Some Thoughts on Obama
Friends around the world keep asking me questions. Are you excited? What do you think of Obama? Others are simply congratulating me. And I must say, it was a thrilling moment.
As a teenager, in 1984, I volunteered for the Mondale/Ferraro campaign, mostly pushing bumper stickers. An anti-nuclear group was doing this, in the belief that Mondale would be less likely to cause Armageddon. I grew up in an overwhelmingly white, Republican town. I was a news junky from an early age, though, and politically active in one way or another. Of the Democratic candidates my favorite was Jesse Jackson, but looking around me I reasoned he had a slim chance of getting elected.
As an adult, living in urban areas all over the US, I saw little to dispel this illusion. There were more African-Americans getting elected to political office, but usually we were talking about mayors of majority-Black cities or Congresswomen from hotbeds of progressivism like Berkeley. But here I was, hanging out with my toddler, listening to my favorite local band, the Pagan Jug Band, sitting in a pub in Portland, hearing that Barack Obama has been elected President.
My initial reaction was that of Jesse's. I got a lump in my throat, and tears came to my eyes, thinking about the insanity of all the suffering that has gone down for so many centuries, the homes, dreams, and bodies broken by slavery and racism. And in fact until very recently, on the news broadcasts when they would mention the number of Black people in the Congress, in order to be factually accurate they always had to include the caveat, "since Reconstruction." More than that is rarely said about this ten-year period of Union Army occupation that allowed something approximating democracy, and even serious land redistribution, to exist in the South, before the Union withdrew and the South was plunged into at least a century of Apartheid rule.
Whether South or North, the prisons are filled with mostly dark-skinned people from places where you can graduate from high school without having learned how to read, where you can get asthma from breathing the air, where the police shoot first and ask questions later. They're in prison, but Barack Obama's not, he's on the TV giving a humble victory speech, quoting Lincoln. And this crowd of mostly young white people around me at the pub are all cheering at the TV screen, shouting his name, laughing, crying, and drinking. I'm pretty sure they all voted for him. Or if some of them were slacking too much to get around to it, they would have voted for him.
I had just gone there to hear the music, but it turned into a spontaneous Obama party, at that pub and at pubs and sidewalks and streets in cities all across the US, and apparently in other parts of the world as well. I remember being near the front of a march of tens of thousands of people back in 1985 or so, seeing Jesse Jackson at the front of the march with many of his volunteers lining the marchers, all wearing football-style shirts that read "88" on them, for his next Presidential campaign effort. I remember seeing on the faces and the placards of this mostly white crowd of marchers, an admiration and affection for the man at the front of the march, and I was wishing the whole country could be more like this crowd. And I feel so gratified that all the people talking about the so-called Bradley effect were wrong, that a majority of our eligible voters (not counting those millions of ineligible felons) would really end up voting for Obama.
There was one black-clad young man from Olympia who happened to be at the crowded pub, which was more crowded than I had ever seen it before. He bummed a light from me and started to talk. "This is great, you know, but I just can't help but think, 'meanwhile, in Afghanistan...'"
Every party needs a spoiler, and here he was. Too cynical to be entirely swept up in the moment, he was worried about the possibility that Obama might actually follow through with his campaign promises and send more troops to Afghanistan. And then over the past few days, the news gets more and more grim. Rahm Emanuel, a zealous supporter of Israeli Apartheid for Secretary of State. Larry Summers, Clinton's chief advocate for the World Trade Organization and deregulation of the financial sector, is being suggested as an economic advisor. Joe Biden, who voted for the war in Iraq, is already his VP.
Obama is surrounding himself with folks from Bill Clinton's administration. I remember those eight years well, I was protesting his policies the whole time. Welfare was reformed and social spending was gutted even more. The prisons became even more crowded with nonviolent drug offenders. The sanctions and ongoing bombing campaign in Iraq that happened on Clinton's watch killed hundreds of thousands of children, and his Secretary of State said the price was worth it. NAFTA was passed and then the WTO was formed, all with Clinton's blessings. These trade deals that Clinton and most of his party supported plunged millions of people around the world into poverty and an early death. Yugoslavia and Iraq will glow for thousands of years because of the nuclear waste littering the land that fell during the Clinton years.
Of course, Clinton inherited the mess in Iraq, and Clinton certainly did not invent neoliberal economics, nor did Clinton start the process of the de-industrialization of the US, the growth of Mexican sweatshops, or the support of the death squad regime in Colombia. But he embraced all of that, and much, much more.
On the other hand, in previous generations, things were different. Before the export of America's manufacturing base, before all the free trade agreements, before real wages in the US lost half their value, the US was run by liberals. Liberals like FDR and Nixon. Nixon? Yes, well, I studied economics a little, and social spending in the US actually continued to increase from the time of FDR to the time of Nixon. It was under Nixon that the EPA, the NEA and other such institutions were born. It was after Nixon that the budget-cutting began in earnest. From FDR to Nixon, whether the administration was Democratic or Republican, social spending increased. Since Nixon, under Democratic and Republican administrations, social spending has decreased.
There have, of course, been variations. FDR enthusiastically bombed Japan into the stone age, killing millions of innocents. Eisenhower was a Republican president, he preferred to bomb Koreans and Vietnamese. Johnson bombed them a lot more, killing millions. Nixon did it, too, of course. All along the way, by and large, there was overwhelming bipartisan support for these policies. Not among the population, but among the elite who rule it.
Several days ago I was exchanging email messages about the state of the world with my good friend Terry Flynn, a professor of economics and the social sciences at Western Connecticut State University. In one email he wrote, "a damn interesting time. The hegemon is rocked. I'm sure we're witnessing a re-configuration of the global order on par with the post-WW2 period." I asked what kind of reconfiguration did he see happening, and this was his eloquent reply:
It's a shift from one hegemonic era to another. The U.S. took over from the U.K. after the war. But our time is up. Don't know which country or alliance will dominate in the next cycle. The major contenders are China and India. But Russia is working very hard to leverage its massive geopolitical presence, natural resources, and techno-military culture, despite huge demographic deficits in comparison with the former countries. Russia has Europe by the balls due to, e.g., Germany's utter dependency on Russian natural gas. And it's far superior to India and China in many important ways. It's still a fucking wreck in terms of law and economic and social policies. But this whole transition is probably a 20 year affair. I just think that the catastrophic U.S. response to 9/11 and the current financial crisis push the regime change hard against the U.S.
If Obama wins the election, he might very well be a fine negotiator for the new, diminished role for this country. He can sell it as enlightened internationalism, not the decline of the American Empire. Of course, the patriots here will insist on waving the flag and encouraging the barbarians to bring it on. They won't go down without a fight. However, the U.S. simply can't afford to sustain its customary role. And there's no reason that China will continue to lend money for us to do so.
Anyway, that's a taste of my thinking on this matter. Oh, by the way, I don't for one minute expect that the new regime will be any kinder to the working classes. They'll still be global capitalists with a lust for power. In principle, no better or worse than the present crew. But as our country is diminished we might start talking seriously about peace and environmental degradation, etc. That could be ironic.
The Democrats have gotten more corporate donations than the Republicans in this last election cycle. The corporate elite has mostly decided that the Dems are better for business now. Better to send them in to clean up the mess. Obama is most definitely his own man, and an extremely intelligent, eloquent, youthful, good-looking and well-organized one at that. He has a brilliant background in community organizing and a first-hand familiarity with reality, the realities, for starters, of poverty, racism and US foreign policy -- those realities that, among others, so desperately need to be changed. Not only is he his own man, but he's the man of the people, of so many people, who so enthusiastically have supported his campaign, going door to door as part of his well-oiled campaign machine, giving him hundreds of millions of dollars in small donations, packing stadiums around the country and around the world, and waiting in line for hours to vote for him in the polls.
But he is also the man of the corporations, of the banks, of the insurance industry, who have funded his campaign massively, and are expecting a dividend for their investments. And they're getting it already, in the form of the appointment of those "liberals" (whatever that means) who supported Clinton's wars, sanctions and neoliberal economic reforms.
Obama has promised to raise taxes on the rich back to what they were under Clinton. I haven't carefully studied the numbers, but I believe we are talking about increasing the income tax on anything above $100,000 from 35% to 38%. Nobody is talking about returning it to what it was when the Progressive Income Tax was formed -- 90%. He is talking about taking soldiers out of Iraq and sending them to Afghanistan -- not bringing them all home and cutting military spending by 90%, in line with international norms, and doing away with this rapacious empire. He is talking about the middle class, and sure, he had to do that to get elected, but when does he ever talk about the poor, the imprisoned millions, the thousands of homeless walking cadavers haunting the streets of every major American city? Every politician talks about building schools, but what about free education through graduate school like they have in most European countries?
No, the scope of debate is far more limited than that. It is a scope defined by that increasingly narrow grey area in between "conservative" and "liberal." There are distinctions, some of them important. That 3% tax increase will do good things for many people, I hope. Perhaps we won't start any new wars, I don't know. Perhaps we'll withdraw from Iraq, but I'll bet no reparations for what we've done there will be forthcoming. Perhaps there will be no new wars on our civil liberties in the next few years, but I'll bet the prison population will not get much smaller.
I hope I'm wrong. But if I am to be proven wrong and there are to be serious changes in the welfare of people in the US and around the world, it will only be as a result of a popular uprising of people calling for a real New Deal for the 21st century, an end to the empire, housing, health care and education for all, and so on. Because even if Obama secretly wants all of these things, as so many of us would desperately like to believe, he's going to need plenty of popular pressure to point to if any of these things are going to become reality. If he really is the socialist wealth redistributor his opponents said he is, he's going to need massive popular support just to avoid being impeached for treason by those corporate stooges who dominate both parties in the Congress.
And if, on the other hand, he really believes his own campaign promises of meager tax increases for the rich, raising the salaries of teachers a bit, fighting terrorism, passing more free trade agreements, being Israel's best friend, and so on, then what we have in store is another Democratic administration. Different kind of like Starbucks is different from McDonald's -- they both pay poverty wages and feed you shit, but Starbucks includes health insurance.
David Rovics is a singer/songwriter and unashamed socialist based in Portland, Oregon.