Behind the rise of Obama

"America, this is our moment", stated Barack Obama on June 3 after winning enough delegates to become the presidential nominee for the Democratic Party.

This makes Obama the first African American in US history to become a presidential nominee for one of the two major parties.

It happened on the evening of June 3 as the final two primaries (votes to elect delegates to the Democratic National Convention in August that determines the party's presidential candidate for the elections in November) occurred in Montana and South Dakota.

Obama has won 2154 delegates as of June 4, comprised of delegates won in direct vote primaries, state caucuses and the pledges of "super delegates" — a select group of officials who gain an automatic vote at the convention. It put him over the 2118 needed to win.

Hillary Clinton

The Democratic presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton was historic too, as the former first lady was the first female candidate in serious contention. Many of Clinton's most fervent backers were older women who grew up in the feminist movements of the 1960s and '70s. They hoped she would be the US's first female president.

Obama and Clinton both tapped the deep anger of the US people against the right-wing administration of President George Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, who have reshaped much of US domestic and foreign policy during their eight years in power.

The invasion of Iraq was part of a plan to bring about a modern day version of colonial rule in the Middle East — with Israel as the Western outpost, and permanent US military bases in Iraq and other Arab countries to protect oil interests and put down nationalist rebellions.

John McCain, the Republican nominee for president, supports this plan. He pledges a long-term presence in Iraq. McCain is a strong supporter of the goal of US imperial control, under the guise of "spreading democracy", not just of the Middle East but the entire world.

Obama backs the same essential goal, but sees the invasion and occupation of Iraq as provoking more nationalist resistance and thus undermines that strategic objective of US imperialism.

He also rejects the extreme right-wing domestic policies that have primarily benefited the wealthiest 1% of the population. He supports an expanded economic safety net for the poor and abortion rights. McCain doesn't.

Imperialist candidates

However, the significance of Obama's electoral victory has little to do with his political positions. The Democrats, like the Republicans, stand for global US corporate domination.

The actual policy differences between Obama and Clinton are narrow, with the exception of the Iraq war. In 2002, Obama, then an Illinois state politician, opposed the war. Clinton voted for it and refused to repudiate that vote after it became known the war was based on lies.

The differences between the Democrats and Republicans are also more about tactics to maintain US dominance. Obama and McCain both agree on containment of a resurgent Russia and China, and maintaining neocolonial domination of Iraq and Afghanistan. The tactical differences, however, are wide.

Obama recognises that for the US to keep its superpower status, it must return to a bipartisan foreign policy that existed for decades, based on traditional diplomacy and a more balanced policy toward friends and foes.

The Bush-Cheney policies have isolated the US from many countries in the Middle East and other Third World nations. The resistance to foreign occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan is growing stronger.

The influence of anti-US Islamic groups and nationalist forces in many countries is expanding. The aggressive hostility toward Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, and total uncritical support of its gendarme — Israel — has weakened US policy in the region. The gains won in recent times by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza are indications of declining US influence.

Even Israel sees the failures of current US policy. After Bush recently spoke to its parliament (the Knesset) about those appeasing the enemy (an indirect attack on Obama's support for diplomacy without conditions), Israel decided to open talks with its arch-enemy Syria.

Historic

The reason why Obama's nomination is historic is because Obama is a representative of an oppressed racial group that was forged out of slavery and ongoing institutionalised racism. This fact resonates widely.

Segregation is still in the memory of millions of southern Blacks. It took until 1967 before the US Supreme Court allowed Blacks and whites to legally marry. It took a massive civil rights movement in the '60s to adopt Civil Rights (1964) and Voting Rights (1965) laws. What excites the vast majority of African Americans is, after all this, one of its own could be elected president.

However, the end of legal racism in the '60s did not end racial discrimination, from which the vast majority of African Americans and other oppressed minorities still suffer. It is why unemployment rates, education rights and home ownership are significantly worse for African Americans than for whites. Many gains such as affirmative action programs and school integration have been rolled back.

Net wealth for African Americans and other oppressed minorities is also much smaller than for white working people.

At the same time, a new Black upper and middle class has formed since the '70s. That sector — to which Obama belongs — do attend the best universities, live in the better neighbourhoods and believe it is possible for an African American to be a CEO or president.

Having an African American seriously challenging for president shifts the political debate along class lines. It makes the issues no longer just about race.

Obama's program is pro-big business. He will not deviate from the ruling class strategy or policy. He will make some cosmetic and symbolic changes to the openly religious-driven neoconservative policies of Bush-Cheney.

But in the final analysis, Obama cannot make the fundamental changes necessary to improve the lives of the average African Americans, Latino and Asian Americans or the white working class. (Immigrants and undocumented workers don't exist for either major party.)

For many African Americans, though, it is a matter of pride to have the opportunity to vote for a Black candidate for president. For older Blacks who remember legal segregation in southern states, it doesn't matter if Obama's polices benefit few in the Black community.

Sentiment for change

At the same time, the relative progress that made an Obama candidacy possible is the fact that most young people of all races don't see it as odd that a woman or a Black man might be elected president.

Support for Obama is also partly based on a rejection of "business as usual". Clinton's attempts to use her greater political "experience" as a weapon against Obama largely fell flat, indicated a desire for a break with the past. The Obama phenomenon taps real anger and hopes.

The progressive minor political parties, in that context, can play an important role in the debates over the next five months. Millions of young people and African Americans have been galvanized by Obama's candidacy — tens of thousands attend his rallies. Left forces who oppose his neoliberal policies should identify with the concerns for change represented by this mass outpouring of support for Obama and embrace those supporters' hopes, while explaining why a break with the two major parties is necessary to elect a government that genuinely represents their interests.

The campaigns of the Green Party's likely presidential nominee, Cynthia McKinney (a former Democratic congresswomen), and independent candidate Ralph Nader are important. They allow those who reject the two major parties on progressive grounds to discuss and offer radical solutions. Both campaigns speak in support of social movements and why solving the issues of war and peace will not be possible under an Obama or McCain presidency.

What is lacking today are militant social movements that can push the government to adopt reforms that benefit working people. There is no activist labour movement. The unions are in retreat, suffering setbacks and defeats especially in the manufacturing sectors and transportation.

There are weak campaigns in defence of civil rights, women's and gay rights, environmental issues and to protect other social gains. Even the anti-war movement, against the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, is relatively small even though a majority of people now think the invasion of Iraq was wrong.

Challenges

Now that Obama has the nomination, he will be judged not simply as the first African American candidate but on his policies to turn around the economy and end the wars.

No matter what he does, though, it will not change how Blacks will probably vote. The nationalist sentiment is strong. It's why an unprecedented rate of more than 90% of all African Americans voted for Obama during the Democrat primaries and will do so again — including the few African American Republicans.

Obama faces a unique challenge. To win he must overcome the nearly 20% of white voters who say they will never vote for an African American for president — down from 80% a generation ago.

It is clear that Clinton used this factor to win many southern states where lower-paid whites tended to support her over Obama. She and most pundits called these white bigots "blue collar Americans". (Blue collar workers who are Black, Asian and Latino were simply not mentioned.)

Overall, however, Obama did win a majority of white working people in many other states outside of the old Jim Crow south. While race matters, it isn't like it used to be.

Latino and Asian Americans were more divided on Obama's campaign, reflecting historical contradictions used by the power structures to divide minorities. But again, Obama won many younger Asians, Latinos and other ethnic groups to his campaign as a figure representing change.

The contradictions of US politics remain. There isn't a "colour-blind" society that the conservatives pretend exists as a way not to support affirmative action programs. It also applies to gender, with a number of men and women saying they would never vote for a woman as president.

June 3 was a historic date. It should be acknowledged as it reflects the genuine positive changes in US society.

[A longer version can be found at http://links.org.au. Malik Miah is an editor of Against the Current magazine and a supporter of the socialist group Solidarity.]