United States: Between rhetoric and reality

September 6, 2008

Even as Barack Obama and the Democrats headed to Denver for a four-day, nationally televised campaign commercial — stage-managed down to the final detail and paid for with vast amounts of corporate cash — the question reared its ugly head.

Could nearly 72-year-old John McCain — heir apparent to the one of the most despised presidential administrations in history, presiding over a party of squabbling bigots, unable to remember how many homes he owns — actually win the White House?

Opinion polls in August showed McCain narrowing the lead that Obama has held since clinching the Democratic nomination in June. The Democrats should be poised for a landslide victory in the November presidential election, instead they're scrambling to keep the lead in the presidential race.

The Republicans, after enjoying one-party control over all the branches of the federal government for much of the decade, are openly despised, even among sections of the political and business establishment.

The "war on terror" is failing. The economy is spiralling deeper into crisis. On any number of social issues, the right wing is in retreat.

When it comes to Congress, with dozens of veteran Republican lawmakers retiring rather than face crushing defeat, the Democrats are certain to make major gains.

But in the presidential race, Obama is barely ahead of McCain. Why?

One reason is the revving up of the Republican attack machine. In August, the McCain campaign unleashed a series of attack ads against Obama that seek to portray him as, at best, an empty-headed fame-seeker.

It should be noted that the McCain campaign is following the lines of attack opened up by Obama's primary opponent, Hillary Clinton. Her campaign presented Obama as a novice infatuated with his own popularity — and played the race card.

One result is that Obama can't count on support from a hard core of voters who cast ballots for Clinton. According to a new USA Today/Gallup poll, fewer than half of the people who voted for Clinton in the primaries say they'll definitely vote for Obama.

At the same time, Obama deserves a significant share of the blame. Since wrapping up the nomination in June, his campaign has shifted right at every available opportunity.

Obama's victory in the primaries depended on building a sense of excitement about the historic character of his candidacy — the first African-American with a serious chance to become president in a country founded on slavery — and a sense of urgency about changing the political system.

His campaign invoked the icons of the great political and social struggles of the past.

Since becoming the presumptive nominee, Obama has tried to distance himself from issues of racism with screeds about personal responsibility and the supposed failings of Black men.

The latest example is his choice of a running mate — Joe Biden.

Biden is supposed to bring "national security experience" to the ticket, but what he really brings is enthusiasm for the use of US military power. As one blogger at Daily Kos wrote, "There are times, it seems, when Joe Biden can be damned near as dangerous as Dick Cheney".

The result is that the enthusiasm at the heart of Obama's campaign has leaked away.

The Democrats have made this mistake before — demobilising their base of loyal voters by taking them for granted, while moving to the right to appeal to some mythical mother lode of "swing voters".

In explaining poll results showing that people trust McCain more than Obama to handle foreign policy issues, the media make a big deal of McCain's "experience".

But how many of those people would trust McCain if they were hearing constantly from Obama and his campaign that McCain wants the occupation of Iraq to go on for decades and that his idea of a joke is singing "Bomb, bomb, bomb. Bomb, bomb Iran"?

But Obama has been so busy convincing the US elite that he would be a better manager of US imperial interests, McCain is getting a pass.

There are two independent presidential campaigns to the left of Obama whose political positions match their rhetoric. Ralph Nader is repeating his independent run from 2000 and 2004, and Cynthia McKinney is running for the Green Party.

On war, civil liberties, jobs, corporate power, health care and the environment, McKinney and Nader represent a stark alternative to the two mainstream parties. Unfortunately, neither is likely to get a significant hearing.

While their vote won't count for much in this year's electoral arithmetic, it can be a marker for the future.

However, the more important task remains building connections among people and organisations in preparation for the struggles to come — including among those who continue to be enthusiastic about Obama.

Obama's campaign has raised the hopes of many people. This is symptomatic of a larger change among growing numbers of people in the US. That's where the opportunities lie for rebuilding a left alternative in the months before and after the election.

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