Introduction: The Promise of Hope and Change
Barack Obama rode an wave of optimism to the White House in the November 2008 elections. Voters overwhelmingly rejected John McCain, whom they saw as likely to continue the policies of George Bush’s disastrous presidency. Worried about the worsening economic situation, and disgusted by the Bush gang’s imperial adventures and assorted crimes, Americans voted for change. The first African American to be elected president, Obama represented a sea change in American politics and society. His campaign was propelled by organized groups from all social classes: from financiers and corporate attorneys to labor unions and poor peoples’ organizations. The Black vote was his, as was a large majority of the Latino vote. The election seemed a stunning victory for a young, charismatic, liberal, Black candidate.
While the Obama’s administration has failed to make good on the American people’s hope for change in either domestic or foreign policy, most people do not at this point blame the administration, tending instead to put responsibility for the situation on the previous administration of George W. Bush. With strong support from its liberal institutional base, the Obama administration is working closely and cautiously with the banks and corporations to resolve the current economic crisis on the basis of sacrifices of taxpayers and working people. The public, however, by and large tends to exculpate the president from responsibility or is inclined to blame his advisors for the failure to solve problems as they had expected. The new administration pursues policies which benefit banks, corporations and the wealthy, but so far it has come under fire only from the rightwing core of a largely disoriented and debilitated Republican party. The public has not yet recognized that the Obama presidency pursues policies invidious to the interests of the majority.
The Obama Political “Movement”
The public’s confidence in Obama has in large measure to do with the campaign and the forces assembled around Obama to carry it out. At the level of party politics, Obama’s victory represented something novel: the first step in the creation of a new hegemonic political bloc. Obama’s campaign represented the culmination of a long period of Democratic Party transformation that began in the 1960s and 1970s, but to understand this we have to look back to the 1930s and 1940s and to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition. The New Deal Coalition brought together consumer capital goods, labor unions (both the AFL and the then new CIO), the white racist machine of the Solid South, the politically corrupt big-city machines (such as Chicago), and after 1936 African American voters.
By the 1960s, the New Deal Coalition began to break down. With the growing role of TV, the Democratic big city machines declined in importance, and by the 1970s the Democrats had lost the Solid South because of their support—reluctant and half-hearted as it was—for the civil rights movements. During the 1980s, the labor unions began to decline rapidly in membership, losing some of their weight in the Democratic Party. All of these changes left capital—banks and corporations—in charge of the Democrats, but also left the Democrats with a fractured social base, as many of their white male supporters leaked away to the Republicans. The New Deal Coalition was dead and the Democratic Party would have to be rebuilt on some other basis to survive.
Obama created a new coalition. His campaign was backed by high finance—banks, insurance companies, and the mortgage industry—by communications and electronics, and by many wealthy corporate board members and executives, as well as professionals, particularly lawyers. At the same time, Obama had support from both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, as well as of the National Organization for Women and while many people of color organizations often could not endorse Obama because of their not-for-profit legal status, he had their tacit backing. Obama’s campaign appears to be a classical cross-class Democratic Party phenomenon, and in some respects it was, but it also had a new method and style.
Obama and his advisor David Axelrod, however, created a political organization that did not entirely rely upon the Democratic Party or its constituent organizations. Using electronic communications and social media, Obama created his own independent organization of supporters, raising money, organizing very large and in some cases enormous rallies, and building an organizational infrastructure of personal supporters. Through this organization Obama raised far more money from individual contributors than did his rivals. While corporations also provided much of the money, the organizations of labor, women and people of color provided the phone bankers, door-knockers, and GOTV workers.
In many areas, the Obama campaign took on something of the look and feel of a social movement: people took to the streets with Obama signs, the candidate was greeted with massive rallies, the crowds were often made up of union members, anti-war activists, and environmentalists. For some they saw their movement flowing into the Obama campaign, for others the Obama campaign was their first and only experience with anything like a movement. The exuberance of the Obama crowds was contagious, and those who saw the candidate and heard his message often felt that the country was on the verge of a fundamental shift not only in politics but also in culture. The campaign revitalized the Democratic Party and created a whole new generation of Democratic party activists and voters.
Not only did Obama build such an organization, but he also has not disbanded it following his election, though at the same time neither has he activated it on any large scale. The Obama campaign organization could be used as a potential social support for his presidency. While waiting to assume his new role and during his first days in office he called upon his electronically connected supporters to meet and discuss some of his proposals, such as health care. The continued existence of these networks suggests that he may at some point call them to action: not only for electoral campaigns, but also to mobilize them in support of his policies as they come before Congress. He might even mobilize them for social action—though that seems doubtful. So far, however, the networks of labor and students activists have been allowed or even encouraged to wither away, and it seems will only be revived with the next election.
The electorate voted its hopes: a return to economic prosperity and an end to the wars in the Middle East. Unions had their own wish list, topped by the Employee Free Choice Act and health care reform, but also including a new immigration law. Women wanted to protect the right to choose abortion. Environmental groups wanted a policy to confront global warming. Everyone had hope. The optimism generated by the Obama campaign, however, did not last long, as between November and the inauguration, the collapse of the financial institutions intensified. When Obama took office on January 20, this represented not only the arrival of a new political administration but also the beginning of a world financial crisis and the opening of a new economic period.
A New American Politics? Or a Return to the Clinton Years
Obama’s election appeared to represent the emergence of a new coalition (dominated by high finance) and his campaign used new technologies and a new style. The challenges of the economic crisis also present him with new possibilities. Still, it is not yet clear that the Obama administration really represents a new politics, rather than simply a return to the policies of the Clinton years. In many ways, the administration of Bill Clinton anticipated the approach of Obama: a foreign policy operating through the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a domestic policy based upon a preference for market approaches, corporate interests, and public-private partnerships. What appears clear now is that the George W. Bush administration and its neo-conservative (“neo-con”) policies represented a rightwing aberration from politics as usual. The neo-liberal—that is pro-market and pro-corporation—policies that first emerged under Jimmy Carter and expanded under Ronald Reagan, were continued by George H.W. Bush and then under Clinton. George W. Bush represented something different.
The Bush presidency, guided by Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, and strongly influenced by the Evangelical wing of the Republican Party, envisioned the reestablishment of the United States as the uncontested world superpower through militarism, foreign conquest, and state-building. At the same time it pushed even more conservative pro-market and pro-corporate policies, ignored environmental issues, and promoted a rightwing social agenda that promoted Christianity and opposed abortion and gay rights. With both its foreign and economic policy having proven disastrous, the Bush administration had used up its political capital. The country’s financial and corporate elite recognized that the Republicans had been—for the time being—used up, and it was time to turn their support to the Democrats if the United States was going to preserve its dominant role in the world and save the capitalist economy.
Just at that moment, an ambitious and talented young Black politician from Chicago emerged on the scene, and through a process of political competition and corporate selection emerged as the candidate of the corporate elite. The corporate elite—particularly the financial and computer sectors—backed Obama and helped him to capture the discontent of voters tired of the wars and afraid of the economic collapse. Serendipity brought together corporate interests, the Democratic Party, Obama, liberals and progressives, and disgruntled voters in such a way as to give us our first Black president. Obama, with his brilliant oratory and his considerable charm, has become the expression of the interests of American capitalism and its imperial ambitions.
While Obama, his coalition, and his campaign may be new, there is nothing new about the role of the Democratic Party. The Republican and Democratic parties represent two political alternatives by which the financial and corporate elite, the leaders of the capitalist class, shape politics and policies. The parties are fraternal – not identical – twins. The Republicans’ historic role was that of “the party of big business,” representing more laissez-faire economic policies, while the Democrats’ were “the party of the working people,” representing Keynesianism, and social welfare. This has all now become blurred by the common commitment of both Republicans and Democrats to neo-liberal policies throughout the last twenty-five years, a one-side class war by both parties and big business against working people and the poor. While the differences have blurred, the parties’ functions remain distinct.
The function of the Democratic Party is to contain and control opposition to the symptoms of capitalism that arise from the experience of working people. Since the rise of modern capitalism, the Democrats have either crushed or coopted every social and political movement that arose to challenge capitalism from the left or from below. Whether we talk about the absorption of the Populists in the 1890s, the swallowing of the Socialists and the cooptation of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) unions in the 1930s, the cooptation of the civil rights, anti-war movements, and women’s movement of the 1970s, the Democratic Party has absorbed opposition forces which, had they become independent, might have challenged U.S. capitalism and imperialism. Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” of 1988 – which adopted a quite liberal platform – in the end mainly kept opposition in the party. Jackson argued in a speech at the Democratic Party Convention that “it takes two wings to fly.” Clinton, with his more moderate policies, used a populist style to win votes, even as the corporations and his government unleashed a one-side class war against working people. With people turning against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the economy in crisis, the corporate elites turned once again to the Democrats, and the Democrats found the best possible person to contain the actual and potential opposition in Obama.
Whether Obama’s policies represent something fundamentally new remains to be seen. Certainly, the economic crisis has forced Obama to take actions—such as the nationalization of banks and corporations—never dreamed up by Clinton. Nevertheless, the similarities of their positions on major issues such as health care, education, and foreign policy are becoming increasingly clear. We turn now to an analysis of both the situation and the policies.