What will an Obama presidency mean?

Republican presidential candidate John McCain has let the dogs loose. Apparently, he's decided that if winning the White House means whipping up the right wing into a racist frenzy, he'll lead the charge.

The good news is that a majority of US voters are walking away from the John McCain-Sarah Palin freak show.

In recent days, McCain even added the word "socialist" to Democrat candidate Barack Obama's supposed list of sins.

"You see, [Obama] believes in redistributing wealth, not in policies that help us all make more of it", said McCain. "At least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives. They use real numbers and honest language. And we should demand equal candor from Senator Obama."

Just this once, I find myself wishing that something McCain says were true.

Yet any serious look at Obama's record and platform signal that he intends to govern well within the mainstream of US politics.

He wants to keep at least 50,000 troops in Iraq to "fight terrorism" indefinitely, and he wants to send those who are withdrawn from Iraq to fight in Afghanistan.

He agrees with McCain that the size and budget of the US military must be increased, he stridently supports Israel's suppression of the Palestinian people, and he has said "me too" to reasserting US military might in Latin America, being especially hostile to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Obama would be the first to repudiate the idea that he is any sort of anti-militarist or anti-imperialist — and we should take him at his word.

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Domestically, Obama recognises, unlike McCain, that the era of reckless deregulation and neoliberal supremacy has run its course. Yet no serious look at Obama's policies indicates a plan to fundamentally reshape the US class system.

Obama may support some modest economic band-aids — extending unemployment benefits, for example. He'll most likely undo the craziest of the Republican excesses — especially those that don't cost much.

But even if Obama has his way at every point, by the end of his first term in 2012, the schools will remain underfunded, the prisons overcrowded, and the gap between the rich and the working class more or less unchanged.

Compared to the last eight years of Bush, any change will be seen as a good thing. Obama's modest reforms will most likely earn him a honeymoon for a longer or shorter period of time.

He also has the advantage that the Republican Party finds itself deeply divided, and those divisions will only increase if McCain loses badly.

But the modest changes Obama has promised fall far short of what is needed. Ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and economic crisis will form the backdrop to Obama's first term.

This calls for far more radical measures than Obama has contemplated.

This reality requires a serious political discussion about how to build a working-class movement that can change the rules of the game — and it's in this context that the question of whether those who want to work for social change should vote for Obama must be discussed.

If the opinion poll trends hold up, McCain's racist strategy will lose, and Obama will be elected the first African American president. In a nation built on slavery, this will be an historic accomplishment and a cause to celebrate for every genuine opponent of racism and bigotry of all kinds.

US economic wealth was literally extracted from the backs of more than 10 generations of Black slaves. This wealth wasn't incidental to US fortunes. Without slavery, there would have been no riches for merchants and bankers, and no industrial boom.

It took a ferocious civil war to abolish slavery — a conflict that demonstrated the tenacity of the slave owner's defence of the system.

The freed slaves achieved a 10-year period of partial democracy and reform in the South during the "reconstruction" period. This Southern revolution was drowned in blood, as the Klu Klux Klan lynched its way into power, leading to 80 years of apartheid-like legal segregation.

The heroic and bloody struggles of the civil rights movement finally broke Jim Crow's back, paving the way to voting rights, affirmative action in education and jobs, the creation of a Black middle class, and the possibility of Obama's campaign.

It is worth remembering that when Obama was born in 1961, millions of African Americans were still legally barred from voting in the South.

Even when the history is acknowledged, it is often asserted that the wrongs have been righted, and Black people should stop "complaining".

As if the racist taunts shouted out at McCain rallies aren't buttressed by a powerful system of institutional racism which guarantees that African Americans disproportionately go to the poorest schools, suffer the highest unemployment rate and account for 50% of the nation's 2 million prisoners, although they constitute just 13% of the population.

Obama's election will raise the hopes of millions of Black workers across the country. Those who have suffered the brunt of US capitalism — and its most important tool, racism — will have a justifiable sense of pride at Obama's rise.

And for those who believe that the white working class can be won over to the fight against racism in the interest of class-based solidarity, election day will show that, even when offered the chance to vote along racial lines (first by Hillary Clinton and then by McCain), tens of millions of white workers from all parts of the country will vote for Barack Obama instead.

None of this ends racism, but it certainly demonstrates the potential for interracial unity in the working class.

Historically, the US left has faced this dilemma: try to transform the Democratic Party or try to build an alternative to its left.

No one has a crystal ball, but it appears that global capitalism is entering a historic period of crisis. Many activists look forward, above all, to seeing the Republicans defeated after eight long years of Bush.

But can they make a positive case that Obama and the Democrats will take us closer to breaking the domination of the rich over the working class in this country?

The fact that millions of US workers look set to elect the first Black president is a good barometer of what could be. But it's no substitute for systematic political debate and the patient building of social movements, socialist organisation and practical action.

[This article is abridged from US Socialist Worker, http://www.socialistworker.org.

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