Just over a year ago, millions of people were in Washington for the inauguration of Barack Obama. His election produced a wave of optimism in America—an expression of the real desire for change after years of Bush at the helm. But now, things have changed.
Obama’s approval rating has sunk below 50 per cent. The Democrats faced the embarrassing loss of the Massachusetts senate seat to Republican Scott Brown in January. Massachusetts, held for 46 years by the late Ted Kennedy, was one of the safest Democratic seats in America.
The failure of Obama to live up to the hopes of so many Americans has lead to a sense of demoralisation across the US, and The Democrats have only themselves to blame. Karen Ackerman, spokesperson for labor organisation AFL-CIO, has said “what happened in Massachusetts is that working families did not see the Democratic candidate as being on their side.” A poll showed 18 per cent of those who voted for Brown had previously supported Obama. Another showed 44 per cent of African-American voters were disappointed with him.
The President who was once seen as the foremost anti-war candidate, and the candidate prepared to stand up for ordinary people in a time of economic crisis, is now seen as the President who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize a week after announcing he would escalate the US war in Afghanistan. His second troop surge brought the total of troops sent to the war by Obama to 50,000. He used his acceptance speech to praise the “strength of our [America’s] arms”.
As unemployment hit 10 per cent, and more people were tossed out of their homes, Obama made his priorities clear by giving government loans, investments and guarantees to banks totalling US$13 trillion—nearly the size of the yearly economic output of the US. His stimulus package was characterised by a refusal to fund direct government jobs programs. Instead he gave direct credits to individuals and businesses that were useless in creating jobs.
His health care bill—still languishing in Congress—goes to great lengths to appease the big pharmaceutical companies. Instead of introducing a single-payer scheme, the legislation will see billions cut from the state-funded Medicare and a mandate that every American purchase health insurance. His refusal to pursue public health care has opened up the space for the right to seize control of the debate. In a concession to the far right, the bill will make it harder to claim health insurance for abortions.
And while Obama was happy to pay lip service to LGBTI equality in Pride Month, he still refuses to repeal the “Defense of Marriage Act”, which outlaws same-sex marriage.
The Republicans ability to posture as defenders of working class interests and undermine The Democrats working class base in the Massachusetts election was the consequence of an administration that funded war and banks over jobs and social programs.
Unless there is a clear left alternative to The Democrats, the political vacuum created by Obama’s right-wing policies will be filled by The Republicans. The disillusionment and anger with Obama’s policies needs to be turned into action. As the late historian Howard Zinn said: “[T]he really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens.”
By Amy Thomas