Euphoric scenes marked the inauguration of Barack Obama—and the end of the Bush era. Millions who campaigned for an end to war and neo-liberal policy wept with joy as the first African American President moved into the White House. But the three weeks since have taken some of the gloss off.
Some in the Washington media are already declaring that his honeymoon is over. While this may wind up being premature, Obama’s lofty statements about cleaning up Washington and enforcing high ethical standards in politics suffered a major setback when several of his high-profile appointees were forced to withdraw over revelations that they had failed to pay their taxes.
In attempting to get his US$800 billion plus stimulus package passed, Obama has been at pains to make concessions in the name of bipartisanship. His dealings with ‘moderate’ Republicans cut financial aid for education programs in the poorest states, reduced proposed health care subsidies for the unemployed, slashed aid for the Head Start pre-school program, and lowered a proposed increase in food stamps, while adding a $70 billion tax break for upper-income families.
While a watered down version of his stimulus package has passed through the Senate, only $40 billion of it is going directly to job creation via public works programs. His endorsement of this ‘compromise’ package reveals that he is much more the conventional politician than his radical rhetoric led millions of supporters to believe.
Obama is also pushing through another bail-out of the banks of up to $2 trillion, including a massive public-private investment fund to absorb banks’ toxic assets—which will again benefit the very Wall Street “fat cats” he has recently derided. US GDP fell at an annualised rate of 3.8% in the fourth quarter, the largest decline since 1982. Some 598,000 jobs were lost in January alone.
In addition to the enormous problems Obama faces with the state of the US economy, there is also the range of imperial misadventures he has inherited. Obama has repeatedly refused to criticise Israel’s slaughter of more than 1400 Palestinians in Gaza, instead insisting on its right to “defend itself”. He has also come under fire for his appointment of William Lynn, former lobbyist for Raytheon (notorious for supplying weapons to Israel) as his deputy secretary of defence.
His appeal to international leaders to follow his lead in sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan has been followed up by statements from his envoy, Richard Holbrooke, that the situation there is far messier than Iraq ever was.
Despite his statements about change, it looks like much will remain the same in Washington. Obama is undoubtedly a capitalist politician and satisfying the demands of ruling class figures who stack his cabinet and who helped fund his campaign will increasingly be at loggerheads with the expectations his election raised for the mass of the Afro-American population, the many workers who voted for him once the economic crisis hit, and the thousands of grassroots activists who campaigned for him.
While there aren’t yet public expressions of anger at the slow pace of change, forums discussing the left and social movements under the Obama administration have been attracting large and engaged audiences. Nation-wide mobilisations have been called on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s anti-Vietnam war speech (“Beyond Vietnam”) on April 4th around the theme “Beyond War: A New Economy is Possible”. They will call for all troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and to cut defence spending and instead invest in social spending to stem the effects of the economic crisis. These are the first anti-war demonstrations to place demands on Obama and hold the possibility of mobilising his huge support base.
History has shown again and again, whether during the 1930s Depression, or in the wake of the civil rights and anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s, that the Democratic Party seeks to rein in and absorb radical change rather than encourage it. As Chris Harman recently wrote in International Socialism: “That is why the many thousands of radicals, socialists and anti-war activists who reject the Democratic Party are right to do so. But it is also why they now have to relate to the aspirations of black, Hispanic and white workers who voted Democrat because they wanted the very change the Democrats will not give them”.
By Mark Goudkamp