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From: The Socialist issue 556, 12 November 2008: Defend workers' jobs and pay

Search site for keywords: Barack Obama - US - Election - Economic crisis - Iraq - Depression

A political awakening propels Obama to victory

But will he deliver?

US president Barack Obama supporters, photo Paul Mattsson

US president Barack Obama supporters, photo Paul Mattsson

THE REIGN of George W Bush, the most hated US president in modern history, is over. On top of that, the election of an African-American as president of the United States, less than 50 years since legal racial segregation ended, is being greeted with widespread euphoria. There is enormous hope that Obama's election night promise of "a new dawn for America" is indeed in progress.

Ty Moore and Tony Wilsdon, Socialist Alternative (CWI in USA)

But will Obama and the Democratic Party deliver? Facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, a projected trillion dollar budget deficit reaching 6% of US GDP, and a new unravelling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama and the Democrats come to power amid a massive crisis of US and world capitalism.

Their problems are worsened by a sharp contradiction between the massive expectations for change among millions of workers and the actual big-business agenda Obama intends to carry out.

In particular, it will be the same fierce economic anger which propelled Obama to victory which will, at a certain stage, push growing layers of the multi-racial US working class into active opposition to his administration. The stage is set for a new, tumultuous period in US history.

Racism undermined

Although racism is by no means extinguished in the US - indeed the McCain campaign's thinly veiled racist attacks revealed that deep pockets of bigotry remain - nonetheless Obama's ability to win support in regions and constituencies previously dominated by Republicans reveals a very real process of change in Americans' attitude toward race.

Obama's victory itself does nothing to assure genuine change for the majority of African-Americans who continue to languish under poverty, de facto segregation, and police repression.

At the same time, the symbolic importance of electing the first black president should not be underestimated. In a country where less than 50 years ago the Jim Crow laws assigned African-Americans to second-class citizenship and where police dogs and water cannons were put on those who fought against this, Obama's victory will no doubt be a catalyst for further inroads against racism.

His election could be a spark that helps ignite a new movement to fight for better conditions among African-Americans. However, any such movement would rapidly find itself in opposition to the big-business agenda Obama will inevitably pursue.

While Obama is likely to pursue limited measures to address the impact of the deepening economic crisis on working people, resolving the mass poverty and unemployment in the black community will require a colossal public works programme, funded by heavy taxes on big business, something Obama has shown little inclination towards.

Economic anger

US president Barack Obama supporter, photo Paul Mattsson

US president Barack Obama supporter, photo Paul Mattsson

The dominant issue which emerged in this election was the economy. The war in Iraq was a crucial backdrop to this at the beginning of the election process and will remain a running sore. After two decades of wage stagnation, leaving families to work more hours and take more jobs to get by, working-class people have seen a real fall in their living standards in the last few years.

The Bush administration's blatant pro-business rhetoric and its outrageous handouts to corporate friends caused a large target to be painted on the back of any Republican candidate. The economic meltdown in October sealed their fate.

Attempts by Republican candidate McCain to redefine the dominant issue of this election totally failed. Similarly, the attempt to paint Obama as a friend of terrorists, a Muslim, culturally 'different' (code for racism) and finally as a 'socialist', failed to affect most voters.

Interestingly, the attempt to define Obama as a 'wealth re-distributor' actually helped expose how unequal America has become (due in part to the Republican-initiated tax cuts for the rich), while stimulating a national discussion on 'socialism'.

The ability of Obama to present himself as the agent of change has been decisive amongst an electorate desperately looking for an end to the disastrous consequences of a Republican-dominated agenda in Washington. What Obama has managed to conceal is how similar his policies are to the Republicans'.

Republican meltdown

The opposition and ridicule that McCain's running mate Sarah Palin inspired among the broader voting public, shows how diminished the far right has become. Defections from the Republicans increased as Bush's economic policies were felt by millions of "red-state" workers. The situation was epitomised in a photograph depicting a homemade sign with the Confederate flag and the words: "Rednecks for Obama. Even we've had enough."

One can expect to see a fierce battle for the soul of the Republican Party in the coming months and years. Their problems are worsened because candidates representing the traditional big-business wing of the party lost more seats in the House and Senate than the far-right wing. Now the ideology of the party is increasingly dominated by what The Economist describes as "southern-fried moralism."

Obama's agenda

Lacking from most post-election analysis was the crucial role played by big business in the election. With their money, their control of the media, and their political influence, the US financial elite helped elect Barack Obama.

Confident that an Obama White House will not defy them or shake things up too much, Corporate America opened their wallets to his campaign.

Of course this does not discount the significance of donations made by historic numbers of working-class Americans to Obama's campaign. However, it will not be ordinary working-class people who will be sitting in his cabinet, or advising him on policy issues. It will be the same Wall Street and corporate executives and established pro-imperialist foreign advisors who have been in the cabinets of US presidents for the last 120 years. They will be the ones driving Obama's domestic and foreign policy.

Here lies the contradiction in Obama's victory. He has promised to govern one America. However, we don't live in one America. We live in two Americas. One that has grown fabulously rich and another where working people scrape by, working unstable jobs, just a layoff away from losing their homes or apartments.

During the election, this contradiction could be papered over. However, once he starts governing, Obama will be forced to decide between the two classes.

A long honeymoon?

Given the massive budget deficits, federally and in state governments, Obama's ability to enact serious reforms to relieve working-class people will be limited.

The relatively minor new taxes he is proposing on the wealthy will not change the equation substantially, given the overall fall in tax revenue as the recession bites.

Furthermore, as he did with the $700 billion bailout, Obama has indicated support for further taxpayer handouts to the financial elite and big business.

The big three auto-makers, who faced catastrophic declines in their sales last month, are faced with the near-term prospect of bankruptcy unless the federal government comes to their aid. Such aid, however, will not reverse the waves of layoffs and wage and benefit cuts facing autoworkers.

It remains to be seen how rapidly or fully Obama will move to implement his various other campaign promises, from health-care tax credits to closing Guantánamo Bay.

In Iraq, Obama's pledge to draw down troops will be complicated by the failure of the Iraqi government to formally agree to a continued US troop presence, and the renewed tensions between the Sunnis, Kurds, and governing Shias.

In Afghanistan, the situation is unravelling fast, with many warning that Obama's plan for a troop surge there will only provoke further conflict.

Nevertheless, even limited reforms by an Obama White House will contrast sharply with Bush's reign, and could give Obama a certain honeymoon period.

However, the experience of the 2006 elections must be remembered, when the Democrats swept into power in Congress on promises to end the war and hold Bush accountable. Their failure to do either provoked rapid and sharp outrage among a more politicised minority of workers and youth. Cindy Sheehan, who broke with the Democrats in the summer of 2007, represented a small but important tendency.

With expectations so high, Obama will undoubtedly eventually disappoint millions in office, and a radical minority will open to far-reaching conclusions about the need for a political alternative.

Millions of young people, people of colour and ordinary workers have had their confidence raised. Many will be inspired to step forward into political activity as a result of this election. Many of them will see the need to mobilise campaigns and protests in an attempt to keep Obama's attention on those who elected him. Others will be forced into struggle to defend themselves against the cutbacks and attacks resulting from this recession.

As a result, the way will be prepared for a new political and class awakening in US society.

The need to break with the Democratic Party will grow. More than ever, the question of building a political voice for working people will emerge onto the political agenda.

The idea of a new anti-corporate, anti-war political party, a party of working people, will gain traction in the minds of millions, as ordinary people struggle to find a path toward genuine change, a way out of the economic and social crisis engulfing US society.

Neo-cons routed -

New struggles lie ahead

THE OVERWHELMING victory for Barack Obama in the US presidential elections and the major gains scored by the Democrats in the Senate and House of Representatives, represent a turning point for the USA. Obama won over 52.5% of the popular vote, more than 64 million votes. The massive increase in turnout - estimated to have reached 64% - the dramatic increase in registration and votes from Afro-Americans, Latinos and young people represent a crushing condemnation of Bush and the neo-cons as well as a generalised, if inchoate demand for 'change' amongst the mass of the US population.

Tony Saunois, Committee for a Workers' International

The backlash against the Bush regime and the effects of the economic crisis have produced a mass politicisation in the USA reflected in this election. The huge Obama rallies during the election attended by tens of thousands, with over 250,000 turning out in the early hours of the morning for his victory rally in Chicago, indicate the high expectations which developed during the campaign.

It is clear that Obama scored a massive victory amongst important sections of the population. Amongst young voters (18-29 year olds) Obama was leading by 66% to 32% for McCain. Amongst new first time voters, Obama won 69% to McCain's 30%. The only age group Obama was behind in was the over 60s.

Throughout the campaign the question of race featured as an important issue, especially in the USA due to its racist history. While racism still exists, Obama's victory was possible because it cut across ethnic and racial divisions.

Unsurprisingly, an estimated 95% of Afro-Americans voted for him. Amongst Latinos, 63% supported him. While amongst whites he won a minority 43%. This does not tell the entire story as amongst working class whites the figures appear to be more evenly split.

Although the vote for Obama and the Democratic Party, which remains a capitalist party, is not a conscious class vote, it does indicate the gulf which has opened up and the bitter hatred that has developed towards the rich - especially the bankers and financiers.

The running sore of the Iraq war remains an important issue. But as the economic crisis has unfolded it has taken precedence in the minds of people. Consequently in some polls only 10% considered Iraq as the major issue. This represented an important change which has taken place during recent months. However, Iraq will remain an important question for people and the Obama presidency.

Throughout the election campaign tens of thousands of people were drawn into campaigning for Obama. In the US and Europe, capitalist commentators have argued that campaigning activity and activists are a thing of the past.

However, the mobilisation of tens of thousands into activity during this campaign illustrates how people can rapidly be drawn into active politics when they perceive a real struggle to defend their interests.

While TV ads etc, were used by Obama, it is significant that mass meetings, workplace meetings, canvassing and the use of blogs and the web were a major feature of this campaign. This has important lessons for the US and other countries for the future when new genuine lefts or workers' parties develop.

It is estimated that between 120 and 130 million will have voted in this election, making it proportionally the highest turnout since women were given the vote in the US in 1920. For hours people queued to cast their votes, in scenes reminiscent of the first post-apartheid election in South Africa. For African-Americans, especially, Obama's victory has been as significant as Evo Morales' victory was for the indigenous peoples of Bolivia.

Another important feature in the election and during the economic crisis has been that the question of 'socialism' has been put back into the political debate in the USA for the first time in decades. Ironically this was done by the neo-con Republican right, including in the Congress.

They first raised it when the bailout package was announced. Then Obama was accused of being a 'socialist' and even a 'communist' by the Republicans. Neither Obama nor the Democrats are socialists and they both defend capitalism. However, events and the Republican right, have inadvertently put the question of socialism back on the table for discussion.

Unfortunately, there was not a strong left or working people's party which could then capitalise on this. However, as capitalism continues to decline it will re-introduce the issue of socialism for debate and discussion in the coming months and years amongst workers and young people, as the effects of the crisis hit home.

Economic crisis

Obama wilL take power against the background of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. It is already having a devastating effect on the lives of millions throughout the US. Internationally, US imperialism remains bogged down in two major wars - Iraq and Afghanistan.

The deepening economic crisis of capitalism will not allow Obama to satisfy the demands and needs of those who voted for him. He is not coming to power at the same stage of the economic cycle as Franklin D Roosevelt did in the 1930s.

Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1933 and introduced the 'New Deal' just as the slump following the 1929 crash was at its lowest point and the economy then began to pull out of it. The New Deal introduced some minimal measures which were utilised by the trade unions. Yet it was a question of "advertised reforms" and did not mean lasting significant gains for the mass of the working class.

Obama is coming to power at the beginning of the onset of the recession. Significantly, during his victory rally, Obama appealed for all Americans - rich and poor, Republican and Democrat to stand together. Yet how is it possible to have 'class unity' between rich and poor just at the time the capitalists are trying to unload the burden of the crisis onto working people and their families?

Moreover, in international policy Obama has made clear that the disastrous military intervention in Afghanistan will be stepped up with the threat of further incursions into Pakistan. Democratic congressmen are also demanding that Britain step up its intervention into Afghanistan. This will not prevent the inevitable defeat of US forces in such catastrophic foreign interventions.

This election opens a new era of struggle in the USA. One that will pose the need to build a new political party that will fight to defend working people and challenge capitalism. One that will offer a real socialist alternative to capitalism.

The above article appeared on the Committee for a Workers' International website the day following Obama's victory

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Coronavirus crisis - Finance appeal

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

  • The Socialist Party's material is more vital than ever, so we can continue to report from workers who are fighting for better health and safety measures, against layoffs, for adequate staffing levels, etc.
  • Our 'fighting coronavirus workers' charter', outlines a programme to combat the virus and protect workers' living conditions.
  • When the health crisis subsides, we must be ready for the stormy events ahead and the need to arm workers' movements with a socialist programme - one which puts the health and needs of humanity before the profits of a few.
Inevitably, during the crisis we have not been able to sell the Socialist and raise funds in the ways we normally would.
We therefore urgently appeal to all our viewers to donate to our special coronavirus appeal.

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