One Year of Obama
Barack Obama has now been in office for over a year, and, given the heightened expectations around his ‘Hope and Change’ rhetoric, it is not surprising to find his presidency falling short of expectations. I’m going to leave aside the hysterical criticism of Obama from the rabid right – these people think anybody to the left of Ronald Reagan is a socialist, and just cannot get over the fact that a Black Democrat is president. No, there are more realistic reasons for opposing Obama than those offered by right-wing conspiracy theorists.
Obama’s commitment to sending more troops to Afghanistan was a blow to those on the left who had faith in him. It was, however, hardly a betrayal, as he had constantly said he would do so during his election campaign. Although Obama seems to have genuinely opposed the Iraq war from the beginning (unlike most of the Democrats in Congress, who voted for it at the time), in his debates with John McCain he criticised it not on principle, but because it was the ‘wrong war,’ distracting the US from what, presumably, is the ‘right war’ in Afghanistan. What is more worrying is the depth of Obama’s commitment to the ‘right war’. The 30,000 troops he committed late last year was the MAXIMUM number recommended by the generals. In other words, Obama is almost more militaristic than the military. Since Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize last October, the US military presence Afghanistan has become bigger than that in Iraq.
Obama is also moving to the right on the economy. The recession forced him to break long-standing free-market taboos by pumping money into the economy, which was a welcome step. However, in his State of the Union address in January he promised a spending freeze and was positively Thatcheresque in his praise of small businesses as the key to job creation.
Obama’s biggest failure, however, is in healthcare reform. Despite the claims made by Republicans that they are a Trojan Horse for socialism, Obama’s proposals are incredibly modest, focusing on reform of the private health insurance companies, rather than the creation of an NHS-style comprehensive public system. Even these cautious reforms have been watered down by conservative Democrats in Congress; the House of Representatives passed an amendment effectively banning abortion from being paid for by health insurance, while the Senate removed the idea of the ‘public option’, a government-run scheme that would compete with (but not replace) private health insurance. What is left of the ‘reforms’ might even make the system worse, as the 40 million Americans currently uninsured will be mandated to buy insurance through the very private companies that are the cause of the whole mess that is U.S. health ‘care’.
Obama and the Democrats have proceeding with amazing caution for a party that controls the presidency and has huge majorities in both houses of Congress. From day one, Obama has preached ‘bipartisanship’, despite the fact that the Republicans have vowed to do everything they can to disrupt his agenda. Their tactics of using delaying measures in Congress alongside corporate-funded, fake-grass-roots demonstrations have been remarkably effective. Rather than respond by mobilizing their own supporters, the Democrats have obsessed about parliamentary procedure, and attempt to smooth-talk the mythical ‘moderate’ Republicans into voting for reform by removing any measures that might offend the big insurance companies.
It need not have been this way. Obama swept to victory in 2008 on a wave of enthusiasm and the hard work put in by a movement of new, young activists. Some people, such as Michael Moore and err… me, wrongly believed that this movement might take on its own momentum, and push Obama to the left despite himself. What we underestimated was how far ‘Obama the movement’ was a top-down affair with the sole aim of getting Obama elected. It was demobilized as soon as he was in the White House, apart from the odd mass email from HQ urging supporters to write to their congressman. Also demobilized was any kind of independent movement that might have held Obama’s feet to the fire. The anti-war movement, already divided, was undermined when the pro-Democrat section decided to pack up for the duration of the election and put all its hopes in an Obama presidency. This strategy has been repaid in drone attacks and civilian deaths in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
As has been the case throughout U.S. history, the real movements for change are coming from outside the Democratic Party. Last year’s massive march in Washington for same-sex marriage rights was mobilized by a coalition of grassroots organizations, including socialists, and was opposed by Democratic politicians and even the mainstream gay rights organizations until they realized they could not stop it. And it had Lady Gaga as a speaker, which is something the Christian Right will never have.