United States: People-driven change

Issue 

The article below is abridged from a January 21 US Socialist Worker editorial, http://www.socialistworker.org.

Millions people jammed into Washington to see history being made and to celebrate the official beginning of a new era in US politics.

Across the world, millions watched the first African American president take office.

These images couldn't be more of a contrast to eight years ago, when George W. Bush scurried into the White House, thanks to a 5-4 decision of the US Supreme Court not to count every vote in the 2000 election.

Bush's inauguration was met with angry protesters lining the inaugural parade route.

The end of the Bush regime was bound to be a cause for celebration for the millions of people who hated what the administration stood for — the "war on terror", contempt for the poor and working people.

Standing outside a Capitol built by slave labour, Barack Obama took the oath to assume the presidency, an office held mostly by slave-owners for the first seven decades of the US's existence.

That achievement — the inauguration of a man who wouldn't have been served a cup of coffee in Washington a few generations ago — dominated every moment of the proceedings.

It couldn't be otherwise with the countless Black faces throughout the vast crowd in Washington — and with the sense of pride, extending beyond African Americans alone, that some of the cruel sins from the past were finally being overcome.

There was a sense of pride, too, that the achievement was not Obama's alone. His oft-repeated slogan "We are the change we have been waiting for" speaks for many people who see in his election a reason to believe that change is possible — and what they did mattered in making it.

The reverent tone among this huge audience was at odds with the fake pomp on the Capitol steps itself — a ceremony stage-managed according to 18th-century protocol and presided over by political leaders with a history of resisting everything those in the crowd want to accomplish.

The low point was an opening prayer by Rick Warren, the anti-gay, anti-abortion pastor of the Saddleback mega-church.

Warren's pious rhetoric about "treating our fellow human beings with respect" was so much hollow cant coming from a man who compares same-sex marriage to incest and pedophilia.

Obama's own team managed to add a further bitter note to this episode.

At a Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial, Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, was invited to give the opening prayer in what supporters of gay rights were encouraged to see as a concession to their anger about Warren.

But the Presidential Inaugural Committee instructed HBO not to include Robinson's politically charged invocation in the two-hour television broadcast of the concert.

This conflict between the hopes inspired by Obama's promise of change and the compromises on the basic principles held by those who worked to put him in office ran through the inaugural speech.

The address was full of historical references to those who built the US — people who "toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth".

But Obama used those images to propose that working people must shoulder the burden of dealing with the economic crisis — "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility".

The millions of people suffering the brunt of the crisis are being asked to pay for a disaster they had no part in causing.

In the days ahead, Obama and Congress are expected to approve spending on the second half of the US$700 billion Wall Street bailout that saves the banks, but offers nothing to millions of people in danger of losing their homes.

Obama's comments on foreign policy were similarly double-edged. He struck a different tone than Bush, offering to the Muslim world "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect".

Yet over the past month, Obama was silent during Israel's slaughter of more than 1300 Palestinians in Gaza — a war carried out with US-built F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters.

In another rhetorical shift from Bush administration policy, Obama said he would "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" — a pointed criticism of the shredding of civil liberties under Bush.

Yet he also claimed that "[o]ur nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred" — a line that could have come from Bush's speech writers.

Obama's call for all US citizens to unite and work together to overcome adversity is a time-honoured cliche for US political leaders. But to millions of people, it is a call to do something.

And what people do in the coming months and years will be key in determining what change comes to US society.

The Obama campaign has had a profound impact. After a generation of the conservative agenda dominating in Washington, when the White House and Congress seemed wholly insulated from any influence by ordinary people, Obama's victory convinced large numbers of people that something different is possible, and that what we do matters.

But there's another lesson to be drawn from the experience of the civil rights movement, the fight for women's suffrage and the struggle for unions. Their strength rested on the willingness to remain independent and mobilise for justice, no matter what president was sitting in the White House.

Now that he occupies the top political office of the most powerful capitalist society on Earth, Obama and his administration will have their own ideas about what change should look like, and what it shouldn't and those ideas won't be the same as the millions of people who worked to get him elected.

It is up to the people who want to see change to use all the opportunities presented to us in this new era to argue, mobilise and agitate.

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