From Bush to Obama

Issue: 121

Barack Obama’s victory in the US was one consequence of the crisis. Of course, there was more to the victory than that. For many African Americans it was an important symbolic gain after more than three centuries of oppression. Tens of thousands of young people redirected their feelings over the Iraq war into electioneering. Millions of Hispanic Americans saw voting for Obama as the logical follow up to demonstrating against restrictions on immigrants. Yet these forces alone could not prevent the momentum of the Obama campaign faltering over the summer when it came to the question of actually winning a majority of votes. The economic crisis hammered home the need for change to millions of white workers and restored the momentum, as Megan Trudell shows in her analysis of the result in this issue. That is why the night of the Obama victory felt like a festival of the oppressed crossing racial lines.

But there is more to the Obama victory than that. Electoral “revolutions” sometimes share something in common with the real thing. Different forces come together out of a common sense of grievance against an old order, even though they have diametrically opposed class interests—and some committed supporters of the old order jump on the bandwagon in order to influence its course. This was true of the Popular Front election victories in France and Spain in 1936, the Labour victory in Britain in 1945 and, for that matter, the Roosevelt victory in the US in November 1932.

Important sections of the US ruling class were involved in the Obama campaign. Their disagreements with George Bush and John McCain were not over maximising the profitability of US corporations or reinforcing US global hegemony, but over the Republicans’ military adventurism in Iraq that had damaged these goals. Hence the huge sums that corporate America donated to the Obama campaign, and the presence within his camp, even before his victory, of bankers such as Robert Rubin of Citibank (the key figure in the near-failed bank’s strategy), the former head of the Federal Reserve Paul Volker (whose interest rate increases plunged the US into recession at the end of 1979), and war criminals such as Zbigniew Brzezinski (who still believes provoking the Russians to invade Afghanistan was “an excellent idea”) and Madeleine Albright (who said the death of half a million children in Iraq was “a price worth paying”).

In Europe the centre left, and also a chunk of the centre right, welcome Obama because they believe he will take European capitalist concerns more seriously when it comes to carving up the global imperialist cake, with newspaper columnists openly declaring that his victory would defuse the “anti-Americanism” aroused by Bush’s actions. With Bush out of the way, they reason, the “bad war in Iraq” can be forgotten and the bombing of villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan can continue with renewed vigour.

The first signs are that such interests are seeing their hopes fulfilled. Bush’s appointee, Robert Gates, will keep his job in charge of defence; Hilary Clinton, who still says she was right to vote for war on Iraq, will be secretary of state; Robert Rubin’s proteges will dominate the economic posts, with Timothy Geithner as treasury secretary, Lawrence Summers as senior White House economics adviser and Peter Orszag as budget director.

That, however, is not the end of the matter. The sheer scale of the crisis is creating further deep schisms within the ruling class and the political establishment that seeks to fulfil its interests. It is not only workers losing their jobs and their homes who are resentful of bankers such as Rubin. So too are industrialists afraid of losing their corporations. The New York Times and Financial Times have carried articles attacking him as viciously as anyone on the far left would, and there can be even more venom if the new administration is unable to safeguard the major corporations. Rubin, Summers, Geithner and Orszag have no real idea how to deal with the crisis in a way that keeps all the rival interests happy. Nor do Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates have any notion of how to deal with Iraq without strengthening Iran, or how to deal with Afghanistan without further destabilising Pakistan and the whole subcontinent. This is a recipe for an administration that will be whirled round by events rather than controlling them. And that potentially provides leeway for the immense popular bitterness below the surface that gave Obama his victory to find further ways to express itself and to gain some victories for itself.

This will not happen through the Democratic Party’s networks. However deep seated the feelings Obama tapped during the election campaign are, his party’s structures have an immense capacity to incorporate and neutralise those who would fight for real change. They did this at the time of the huge upsurge in union strength in the mid-1930s and they did it in the aftermath of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. They are trying to do it again. That is why the many thousands of radicals, socialists and anti-war activists who reject the Democratic Party are right to do so. But it is also why they now have to relate to the aspirations of black, Hispanic and white workers who voted Democrat because they wanted the very change the Democrats will not give them.