'We don’t want four-more-of-the-same years'

Chicago teachers launched largely successful strike action in September in a struggle against Democrat Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

After Barack Obama was re-elected United States president for a second four-year term, US Socialist Worker published the editorial that is abridged below.

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Barack Obama has won re-election, thanks to a strong turnout by the Democratic Party's core supporters in every place the president needed to win.

Obama was only barely ahead of Mitt Romney in the national popular vote. But in the state-by-state races to win a majority in the Electoral College, the Democrats prevailed in nearly every place categorised as a “battleground”.

That means Obama got the support of specific groups of core Democratic voters that were critical in each particular state — in spite of widespread disappointment with Obama's record in office.

Union members played a central role in Obama's win in the all-important battleground state of Ohio, as well as Wisconsin and Iowa.

Youth, women and minorities behind win

For a second election, Obama broke the Republicans' solid hold in the south with a victory in Virginia — that wouldn't have been possible without an enthusiastic turnout by African Americans and Latinos.

The Latino vote grew to 10% of the electorate nationwide, according to preliminary estimates. It made the difference for Obama out west in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.

Nationwide, young voters aged 18 to 29 grew slightly as a percentage of the electorate compared to 2008 — a remarkable fact considering that youth turnout shattered all records in Obama's landslide last time.

The mainstream media will lionise the Obama campaign machine for its skill in reaching this sector and getting them to vote. But the other way to look at it is that Obama and the Democrats owe their next four years in the White House to the votes and the organising work of core constituencies of the party that have very little to show for the last four years.

Millions of people will feel satisfaction that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan were kept out of the White House. Likewise with the defeat of the women-hating Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana. Their trouncing helped the Democrats defy the odds of having to defend twice as many seats as Republicans and actually add to their Senate majority.

There is also pride that the first African-American president of a country founded on slavery will return to the White House, despite the racist abuse he endured from the start.

Nevertheless, the question should be: How can we make sure that four more years aren't four more-of-the-same years?

Spending cuts

During the campaign, Obama was interviewed by the Des Moines Register and he spoke more candidly than usual because he thought his words would not be published verbatim. They were, and so we now know the president's top priority for the first six months of his new term.

Is it a government jobs program? Raising the minimum wage? Re-establishing union rights for public-sector workers? How about challenging racism or reining in the violence of the US Border Patrol?

Nope. Obama says his top goal for the start of a second term is to strike a “grand bargain” to cut the federal deficit by US$4 trillion over 10 years, mainly through spending cuts, including in the government's most popular programs, Social Security and Medicare.

It is safe to say this was not what the hundreds of thousands of core Democrats whose votes made the difference for Obama on election day had in mind.

When Obama first proposed a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction, he offered more than $1 trillion in cuts over 20 years in the government's Medicare health program for the elderly, a $360 billion reduction in the Medicaid health program for the poor over the same period and big reductions in Social Security benefits.

This was austerity on a vast scale — and far more than the Republicans ever contemplated getting away with. That is a crucial lesson: In this case, the “lesser evil” was more capable than the “greater evil” of actually accomplishing evil.

Or they would have been more capable if the Republicans had not walked away from Obama's proposal — because it called for tax rise on a level well short of the cutbacks. That is further evidence, if more was needed, of how fanatical and short-sighted the first party of big business has become.

But there's a broader point to be made: During the presidential campaign, Obama posed as a defender of Social Security and Medicare against the Republican onslaught. This was especially the case after Paul Ryan, the Republican most closely associated with Social Security privatisation and turning Medicare into a voucher system, became the vice-presidential candidate.

Yet Obama has promised — on the record — that he will carry out the most substantial overhaul of Social Security and Medicare in the history of these popular programs.

In other words, the lesser evil is still evil.

Broken promises

Obama used the enthusiasm of the Democratic base before — to sweep to victory in 2008. But once in office, he accomplished almost nothing of what he promised to that base.

Consider the list, compiled by left-wing writer Matt Stoller, of progressive planks in the Democrats' 2008 platform where the Obama administration accomplished nothing — in most cases because it didn't even try: The Employee Free Choice Act to make it easier to join unions; a ban on permanent replacement of striking workers; seven paid sick days guaranteed for all workers; expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit; an increase in the minimum wage; allowing bankruptcy judges to write down mortgage debt; end warrantless wiretapping of US citizens; end federal targeting of activist groups; re-establish the right of habeas corpus.

Stoller said: “These aren't just broken promises, these are all broken promises that have to do with the economic and political rights of the relatively powerless. Privacy, union rights, debtor's rights, activist rights, etc. — they were promised tangible stuff, and didn't get it.”

By contrast, Obama and his administration have accomplished a great deal — in the service of big business, the bankers and US imperialism. Like the Wall Street bailout that committed trillions of taxpayer dollars to safeguarding the biggest banks. Or the continuing US war in Afghanistan and the expansion of US military operations to Libya, Pakistan, Yemen and more.

Or even the Obama healthcare law, whose popular new regulations on insurance companies, like the ban on “pre-existing conditions”, are overshadowed by provisions that will force millions of people to buy the defective products of for-profit insurers.

This two-faced behaviour — say one thing during campaigns and do another once in office — is in the nature of the Democratic Party, as one of the two mainstream parties in a capitalist political system. Without pressure from below in the form of working-class resistance, the Democrats are molded by pressure from above — from big business.

One example to remember is the fate of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) — proposed laws to make it easier for unorganised workers to join unions. This was organised labour's top legislative priority when Obama took office in January 2009.

But even before the inauguration, Corporate America organised a slander campaign against EFCA — and the Democrats gave ground. Rather than take action while they had an overwhelming majority in both houses of Congress, the Democrats delayed. Lobbyists and lawmakers met behind closed doors to whittle away at the bill.

Ultimately, Democratic senators agreed to a new version of EFCA that eliminated the centrepiece of the bill — a “card check” provision that would have allowed workers to form a union by a simple majority signing union cards.

That part of the story is bad enough. Worse is that top labour leaders accepted the Democrats' retreats, and even justified them.

The AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations had networks of field organisers in place after the 2008 election that were originally going to start building pressure on lawmakers to pass the EFCA. Meetings for union activists found an intense interest among workers who wanted to build a public campaign to defend the law from the corporate slanderers and push for its passage.

Yet union leaders changed course. According to one media report, this was because they wanted “to give Obama time to get his bearings”.

Ultimately, some officials even justified the neutered EFCA without card check, on the grounds that it was more realistic to pass legislation in this form. But by then, the fight was lost. EFCA died without ever coming to a vote.

Back in 2008, one sour note on Election Night was the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which banned same-sex marriage.

Rather than wait on a response from political leaders — like Obama, who said he was personally opposed to same-sex marriage — supporters of marriage equality organised protests, starting on election night.

They spread across California and then the whole country, becoming a new national movement. This ultimately forced Obama to respond on this issue, albeit haltingly and inconsistently.

In 2010, an uprising in Wisconsin erupted — against newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker and his law designed to scapegoat the poor and strip collective-bargaining rights from public-sector workers. The Wisconsin rebellion did a hundred times more to take the labour movement forward than all the Democrats' retreats.

Last year, the Occupy Wall Street movement — which began with a several-hundred-strong demonstration in New York City and spread around the country — redefined the way people look at class inequality with its famous “1% versus the 99%” slogan. Occupy drew many people new to activism into political activity, and it won sympathy far beyond its ranks.

And the recent Chicago teachers' strike provided an example of a different way for labour to organise — confident to strike, linking its struggles to a social justice agenda and building ties of solidarity with the broader working class.

The left has had all of this to celebrate during Obama's four years in office — and none of them had anything to do with the initiative of the Democratic Party. In several of these struggles, they were explicitly against some of the most powerful individuals in the Democratic Party — like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The challenges ahead are still great. But these struggles show us how we can respond to Obama's election.