections are not just about who sits in the White House for the next four years.

As well as deciding which party controls the two houses of Congress, citizens in individual states have the right to tender propositions on specific policies, two of which in California merit comment.

Proposition 30, advanced by Governor Jerry Brown won popular support for his demand to increase income tax on those paid over $250,000 a year and to raise sales tax by 0.25 per cent to fund online education programmes.

Trade unionists were successful in leading a popular alliance to defeat Proposition 32, put forward by business and bankrolled by a secretive $11 million contribution, aimed at restricting unions’ capacity to fund political campaigns.

Similar grassroots work will be essential to deciding how far Obama departs from the disappointing fare of its first term.

Apart from domestic economic issues, the president could make a positive regional impact by building bridges with Venezuela’s recently re-elected president and lifting the blockade — even temporarily — of Cuba in the wake of Sandy’s widespread destruction.

Whatever the problems associated with a Republican House of Representatives, Obama has the chance to confront the defenders of privilege and mark his period in office as historic in a way that many supporters dreamed of in 2008.

Obama’s Victory Should Be Welcomed by the Left

Barack Obama has won a second term in the White House after one of the longest, gruelling, and most expensive presidential campaigns in US history.

Though he lost support among white working class males in this election a progressive coalition of Black, Hispanic, the young, and women voters cemented his victory, especially in those all-important battleground states that were at the heart of both candidates’ campaigns in the final few weeks.

The manner of Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy gave his campaign an unintended but significant boost at a time when some polls had Romney edging ahead. The endorsements the president received over his handling of the disaster by in particular the Republican Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, was probably worth more than a month of campaign ads to the Obama campaign when it came to winning many of those crucial swing votes.

The deep polarisation that cleaves US society ensures that presidential elections have become increasingly akin to battles between the New Testament and Old Testament, with the opportunity and potential for consensus across the aisle wishful thinking. In his first term the obstructionist stance of a Republican controlled congress after the mid term elections left Obama unable to carry forward many of the reforms and policies he’d based his presidency on, illustrating the essential weakness of a democratic system monopolised by vested and corporate interests.

Moreover, the Supreme Court victory of Citizens United v Federal Electoral Commission in 2010 over the issue of campaign finance, touched on by Andy Newman in a previous article, effectively granting corporations the same right to free expression as people, amounts to a corruption of the very word democracy. It ensures that political office is bought and paid for in a way it isn’t in any other western democracy. The result has been the emergence of superPACS, independent political committees that deliver anonymous and unlimited financial support to political candidates.

Obama’s most significant decision when first elected in 2008 was to demobilise the massive grassroots base of volunteers that had largely been responsible for propelling him into office. As a result he quickly moved from being a change and populist candidate into just another machine politician, absent of the political support required to implement the meaningful reforms in Washington he’d pledged before taking office. Many on the left and in progressive circles were no doubt blinded by the fact he was the first viable black candidate for office, in the process projecting progressive credentials onto him that were unrealistic. Barack Obama is and has always been a centrist.

No matter, his repeated campaign boast of having saved the US auto industry and the millions of jobs involved with an $80 billion bailout package in 2009 is no idle one. It was a brave and a bold decision in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, flying in the face of three decades of neoliberal economics. At the time, according to a Pew Research poll, 54 percent of Americans did not support it.

US automotive industry expert Maryann Keller said of the bailout: “It had to be fast; it was ugly, and they certainly didn’t play by the rules of who are the preferred creditors. On the other hand, they saved the industry.”

A Pew poll this year recorded that 56 percent of respondents approved of the Obama bailout of the auto industry and considered it good for the US economy. GM and Chrysler are now in profit and the US auto industry has turned around.

For this and the fact that Romney ran on an avowedly anti-organized labour platform, the unions had much at stake in this election. As a consequence Obama’s victory will be seen as a victory for them and their millions of members, who would otherwise be facing a bleak future today.

Obamacare, as the president’s healthcare reforms have come to be known, falls short of the kind of government funded single payer system that bespeaks a civilised society. It continues to ensure billions in profits for the insurance industry and private healthcare providers, but it does preserve Medicare and Medicaid, and it does ensure that no one is deprived coverage due to pre-existing conditions, as was the case under the previous system.

When it comes to international issues, there is no doubt that Obama’s re-election will have met with considerable relief in places like Iran, Cuba, China, and Russia. Even with the crimes committed by the Obama administration, specifically with the ramping up of drone attacks against targets in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, costing the lives of around 9,000 people during his first term, the idea that there would be little difference if Romney had been elected is simply not credible.

Romney’s statements of intent when it came to the issue of Iran in particular, which if elected and if implemented would have amounted to a resurrection the era of the unilateral deployment of hard power that defined the Bush era, were reason enough to support Obama’s re-election. It is also significant that the political right in Israel, headed by Netanyahu, were hoping for a Romney White House.

To be President of the United States is to preside over a global empire that has its own dynamic and momentum. No one could ever hope to get elected to the White House who does not unequivocally support the logic and imperatives of empire as the very essence of US exceptionalism. The historic low level of class consciousness prevalent in the country is a product of the compelling mythology of the American dream and land of the free ethos. Feeding an apotheosis of individualism, both have proved an historic bulwark against the threat of a counter-hegemonic narrative of class and class-based ideology within the United States, even during periods of extreme economic hardship as now.

Regardless, the United States is a declining superpower, one that will increasingly become reliant on its overwhelming military might to maintain its global hegemony as its economy loses ground in the years ahead. For this and the other aforementioned factors the logic of lesser evilism is inescapable when it comes to any US presidential election.

This is why Obama’s victory should be welcomed by progressives and socialists not only in the United States but around the world.

Can Obama Win?

President Obama fundraising

Today’s Los Angeles Times reports that Obama has a clear fundraising edge over all his Republican rivals.

Key to winning will be to defend the gains Obama made in 2008 in the south: Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida, which have 57 electoral college seats between them.

We should remind ourselves that only two generations ago the Democrats had double digit leads across the southern states; and it is too simplistic to ascribe this to Dixiecrat racism transferring to the GOP.

Jimmy Carter remains the most popular living former President, and was an unapologetic southerner; and the Democratic legacy in the Southern states was resonant with the ability of the Democrats to identify with the ordinary working American.

The genius of the Republicans is to have usurped the mantle of counter-cultural insurgents challenging the perceived out of touch elitism of the metropolitan Democrats.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Obama’s campaign will be targetting the latino populations of the swing states. While this is undoubtedly sensible, the Democrats cannot be safe until they address their fundamental weakness in the culture wars.

For many working class Americans in the south and the west, the Democrats seem desperately out of touch with their own concerns and anxieties; and too often the liberal left seem condescending.

To prosper the Democrats need a little less Barbara Steisland, and a little more Willie Nelson.

American Progressives Need a Tea Party of Their Own

At the heart of the world’s most powerful democracy is the paradox that the United States was born of democratic idealism, and yet has become an Empire; an uneasy transition so ably reflected upon by Gore Vidal’s series of historical novels. As recently as the 1960s, President Kennedy was considered a friend by figures in the anti-Colonial movement like Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt.

Seamus Milne reflects that for all his liberal and intellectual qualities, Obama still wears the purple:

Despite the obvious contrast in rhetoric and the crucial role played by his opposition to the Iraq war in his bid for power, it is the continuity rather than the contrast with the Bush administration’s foreign policy that has been striking in Obama’s presidency. Troop numbers have been reduced in Iraq, as agreed by his predecessor, but the occupation goes on. The military campaign in Afghanistan has been sharply escalated, as he promised, and the war on terror dangerously extended.

US forces are now conducting covert operations in a dozen countries across the Muslim world, from Yemen to Pakistan, where Obama has this year alone authorised six times as many drone attacks as Bush did between 2004 and 2007. But when Obama gives the clear instruction that American troops will start to be withdrawn from Afghanistan in July of next year, he is openly defied by his generals, including the Republican-linked David Petraeus.

It is a reminder that the US empire is a system, rather than a policy – and also of the limitations of the power of elected office in a corporate-dominated imperial state. There is an echo in Obama’s presidency of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, portrayed as an almost saintly figure in Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator, who waged endless war against the Germanic tribes, and Parthians in Iraq while composing Stoic meditations at night. A good emperor heads an empire nevertheless.

The veteran progressive historian, Lawrence Goodwyn, recently reflected on the other side of America’s political heritage:

In the early days of the American Republic, Jeffersonian democrats innocently and sweepingly referred to the colonial yeomanry, from Vermont to Georgia, as “the democracy.” That is who we are: the people who work to support our families. Our struggle for a place in the America sun is the central social and political component of our national history. These folks, the great rank and file of the population, can best be understood as engaged in a long uphill climb. In every generation since the beginning, they have been “put through a lot.” So that much has not changed.

The hard working, little guy, put upon by big business and government, has a long history in American political iconography. It is reflected both in the ideal of a yeoman democracy, but also in the independent frontier spirit, a pastiche of which is channeled by Sarah Palin; and expressed by the right wing in the “culture wars”.

Of course, not everyone was invited to the party. The United States was also built upon the brutal exploitation of slavery, and the extermination of the indigenous population; within the lifetime of older citizens there existed Jim Crow laws of segregation, and a culture of lynchings and mass popular participation in racist terror. It is no small thing that within fifty years of blacks having to queue at a separate counter for soda, that a black man resides in the White House. Obama’s long forebearance during the election campaign in refusing to distance himself from Revd Jeremiah Wright, until the good reverend made it impossible for him to continue, is a sign that Obama clearly understands that this is a more than symbolic advance.

The American constitution, idealistically predicated upon the liberal theories of Charles de Montesquieu, envisaged a balance of powers to constrain government from imposing upon the interests of private citizens. Yet this framework is completely inadequate for allowing the state to prevail in the face of public corporations, with their immense wealth and economic power.

The ideals of American liberty therefore founder upon the imbalance of real power and influence created by inequalities of wealth and private ownership of the economy.

Mark Seddon in Left Futures discusses how big money distorts the electoral process.

The US Supreme Court ruled to allow donors to political parties and campaigns complete anonymity? Millions of dollars have been poured into attack ads, most of which are utterly unhinged and bathed in a ferocious negativity.

Candidates spent millions trying to be elected. The defeated Republican candidate in California spent $160 million in her failed campaign. Let me write that again $160 million! What on earth is going on?

Large corporations who feel threatened by very basic health care social security funnel huge sums of cash into K Street lobbyists, who then farm it out to TV companies, who run endless attack ads, that would be regarded as hugely libellous in most other countries. The point of this exercise is to scare and exploit people who have very little, into believing that a Washington and east coast liberal elite are a bunch of Socialists, presided over by an ‘un American President’.

To a degree the Tea Party was a dog that didn’t bark and perhaps the real story was their failure to make a substantive breakthrough, but of much more lasting significance is this removal of restrictions on corporate interference in elections.
Lawrence Goodwyn describes this as

a new form of internal American political propaganda, anonymous in origin, corporate-financed, and delivered with blanketing determination to every corner of the nation. In size and in substance it is a campaign of deception that is without comparison since the creation of the republic. It is a direct result of the most radical single judicial decision in American history, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United offering some 10 months ago in the 5 to 4 vote of the Roberts Court. Long-term, it probably dooms the Republican Party by yoking the GOP to a permanent defense of financial deregulation and the liberation of central banks from a connecting relationship to the surrounding national economy. It says goodbye to the unemployed millions. It says goodbye to “we’re in this thing together.”

The year 2010 gives us a politics totally created by ad men and financed by corporate America. Those two mainstays of American finance essentially fund it: big banking and big insurance. It is so illogical and so dishonest that I can reduce the descriptive burden to one phrase: conceptual deception. Indeed, it can be adequately summarized in one word: cynicism.

The effect of this enormous corporate propaganda is to drown out substantive political debate by the sheer volume of noise. The Tea Party may not be as electorally successful as some commentators were expecting, but the unfettered concentration of media ownership, (where, for example, a FOX TV news anchor like Glenn Beck is able to openly promote the Tea Party during an election) allows the parameters of the political debate to be set by a handful of millionaires, and this did to an extent contribute to the demoralisation of Democratic activists.

It is important to understand the consequences for the GOP. They are hawking an economic model of inactivity and deregulation that is purely linked to the sectional interests of finance capital, and based upon the disastrous and discredited laissez faire policies of Herbert Hoover. Not only is this an extremely risky strategy for American capitalism, but it is potentially disastrous in the face of rising economic competition from China, and Imperial overreach of the USA’s military, the most powerful and expensive armed force in history. The Republican strategy to use American military power to consolidate US hegemony has dramatically failed by every measure.

The main victim of the depolitisation of politics is the Republican party itself; it is flapping in the wind, unable to develop any coherent economic strategy, and recycling utopian small-state dreams that it can never deliver; while its corporate sponsors are interested only in preserving the power of oil and banking.

On the plus side, Barack Obama is possibly the most intelligent and able president since Abraham Lincoln. No-one is better placed to use the levers of government to wrong foot the Republicans, who now that they control the House of Representatives will have some expectation upon them. The race for the nomination for the Republican presidential candidate for 2012 could be divisive and damaging for the GOP, with the culture wars turned against more urbane and mainstream Republicans by the right-wing populists.

However, the democratic ideal of empowering the ordinary citizen cannot be achieved without addressing the problem of corporate power. A centre-ground president like Obama will never engage against powerful vested interests without there being an external pressure to do so from trade unions and progressive civil society. The left needs a Tea Party of its own.

How Obama Saved the Economy and Lost the Midterms

Very interesting assessment of Obama’s record in office from Timothy Egan in the NY Times.

One of the difficulties for any American administration is that in a society where government has a relatively small economic footprint, they are hostage to developments outwith their control. In an aggressively market oriented economy, the levers available to the government are limited.

As Timothy Egan explains, the Obama administration has efficiently intervened to protect the American economy from the financial crisis of 2008, but has been unable within the constraints of the American political system to translate that into jobs, and a feeling of security and prosperity; and the parlous state of the economy has overshadowed everything else that Obama has accomplished.

For no matter your view of President Obama, he effectively saved capitalism. And for that, he paid a terrible political price.

Suppose you had $100,000 to invest on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated. Why bet on a liberal Democrat? Here’s why: the presidency of George W. Bush produced the worst stock market decline of any president in history. The net worth of American households collapsed as Bush slipped away. And if you needed a loan to buy a house or stay in business, private sector borrowing was dead when he handed over power.

As of election day, Nov. 2, 2010, your $100,000 was worth about $177,000 if invested strictly in the NASDAQ average for the entirety of the Obama administration, and $148,000 if bet on the Standard & Poors 500 major companies. This works out to returns of 77 percent and 48 percent.

But markets, though forward-looking, are not considered accurate measurements of the economy, and the Great Recession skewed the Bush numbers. O.K. How about looking at the big financial institutions that keep the motors of capitalism running — banks and auto companies?

The banking system was resuscitated by $700 billion in bailouts started by Bush (a fact unknown by a majority of Americans), and finished by Obama, with help from the Federal Reserve. It worked. The government is expected to break even on a risky bet to stabilize the global free market system. Had Obama followed the populist instincts of many in his party, the underpinnings of big capitalism could have collapsed. He did this without nationalizing banks, as other Democrats had urged.

Saving the American auto industry, which has been a huge drag on Obama’s political capital, is a monumental achievement that few appreciate, unless you live in Michigan. After getting their taxpayer lifeline from Obama, both General Motors and Chrysler are now making money by making cars. New plants are even scheduled to open. More than 1 million jobs would have disappeared had the domestic auto sector been liquidated.

“An apology is due Barack Obama,” wrote The Economist, which had opposed the $86 billion auto bailout. As for Government Motors: after emerging from bankruptcy, it will go public with a new stock offering in just a few weeks, and the United States government, with its 60 percent share of common stock, stands to make a profit. Yes, an industry was saved, and the government will probably make money on the deal — one of Obama’s signature economic successes.

Interest rates are at record lows. Corporate profits are lighting up boardrooms; it is one of the best years for earnings in a decade.

All of the above is good for capitalism, and should end any serious-minded discussion about Obama the socialist. But more than anything, the fact that the president took on the structural flaws of a broken free enterprise system instead of focusing on things that the average voter could understand explains why his party was routed on Tuesday. Obama got on the wrong side of voter anxiety in a decade of diminished fortunes.

What the mid-terms reveal is a broken political system, where the structure of American society fails to provide a sense of well-being and security for tens of millions of people; and yet the prohibitively expensive, and advertising driven, electoral system merely exploits that populist discontent without giving expression to genuine and substantive political debate.

Obama rode to power on a wave of expectation of radical change, and has instead been a technocratic, efficient and intelligent president who has managed a difficult legacy. He took power as the American economy teetered on the edge of the abyss; he inherited an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, that made him politically vulnerable to charges of lack of patriotism if he wasn’t hawkish enough; and as the incumbent he became hostage to the same, anti-politics mood for “change” that he himself harnessed to win the election.

His health care reforms exemplify his dilema. Not radical enough to satisfy many of his supporters, too radical for his critics. In fact the health reforms were an improvement in security and fairness for millions of people, and were probably the best that could be achieved by negotiation and compromise within the constraints of Washington politics. Obama’s strength is his skill at working the system, his weakness is his inablity and unwillingness to change the rules of that system by mobilising any pressure from outside. But Obama was never going to be the one who encouraged such a mobilisation.

The key question therefore is why has popular discontent manifested itself in the libertarian Tea-Party movement; and why has progressve opinion not taken to the streets demanding more from Obama?

Palin Tells Obama: “you Blew It”

If you watch this clip of Obama on the campaign trail, he looks tired, and defensive.

The Republicans are confident of victory in the mid term elections.

Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, cheerleader of the Tea Party, took great delight in delivering a damming verdict on Mr Obama’s two years in office. “You blew it, President Obama. We gave you the two years to fulfil your promise of making sure that our economy starts roaring back to life again,” she said in a TV interview.

Sharon Angle, who is expected to oust veteran Democratic senator Harry Reid in Nevada, said: “They promised change, now it’s our turn.”

In New Jersey, John Runyan, a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives, declared: “If you’re tired of the way this country is run, then let’s change the people who run it.”

Paradoxically, the mood of anti-politics of the Tea Party movement, feeding the right wing of this GOP resurgence, feels like a re-run in reverse of Obama’s own election campaign; as the American political structures generate more noise than debate; and more heat than light.

What informs the Tea Party movement is a sense of entitlement that the USA deserves by manifest destiny to lead the world; and that it is an American birthright to be the most powerful economy. Only on the basis of such assumptions do the right wing policies of scaling back the role of government make sense; as this programme is utterly divorced from any rational evaluation of America’s place in the world; or what policies are required to protect and promote America’s economy. Indeed CNN’s money channel has already warned that American business leaders are apprehensive of the protectionist and anti-trade inclinations of the new crop of Republican hopefuls. Frank Rich in the NY Times predicts that tomorrow’s election may see the end of the Tea Party, as the Republican elites move to marginalise their ideas.

In power, the Republicans would be unable to deliver the utopian, anti-state dreams of their Tea-Party supporters, and it would be (big) business as usual. All that this anti-politics campaign achieves is to drown out any intelligent discussion of what realistic options the American government should pursue. American elections are becomming a circus to appease a populist discontent, almost completely divorced from any detailed discussion of policy. US democracy is like a restaurant where you can choose the chef, but whoever you choose, they still feed you the same food.

The last hundred years has been described as the American Century; and few in that great nation are reading the signs that the USA’s power is fading. Their economy is no longer the power house it was, and their armies are failing in that graveyard for Imperial hubris: Afghanistan. The USA’s moral force, after the debacle in Iraq, is greatly diminished; and across Africa and East Asia, governments are increasingly looking to China as their key trade partner.

The Republicans can advance in these elections, and paralyse the remaining term of the Obama presidency; they can perhaps regain the White House in 2012; but more and more the expensive, contentless, charade of American politics resembles the wheezes and intrigues of a senile system. The Republicans will prove as incapable of satisfying the inchoate hopes of their supporters as Obama has been.

Enthusiasm? I Am Not Interested in Things Geting Any Worse

By Bill Fletcher, Jr from Progressive Democrats of America

There has been a lot of discussion about the apparent enthusiasm gap between Democratic voters and Republican voters.  While it is beyond question that the Obama administration has accomplished significant reforms in its first two years, the manner in which these have been accomplished, combined with the fact that they were generally not deep enough, has led many liberal and progressive voters to despair.

So, what should we think as we quickly approach November 2nd? First, there were too many magical expectations of both the Obama administration and most Democrats in Congress.  Many of us forgot that while they represented a break with the corrupt Bush era, they were not coming into D.C. with a red flag, a pink flag or a purple flag. They came to stabilize the system in a period of crisis.  President Obama chose to surround himself with advisers who either did not want to appear to believe or in fact did not believe that dramatic structural reforms were necessary in order to address the depth of the economic and environmental crises we face.  They also believed, for reasons that mystify me, that they could work out a compromise with so-called moderate Republicans.  

The deeper problem, and one pointed out by many people, is that the Obama administration did not encourage the continued mobilization of its base to blunt the predictable assaults from the political right.  As a result, many people sat home waiting to be called upon to mobilize. Instead, we received emails or phone calls asking us to make financial contributions, or perhaps to send a note regarding an issue, but we were not called upon to hit the streets.

Unfortunately, the main problem rests neither with the Obama administration nor the Democrats in Congress. It rests with the failure of the social forces that elected them to keep the pressure on.  Too many of us expected results without continuous demand. Click to continue reading