The new shape of US politics


The article below is an abridged November 7 editorial from Socialist Worker.

The sweeping victory of Barack Obama in the presidential elections is a transformative event in US politics, as an African American takes the highest office in a country built on slavery.

Obama's rise is emblematic of how much has changed in the US, even in a country still disfigured by vicious racism that puts more Black men in prison than in college.

Anyone opposed to racism couldn't fail to be moved by the sight of Chicago's Grant Park on election night, where a multiracial crowd of 250,000 mixed joyously and celebrated the prospect of change.

Entire families turned out to hear Obama's victory speech; union workers clutched pro-Obama signs; large numbers of immigrants without the right to vote came to the rally, too.

Obama's victory was rooted not only in popular revulsion against George Bush, but in the sense that the old ways of politics had to go.

During the primary campaign, Obama inspired young activists with his allusions to social movements of the past — from the sit-down strikers of the 1930s to the civil rights activists of the 1960s — and declared his own campaign to be such a movement.

Obama prevailed even after a desperate Hillary Clinton turned to racist pandering, declaring herself to be the candidate of "hard-working Americans, white Americans".

Even after Obama clinched the nomination, the mainstream media pushed this idea: white workers were too racist to support an African American.

Exit polls showed that a majority of voters — both Blacks and whites — held McCain's smear campaigns against the Republicans.

Now the issue is how Obama and the Democrats will use their power in Washington, particularly on the issues most important to voters — the economy and also the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

A closer look at Obama's stated policy positions — as opposed to his soaring rhetoric — points to a big gap between the hopes and expectations of Obama voters and his program.

For all his ability to galvanise working people and youth to get out to vote, his campaign relied on huge amounts of money from corporate donors, allowing him to spend an estimated US$650 million, by far the most in US history.

With the business support came a steady moderation of Obama's positions, particularly after he took the lead in the primary contest with Clinton.

Rather than implement a major redistribution of the wealth, he simply wants to let Bush's tax cuts expire and increase the top income tax rate from 35 to 39.6%.

But as Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies points out, Obama's proposal is far friendlier to the rich than those of the 1950s Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower.

An even more urgent issue than taxes is the bailout of the financial system, as Bush's Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson starts rushing to hand out $700 billion to banks and financial institutions before Obama takes office on January 20.

This "rescue" is, in fact, the greatest single transfer of wealth from workers to the rich in US history.

Will Obama call a halt to this colossal rip-off? Will an Obama administration use government ownership of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and shares in big banks, in order to halt mortgage foreclosures?

Will there be an economic stimulus program that creates secure, long-term jobs?

Obama's economic team shows no inclination toward such changes.

Obama relies on establishment figures like former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and former Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker — both with long track records of favouring big business at workers' expense.

The same "realism" dominates Obama's foreign policy team. He has surrounded himself with former secretaries of state, ex-CIA officials, generals and academics committed to an imperialist US foreign policy.

The style will change — more cultivation of allies, more international agreements — but the substance will not.

Obama plans to leave tens of thousands of US troops in Iraq to ensure that a pro-US government survives. Obama wants to escalate the savage war in Afghanistan, where the pursuit of Osama bin Laden masks what is really a US determination to occupy a strategic crossroads in Asia.

Also, Obama has staked out hawkish positions on Venezuela and was even to the right of the Bush administration in declaring his support for Israel.

None of this is to say that no change is possible. Tens of millions of people want a new direction. The question is whether they can be organised to fight for it.

Take, for example, the proposed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would do away with much of the pro-business labour law and make it easier for workers to join a union.

Obama has promised to sign such legislation if it reaches his desk, but Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress are already being showered with money by business lobbyists determined to kill the bill.

Today, however, the chances of passing EFCA are much greater, given the sentiment for change, the scale of the economic crisis and the loss of credibility by big business.

Given the multiple crises that beset the US, change is coming — but what kind, and in whose interest, depends on whether and how working people get organised to fight for it.

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