Letter from the US: Obama ― a political balance sheet

Obama has been a good president from the viewpoint of the US ruling class.

When Barack Obama was elected President in the 2008 election, it marked an historic first. An African-American was elected in the country noted for its oppression of Blacks since the time of slavery.

My next door neighbour, an African-American who knew my history as a supporter of the Black liberation upsurge of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, raised his fist in celebration when he saw me the next day.

It was this great upsurge of Blacks that changed the attitudes of enough whites, and enfranchised enough Blacks, that an African-American could be elected in the first place. My neighbour'sjubilation reflected the mood among African-American people throughout the country.

Among many progressive whites, Latinos, Asians and others, there was also a feeling of hope that a corner had been turned, away from the war and reaction of the Bush administration.

Now that we are at the two-thirds mark in Obama’s presidency, a look at what has transpired is in order.

Great Recession

The financial crisis that began in 2007, while George W Bush was in the White House, led to the Great Recession and anaemic 途ecovery・ The Great recession has been marked high unemployment and lower wages ― caused by the workings of the capitalist system.

Neoliberal deregulation, begun under previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican, exacerbated the situation.

The reaction of the Bush administration in its last year was to pour huge amounts of money into the failing banks. The transition to the Obama administration in 2009 was seamless, with many of the same officials in charge.

Obama also poured money into General Motors to help it out in its bankruptcy, which resulted in even worse wages and conditions for autoworkers than the auto union officials had already agreed to.

The capitalists were bailed out, and their profits have rebounded quite nicely in this greatest crisis of the American economy since the 1930s. But workers have been hard hit.

The Obama administration has inflicted severe austerity measures on workers and especially the poorest sectors of society. To be sure, the measures were not as drastic as the Republicans would have liked, but that is another story.

Obama made some noises about putting people to work rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, but the results have been meager and done via government contracts to capitalist firms.

Obama has rejected reforms such as government directly hiring workers on a scale able to make a serious dent in unemployment. In fact, government employment has been cut sharply as social services have been slashed under austerity.

The neoliberal “non-regulations” that helped create the financial crisis are largely intact. Serious reforms like those enacted under the New Deal in the 1930s have been rejected.

Attacks on unions, both in the public and private sectors, have grown. The White House has done nothing to roll back anti-union laws.

Inequality, racism grows

The net result has been that working people feel the recession never ended. New structural inequities have arisen, such as long-term unemployment and high youth unemployment.

The hardest hit have been Blacks and Latinos. Blacks, who had such high hopes in Obama, have seen their situation worsen.

Obama has spoken out against some instances of particularly terrible acts of racist violence, such as the shooting of Black teenager Travon Martin in Florida in 2012. But Obama's overall policies have done nothing to stop the growing misery of the African-American community, hit by high unemployment, very high youth unemployment, and deep long-term unemployment.

Many Black youth are growing up without any real prospect of joining the work force in a stable manner. This is a blight that will have repercussions far into the future.

Under Obama, there have been very few attempts to roll back institutionalised racism, pervasive in society.

Many of these same conditions affect Latinos too, although Blacks bear the brunt as the historically most oppressed of the oppressed nationalities.

Latinos also had hopes that Obama would fight for immigration reform. Discrimination against the undocumented hits Latinos hard, but others, especially Asians, are affected too.

Obama did ease the deportations of people who were brought to the US as children. But he has also deported more people than any previous administration by far, approaching two million, tearing apart many thousands of families. This has earned him the title of “Deporter in Chief” among militant young Latinos.

Obama inherited the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. By the time he took office, the war in Iraq was a political disaster. Moves to scale down the US presence were already afoot. Obama continued in this direction, finally withdrawing all soldiers when the Iraqi puppet government refused to grant US forces immunity for crimes committed.

At the same time, Obama declared Afghanistan the “good” war, and escalated it. This too has turned into a political disaster. The bombing of Libya has also produced a catastrophe.

The American people have turned against such adventures in their overwhelming majority. This has greatly diminished Washington’s military options, for example in Syria and Ukraine. Even Obama’s most hawkish critics can do little but gnash their teeth and impotently fume.

Imperialist offensive

At the same time, the US military remains the most powerful the world has ever seen. Its nuclear weapons remain a sword of Damocles over humanity. This power lurks in the background as Washington continues to press throughout the world to further its imperialist interests.

When Obama took office, he promised a “new transparency” in government. Edward Snowden has exposed that promise to be a monstrous lie.

Obama branded Snowden a traitor and brought charges against him under the notorious Espionage Act passed in the post-WWI “red scare”. The Obama administration has used that act more times than all previous administrations combined, and his term is only two-thirds finished.

Under Obama's watch, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is being held hostage in the Ecuadorian embassy by the US vassals in London, under threat of prosecution, probably under the same Act.

Assange's crime was to expose some of the US's dirty secrets and war crimes. One thing WikiLeaks exposed was the trove of material documenting US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan ― among other things released by Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning.

Obama’s military tried and convicted Manning, sentencing her to 35 years in an Army dungeon. She is also being denied medical procedures for her desired sex change.

When he took office, Obama refused to investigate the use of torture, “special renditions” and other illegal acts of the CIA and other agencies in the “war on terror”, saying that he would “look forward and not backward”.

Obama is now in a tussle with even his loyal lieutenant Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, over how much of the CIA’s criminal activities should be made public.

Now Obama admits that the “public trust” needs to be restored in light of the Snowden revelations. So far, he has offered nothing but vague promises.

Health care

On health care, Obama’s “great” achievement has been his health insurance program. It got off to an ignominious start last October when the computer program to run it failed.

The program failed because it was extremely complicated. It was complicated because the “Obamacare” law was riddled with caveats and clauses demanded by the insurance industry.

Now the bugs in the program appear to be fixed, but the basic problem remains: Obamacare is a swindle to seal in the private insurance companies’ lock on health insurance.

The insurance companies will continue to grab about one-quarter of every dollar spent on health care. This is one of the big reasons for astronomical costs for healthcare in the US.

The only way Obamacare can work is if young and healthy people are forced to buy into it. Starting in April, young and healthy people will be fined if they don’t.

There are many other things wrong with Obamacare ― about the only thing that can be said in its defence is that it is better than the Republican's proposal to do nothing.

None of these problems would exist if government-funded national health insurance, sometimes called a single-payer plan, was implemented ― something Obama ruled out from the start.

The US health system will remain at the bottom of the advanced capitalist countries, and tens of millions will remain uninsured.

On global warming, Obama makes some nice noises, but is charging full steam ahead with expanding fossil fuel production. Obama has even bragged that the US will soon become the world’s leading fossil fuel producer as well as consumer.

In short, Obama has been a very good president from the viewpoint of the US ruling class.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]


If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.