Monday, 8 June 2009

Mike's Letter from America No 14

Factories Close, Guantanamo Stays Open

‘Do you approve of President Obama?’ asks a quiz on Facebook. Polls are always pretty unreliable, especially online ones, which tend to be self-selecting. But the more scientific polls reveal that, while some of the initial euphoria about Obama’s election has worn off, his approval ratings have been consistently over 60%. Gordon Brown (assuming he’s still PM by the time I finish writing this) could only dream of such ratings. The problem with the poll, of course, is that it begs the question ‘approve of what?’ Do I approve of the fact that Obama, not John McCain, is president? Well, yes, but there is a lot to disapprove of about the Obama administration.

The biggest question facing the US at the moment is, of course, the economy. To be fair to Obama, he has carried out some vaguely social-democratic polices, but more by accident than design, as he has been forced to take measures (like FDR in the Great Depression) to save capitalism from itself. Most striking has been Obama’s behavior toward General Motors (GM). First, the president insisted on sacking the company’s CEO after GM received a government bail-out – a small step perhaps, but an astonishing breach of the free-market  taboo against state intervention that has dominated politics for the last 30 years. Now, following GM’s bankruptcy, the federal government has taken a 60% share of the company. Nobody will say the word, but this is in effect nationalization. Something apparently even more radical occurred in Chrysler, where a trust controlled by the auto workers’ union the UAW received a controlling share of the company

The auto industry is a subject close to the hearts of us in Michigan, home to the so-called ‘Big Three’ car manufacturers (Ford, Chrysler, and GM) all of which are in various degrees of distress. Given that Michigan already has the worst economy of any of the 50 states, with unemployment in double figures, the crisis in the car industry could send the state into economic meltdown. So have Obama and the UAW ridden to the rescue, implementing a socialist utopia of nationalization under workers’ control?

Not so fast. The government intervention is designed to stabilize GM and manage its bankruptcy. No jobs are being saved, on the contrary, the government and the union are there to manage the redundancies, which continue almost daily. (This morning, GM announced another 400 redundancies in Flint, Michigan, a city whose plight was explored in Michael Moore’s documentary Roger and Me.) The Democrats were quick to reassure big business that Congress would not be running GM (which begs the question, why nationalize a company if you’re going to leave its running to the executives who drove it to bankruptcy?). For its part, UAW bureaucracy, which has led the way in selling pay cuts and the loss of pensions to its members, is acting to smooth the process of bankruptcy and redundancies. As for Chrysler, the UAW is using its share to finance its members’ pensions (which, until the union sold out, had been paid for by the employers anyway), and has stated it will not control management of the company.

Let us leave the depressing prospect of the devastated economy of Michigan to consider more positive matters. Isn’t Obama closing down Guantanamo? Well, no, not really, as he is only closing it down in order to move the inmates to other prisons. The whole regime of detention without charge or trial is to continue, and the administration’s lawyers even came up with a new, updated definition of ‘illegal combatants’ to justify their continued detention. But even the plan to move the deckchairs on this ethical Titanic was too much for the Democrats in Congress. Following a hysterical fear-campaign by the Republicans, invoking images of dangerous terrorist running free in small-town America, Democratic senators crumbled, and the measure to close Guantanamo was defeated by an astonishing margin of 90 to 6, in a senate that contains only 40 Republicans.

Surely, at least in foreign policy Obama is progressive? Part of his continuing appeal is that he has changed the tone compared to Bush. In place of confrontation and a contemptuous dismissal of other cultures and nations, Obama is very good at making the right noises about peace and cooperation.  His speech in Cairo was a great example of his approach, dotted with references to Islam and Arabic culture that won over his audience. He even mildly criticized Israel, but the substance of his speech left little of comfort for the Palestinians, who were told they had no right to armed resistance, and must accept whatever crumbs are handed them from the negotiating table. Meanwhile, Obama is moving more troops to Afghanistan, and Afghan and Pakistani civilians are dying in the continuation of Bush’s ‘War on Terror.’

It is too early to see if any alternative to the left of Obama is going to emerge, and most liberals seem prepared to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, especially as he is about to launch long-awaited health care reforms. But the optimistic opinion polls disguise growing unease over the economy and torture, and (unlike the depressing scenario in the European elections) the Republicans are ill-placed to take advantage of it. When the right organized a series of ‘tea-bagging’ demonstrations (don’t ask!) against wholly-imaginary Obama tax increases, the turn out in most places was pathetic, and the notion of ‘tea-bagging’ received widespread ridicule. More good news is that the wretched bureaucratic leadership of the UAW is not the whole story when it comes to the labor movement in the US. Union membership is growing rapidly in the service sector, and in 2007 union membership figures increased nationally for the first time in 25 years. As I’ve written before, the gay rights movement is growing in reaction to California’s ban on same-sex marriage, and the conservatives have been forced onto the back foot over this issue. Finally, despite the Republicans attempts to (ludicrously) scare people by labeling Obama a socialist, opinion polls show that half the population actually think socialism is a good idea. Maybe we should believe those polls after all?