Obama's Election and the Working Class

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Obama supportersThe U.S. has elected a new president. On January 20, 2009, Barack Hussein Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Along with the dramatic turn in the economic situation, this marks a definite turning point in the history of the country and of the world. On the streets across the U.S., you could feel a collective sigh of relief. Hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the streets of New York, Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco, many of them dancing and even crying with joy. Some have likened the celebration to New Year’s Eve, and people’s faces – especially young people and African-Americans – were glowing with pride and hope. These scenes were repeated around the world, as frustration against Bush’s policies was unleashed. For eight long years, the world has not been a very pleasant place.

And yet, a week after the election, only 16 percent of Americans said they thought things are going well in the country. 83 percent said things are going badly. These are all-time records. The pessimism is worse than anytime since World War Two; more even than the Watergate era.

Obama says he offers “a new kind of politics.” This inspired five-hour lines at some polling stations and in many areas, the greatest turnout in a century. A spirit of hope and history filled the air throughout the day. It was indeed a historic event. For the first time, an African-American has been elected president of the most powerful nation on the planet. However, the election of a Black president does not mean that racism has been eliminated. Far from it. Racism is a product of the capitalist system and will continue as long as the system continues.

For Marxists, it’s not the color of the President’s skin that determines our attitude. What matters are the class interests a candidate represents. But Obama’s victory does show that Americans are so fed up with Bush and co.’s policies, that even those with racist prejudices would rather vote for a “Black man” than a Republican. However, it’s no accident that he raised far more corporate money than John McCain or that world stock markets rose on news of his victory. He is Big Businesses’ choice to get them through the tough times ahead. Nonetheless, within the confines of the current U.S. electoral setup, his decisive victory represents a significant and healthy shift to the left.

People who had previously never had any interest in politics suddenly felt they had something worth voting and hitting the streets for. Such was the support and enthusiasm he inspired on the campaign trail, that had Obama won the popular vote, yet lost the electoral vote, and therefore the election itself, there would have undoubtedly been unrest on the streets.

Film maker Michael Moore calls Obama’s victory the end of 28 years of rule by Republicans and Democrats who act like Republicans. At long last! The Bush years of war, terrorism, Enron, Katrina, domestic spying, mass layoffs and off shoring, raids and deportations of immigrant workers, attacks on the unions and declining living conditions are over! Or are they?

As we have explained time and again, on all fundamentals, Obama represents the same interests as Bush and McCain. The only real difference is his greater charm, eloquence and intellect. A cunning politician who knows full well whose interests he has been elected to defend, he will, like Bill Clinton before him, be used to carry out attacks on the working class that even the Bushes couldn’t get away with – albeit with a warm smile on his face and a charming twinkle in his eye.

The most important issue on American voters’ minds is the economy. No wonder. The instability on the stock market is having a very real and very immediate effect on the real economy and on the lives of working people, who will be the ones who suffer for the crisis of the system. It’s always the same: during the boom times, the rich benefit, and during the hard times, working people and the poor have to foot the bill and tighten their belts even further.

Unemployment is now at 6.5 percent and set to go higher. October marked the tenth month in a row in which more jobs were lost than were created. 1.2 million jobs have been lost so far in 2008. In many ways, the current crisis is already worse than the Great Crash of 1929. Distribution of U.S. income today is almost identical to what it was in 1928, when the top 1 per cent of Americans took in 24 per cent of the national income. Today it’s 23 percent, and of course the total amount of money is many times greater. We must also remember that the Great Depression itself didn’t really kick in until two or three years after the Wall Street crash.  The current crisis is far from over. We can’t say in advance how deep it will be or how long it will last, but the indications are that it could be very bad indeed.

And the most worrying aspect for American workers is that we have just lived through the best capitalism has to offer. That was the boom!  That was the “good times”!  And even then, the gap between rich and poor has continued to widen in the richest country on earth. No wonder Americans are desperately hoping for change.

Despite the lofty talk of change and a new kind of politics, money was again the real measure of a candidate’s worth and chances of winning. Early on, Obama had committed to public financing for his campaign. But as it became apparent that he might actually have a serious chance at being the Democrats’ nominee, he changed course and set his eyes on the millions to be had in private contributions.

For the first time ever in U.S. history, the presidential candidates raised more than $1 billion. Obama raised an estimated total of $640 million – $150 million in September alone. John McCain raised “only” $360 million. This is a marked reversal in fortunes from the last two presidential elections, when the Republicans raised far more than the Democrats. Corporate America is not stupid. They know which side of their bread to butter. So if you want to know whose interests Obama will serve during his presidency, you need only follow the money. Let’s just say that the hundreds of thousands of small donors won’t be receiving invitations to White House banquets.

McCain and PalinMcCain’s party was held accountable by many for the economic crisis, and from the beginning he faced an uphill struggle to overcome that heavy baggage. His age and bizarre on-stage antics didn’t help him either. Nor did his choice of a late-night comedy skit caricature as his vice presidential running mate. So he turned to an old trick in U.S. politics: accuse your opponent of being a socialist or a communist. Just a few years ago, such a tactic would have had at the very least a noticeable, if not a decisive effect.

It is revealing that in the context of the growing economic crisis, the word “socialism” has once again entered the mainstream. Even more significant is that McCain’s red baiting didn’t damage Obama in the slightest. Most people just had a chuckle about it. On the one hand, they understand that Obama is by no stretch of the imagination a socialist. On the other hand, the word “socialism” itself no longer has the same “evil” connotations as it did just a year ago.

Obama has made it clear that he is anything but a socialist. His health care, education and economic plans have nothing to do with genuine socialism. Throughout his campaign he consistently appealed to the ubiquitous “middle class,” rarely mentioning workers, and virtually ignoring the poor. The only “socialism” Obama supports is “Wall Street Socialism.” The $700 billion bailout is a case of “socialism in reverse,” a massive handout to the rich, which will have to be paid for by the working class either in higher taxes later on, or through even further cuts in our quality of life. Nonetheless, Americans are at the very least more open to the idea of genuine socialism. This has important implications for the future.

So what kind of presidency can we expect under Obama? He may have said a lot of inspiring and promising things on the campaign trail, but if you read between the lines, it is clear he has been careful to commit to very little. In fact, even before being elected, he was already backing off from many of his promises, in order to dampen soaring expectations.

But with people like Michael Moore calling it “The Promised Land,” you can be sure that people expect results – fast. Obama’s advisors and the media understand this well and have moved quickly to temper the mood of exaltation that has swept him into power. On election night, MSNBC analysts were already expressing concern that his supporters could be “disappointed.” One of Obama’s senior advisors told the UK newspaper The Times that the first few weeks after the election will be crucial, “so there’s not a vast mood swing from exhilaration and euphoria to despair.”

According to Obama’s acceptance speech, we should all just set aside our differences, work harder, rely on ourselves, not expect too much from the government (unless you’re a corporate CEO), tighten our belts and make further sacrifices, and all be friends.

The idea of “national unity” sounds nice on the surface, and appeals to millions of people tired of war, racism, sexism, homophobia and division. But under capitalism, “national unity” means subordinating the interests of the working class majority to the interests of a handful of capitalists. We may all be “Americans,” but we are not all truly “equal.” American society is divided into classes, and these classes have opposed and irreconcilable differences. One class exploits and lives off the labor of the other. One class concentrates the vast majority of wealth in its hands while millions of others barely scrape by. One class dominates the country’s politics and controls its government. One class makes and enforces all the laws in order to defend its interests.

And if partisanship is “petty,” “immature,” and “poisonous,” why continue the farce of having two political parties of the ruling class, when they are in effect two wings of the same party? Obama and those closest to him know that big explosions of the class struggle are on the order of the day. His task is to keep that struggle within “safe” limits.

Obama must therefore make some cosmetic changes. He must give the appearance that he is doing something new and different. After eight years of Bush and co, there will be something of a honeymoon while Americans wait and see what they can expect in the months and years to come. He will likely reverse many of Bush’s Executive Orders and possibly tax cuts for the rich, which will give the appearance of “change.” The realities of the budget crunch may even force him  to cut some military programs. He may unveil a modest plan to improve access to health care, create some jobs and repair the country’s infrastructure.  Many will welcome this loosening of the chains, but nothing fundamental will have changed.

Even if Obama is forced at a certain stage to implement policies similar to the “New Deal” (as the result of mass pressure from below and the threat of revolution), it could only be by further increasing deficit spending, which would only lead to further complications in the future.  There is no easy way out for U.S. capitalism and imperialism. Anything they do to try and restore economic stability can only increase social and political instability, and vice versa. We say: make the rich pay!  Why should working people have to pay for the bosses’ crisis?

We predicted long in advance that the real loser in these elections would be the working class. Nonetheless, at the moment, millions of workers and young people feel like the winners. The last few years have been hard. We must have a patient, friendly approach to those with honest illusions in Obama. But we stand by our position. We’ve said it before, and we say it again: As long as the two capitalist parties continue to dominate U.S. politics, the working class will never see its interests represented in Washington. This is why the unions must break with the Democrats and build a mass party of labor. The potential for such a party is enormous. Such a party would not remain a third party for long. We want it to become the first party; let the Democrats and Republicans fight for third place, or complete their fusion into a single party.

Obama was above all elected on the basis of what people want to see in him, not what he really represents. “Hope” and “change” are powerful words in these times of turmoil and uncertainty. But sooner rather than later, Obama’s true colors will be revealed. In the not-too-distant future, increasing numbers of his supporters will begin to feel confused and betrayed, bitterly disappointed, and then angry. They will be looking for answers and a way out of the crisis that still confronts them, and will be increasingly open to the ideas of revolutionary Marxism and socialism.

The 2008 Presidential elections are indeed historic. They mark a new stage in the changing consciousness of the U.S. working class. Obama’s campaign has unleashed forces long lying dormant beneath the surface of American society. The revolutionary potential in this country could be seen in the crowds and on the faces of the thousands who celebrated his victory.

Cynthia McKinneyAs for the Left, candidates Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader received a combined 27 percent more votes than did Left candidates in 2004. This, despite “Obamamania.” And in San Francisco’s District 8, anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan challenged Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi whose complicity in the war has made her extremely unpopular. Although she didn’t win, Sheehan won 17 percent of the vote, not bad at all against a powerful and well-entrenched incumbent. Many people have already broken with the two party system and can see through Obama’s sweet-sounding words. But most workers and young people will have to learn the hard way, through their own experience. Life teaches. Welcome to the “school of the Democrats.”

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