The meaning of Obama


"American Revolution: The Fall of Wall Street and the Rise of Barack Obama"

By Kate Jennings

Quarterly Essay 32

Black Inc, 2008

132 pages, $15.95

A Democratic Party candidate decisively defeated a Republican Party candidate in the US presidential elections on November 4, 2008. Taken at face value this result — one of only two possible outcomes in an entrenched two-party system — is a long way from a "revolution" in any meaningful sense of the term.

But after eight long, awful years of George Bush, the election of the charismatic Barack Obama after a campaign promising "hope" and "change" appears as a remarkable contrast.

For some, including the latest Quarterly Essay contributor Kate Jennings, the difference seems so striking that it at least feels like a revolution has taken place.

Jennings' essay takes the form of a diary of the weeks leading up to the election. As the drawn-out electoral contest between Republican candidate John McCain and Barack Obama reached its finale, US voters were also confronted with an economic system in a terribly deep crisis — the greatest of its kind since the Great Depression.

Within weeks, billions of dollars of wealth simply evaporated in a messy end to the long boom of US capitalism. A boom many pundits said could last forever.

In 1997, billionaire investor George Soros made the more "sober" prediction that the boom would last for at least a century.

Jennings, a poet and novelist, is an expatriate Australian who has lived in New York City for the past three decades. Now a naturalised US citizen, she worked as a speechwriter for Wall Street executives throughout the 1990s.

Jennings' experience left her with a fair understanding of the perverse workings of the US financial sector and a perceptive appreciation of how little the majority of people in the US shared in the years of mushrooming corporate profits.

In 1993, she points out, the top 1% of US families took in 14% of the nation's income. By 2006, the same 1 percent of the population pocketed 23 percent of the income. Incredibly, the richest 15,000 families alone (less than 0.01% of the population) received 5.5% of the total income!

"One of the confounding paradoxes in this country," Jennings writes, "is that while the tax rates on companies and corporations are high, the amount they actually pay is the lowest in the world. In fact, according to the Government Accountability Office, after it looked at tax returns from 1989 to 2008, almost two-thirds of companies in the United States pay no corporate income taxes."

Jennings notes that prior to the financial collapse, corporate profits had reached record levels — yet the taxes on these profits were less than at any point since the 1930s. "To call this a fundamental unfairness is to understate the situation," Jennings argues.

The impact of the economic crisis on Obama's election victory cannot be understated. His eloquent oratory for "change" tapped into the widespread anger and frustration among the US working class. In an article tracking working-class voting patterns in the winter 2009 issue of International Socialism, Megan Trudell points out that Obama earned the big majority among people on annual incomes of US$0 - $50,000. McCain won the largest share of voters in the $50,000 - $200,000 per year bracket.

Undeniably, race played a big factor in Obama's victory. The largely disenfranchised Black and Latino populations of the US mobilised to vote in far greater numbers than in previous elections. But the Democrats also won the majority of white voters as well.

The Republican Party went to extraordinary lengths to portray McCain as a "maverick" and distance him from the deeply unpopular Bush administration. But it was the Obama campaign that managed to capture the imagination of millions.

Jennings was an early supporter of Hillary Clinton's campaign for the Democratic nomination. But she soon became a one-eyed Obama convert.

She makes no secret of her partisanship for Obama, which at times borders on veneration. Obama has an "elegance of body and mind", is unfailingly "courteous", possesses "toughness", maintains "a strong, steady image", is "sure-footed as a mountain-goat", and some of his speeches left her in "complete awe".

Jennings is supremely confident Obama will bring the changes he promised. "His campaign rarely missed a beat, and neither will his administration."

At one point she quips: "My political analysis — Obama is brilliant."

This response is not hard to understand. Had the ultra-conservative (and racist) McCain/Palin ticket won the election it would have marked a demoralising setback.

In stark contrast to McCain, Obama quite consciously used the language of social protest to inspire and mobilise support.

Tithi Bahattacharya — one of estimated two million people who attended Obama's historic acceptance speech in Chicago's Grant Park on November 4 — emphasised this new dynamic in an article in the December edition of the Indian socialist magazine Liberation.

"Over and over during the course of the campaign words such as community, grassroots and organising were used in a fashion that matched the fervour of the demographic of the anti-war and anti-globalisation movements of the recent past," she said.

"Whole sections of people roused by this call plunged into the campaign as though it were a social movement and not merely an electoral campaign.

"But the most important thing to understand is that their doing so actually made it such," Bahattacharya concluded.

However, Jennings' political analysis is blunted because she is so obviously partial to Obama — a willing adherent of "Obamamania". But her account also suffers because her framework does not extend far beyond the electoral contest between the two major capitalist parties.

That Obama has packed his administration with many of the political veterans from the pro-war and anti-worker Clinton administration is one indication of the limits to the change he has promised.

Obama's promise to close the Guantamamo Bay torture camp is a popular and long-overdue step. But this high profile decision has to be taken along with his silence about the many other illegal prisons the US is known to run around the world. He has given his support to the US's bogus "war on terror" and stated he would be prepared to extend it into Pakistan.

Nor, rhetoric aside, is Obama planning to break with a business-as-usual model to deal with the reality of runaway climate change. He is a staunch advocate of non-existent "clean coal" technology and supports nuclear power. He fully backed the multi-billion dollar corporate bailout package passed by the US congress in late 2008 — perhaps the largest single transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in one hit ever.

It is for many of these reasons that radical journalist John Pilger has urged people to "beware the Obama hype". But it is also equally true that the Obama presidential campaign marks a shift to the left among ordinary people in the US.

That Obama has made it clear with his appointments and statements that he intends to continue with minor modifications the same agenda as his predecessors of advancing US imperialist interests is a major contradiction that will play out in the next period.

The challenge for the US left is how to relate to the hope, confidence and optimism generated and to connect with the new networks inspired by the Obama campaign.

If the millions of people who campaigned for Obama stay mobilised, continue to organise and start to campaign independently of the political parties of the corporate rich then there is hope that a democratic economy and a safe climate can be fought for, and won.

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