Barack Obama hardly represents a rampart against Republican extremism, as some on the left still maintain.
When in March a reporter asked an advisor of Mitt Romney if the Republican presidential candidate was not tacking too far to the right in the primaries to win the presidential election, Eric Fehrnstrom replied that the post-primary campaign would be “like Etch a Sketch – you can shake it up and we start all over again”.
Fehrnstrom spoke on behalf of a candidate whose political career has depended heavily on the use of the above-named drawing toy with an erasable screen. To capture the Republican nomination, he had already morphed from the ‘moderate’ Republican governor of liberal Massachusetts into the self-described “severe conservative” playing for the allegiance of the party’s far-right base.
Now, for the three televised presidential debates held in October, the nominee shape-shifted yet again. Gone was the Tea Party firebrand, for whom refusing to rescind Bush’s tax cuts for the rich was a matter of rock-bottom principle; in his place on the platform stood a Romney anxious to assure a viewing audience of nearly 70 million (in language vague enough to avoid reneging on his earlier pledge) that the top 5% will continue as now to pay 60% of federal income taxes under his plan.
In place of the man who had praised as a model for the nation Arizona’s ‘stop and frisk’ law, permitting police to detain anyone suspected of being an illegal alien and demand proof of citizenship, stood a candidate who emphasised that he had no wish to round up aliens, and even thought that the more worthy among them should have a way to become citizens. The candidate who had earlier spoken of a possible unilateral nuclear strike against Iran now affirmed his commitment to “peaceful and diplomatic means”, at least to begin with. And, instead of repeating his original criticism of Obama for setting a withdrawal date from Afghanistan, Romney now affirmed his intention, if elected, to abide firmly by the scheduled 2014 departure deadline.
The newly unveiled moderate Mitt put himself forward as the saviour of a middle class, “crushed during the last four years” of the Obama administration, which, he said, offers nothing but more of the same in a second term. He reiterated his commitment to reducing the federal deficit and promised to create 12 million new jobs. Apart from getting tough on Chinese “currency manipulation” and drilling for more oil on federal lands, he was vague on specific means to these ends. But he asked the American people to trust that his decades as a successful CEO have given him the know-how to get the job done.
Taken aback by the new Romney, and perhaps a little groggy from the mountain altitude of the first debate venue of Denver, Colorado, Obama turned in a semi-comatose performance, which cost him dearly in the opinion polls. By the second debate, however, he seemed to have regained his composure (though not his wide polling-number lead). There, he sounded the note that he has struck repeatedly on the campaign trail ever since, and hopes will carry him through to the election: pointing out the yawning discrepancies between Romney’s currently proclaimed softer positions and his ‘radical’ utterances of just a few months, or even weeks, before. Obama has given a name to his opponent’s condition. He calls it “Romnesia”.
To shore up the crucial women’s vote, Obama never ceases to remind audiences of Romney’s earlier statement that he would be happy to sign any bill outlawing abortion, or that he favours (or until recently favoured) leaving the decision about whether to cover contraceptive care in the hands of the private employers who pay health-benefit premiums for their employees. Nor does he cease to remind Latino voters of Romney’s support for the Arizona ‘Show me your papers’ anti-immigrant law.
And, given Romney’s role as finance capitalist and political spokesmen for his class, Obama can hardly avoid a few jabs at his view that the main answer to the country’s economic woes is to help the wealthy and the corporations even more. But the mild class content that has forced its way into Obama’s stump speech – “The rich should pay their fair share of taxes” – is usually accompanied by declarations of fealty to free enterprise.
Matter of degree
Moreover, there is a bleakness at the heart of Obama’s election effort. The slogans of “hope” and “change” that electrified his followers in 2008 after four years under Bush would be absurdly out of place in 2012. During his first four years in office, the president has shown himself to be not the crusading reformer most of his supporters imagined (contrary to the evidence) that they were voting for, but a right-centrist bourgeois politician.
His multi-billion-dollar bailout of the banks at public expense can hardly be forgotten easily. His signature reform initiative, the health insurance scheme now known as Obamacare, actually consolidated the grip of private-insurance profiteers on the medical industry. The exceptions, loopholes and ambiguities of his party’s attempt to rein in financial speculation, the Dodd-Frank Bill, greatly weaken the restrictions it places on Wall Street swindlers. This record makes it amply clear that any reform efforts to come out of a second Obama term will, like those of the first, strain to stay within the limits of acceptability laid down by corporate power, even though Wall Street will denounce such reforms as steps toward socialism anyway. Obama’s attempts to undo some of the grosser inequities of the tax code have been abandoned time and again to achieve a legislative compromise with Congressional Republicans.
Thus Obama stands before the electorate with little in the way of inspiration. The ‘progressive’ achievements he touts – the Lily Ledbetter ‘fair pay’ act, making it easier for women to sue over pay inequities in the workplace; his decision to allow gays to serve openly in the military; and his personal acceptance of gay marriage – seem inadequate in relation to the mass joblessness, underemployment and low wages that are foremost in the mind of the electorate. To these deep worries, Obama offers answers that ring hollow. He promises no new government stimulus of any kind, and his emphasis on expanded training for “the skilled jobs of tomorrow” ignores what everyone knows: that there are not, nor will there be, enough of these jobs to absorb even the university-educated young now entering the job market under mountains of debt.
So, as Romney argues that a second Obama term will mean that the next four years will be as bad as the last four, the incumbent, bereft of any big ideas or arresting slogans for the future, and unable to argue that he will implement any major changes after having failed to do so when he had the chance, can only reply that things were not so bad as all that during his first term – and will get even worse under Romney.
But, for the mass of people, things will get worse under Obama too. It is only a matter of degree. The first major crisis of a second Obama term would take place at the end of November, when Congress must once again consider voting to raise the government debt ceiling. The stand-off between the two parties that occurred when Congress last took up this matter in the summer of 2011 resulted in a compromise by which a bipartisan committee of lawmakers must either come up with a plan for deficit reduction or face automatic cuts (‘sequestration’) in January, including reductions in military spending, which neither party really wants. To avoid going over the ‘fiscal cliff’, as the automatic cuts are called, Obama is already talking once again about a “grand bargain” with the Republicans, which would include “entitlement reform” – most likely decreases in social security and/or Medicare.
A foretaste of what labour can look forward to in a second Obama term was provided in Chicago. The city’s recently elected mayor, Rahm Emanuel, previously served in the White House as the president’s chief of staff. In Chicago, he intensified the war against teachers’ unions being carried out by the ruling class throughout the country with the support of Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan. In contract negotiations, Emanuel sought to lengthen the school day, replace teachers’ automatic pay increases by ‘merit pay’, based largely on student performance on standardised tests, and make teachers redundant without regard to seniority from the many schools he plans to close. The teachers, however, had earlier replaced the Democrat-loyal, concession-prone leadership of their union with a more militant reform group (the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or Core). In contrast to the bureaucratic methods of most union officials, Core mobilised the rank and file of the union and reached out to parents and community organisations in preparation for the seven-day strike that closed the schools and made national headlines in September. Public opinion in Chicago favoured the strikers.
The result was a concessionary contract (the school day was lengthened, school closures were not stopped, and seniority in redundancies remained unprotected) that in a period of greater labour strength would have been considered a defeat. But perhaps the most significant aspect of the strike was that – unlike the outcome of many recent union struggles – defeat was less than total. The union forced the withdrawal of certain give-back demands (for a merit pay system) and the dilution of others (only 30% of teacher evaluations, as opposed to the 45% originally demanded, will be based on standardised student tests), thus demonstrating to its members, and workers throughout the country, that striking is not futile. But, however one judges the outcome, there could be no doubt in the minds of the strikers concerning the commitment of the Obama administration to the bipartisan ruling class policies of deepening austerity and assaults on workers.
‘National security state’
If austerity is one pillar of the ruling class programme being pursued by both parties, the other is the retrenchment of the American empire around the world. Both these objectives require the strengthening of the ‘national security state’. And, in this area, the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize has made the considerable efforts of George W Bush seem modest by comparison.
Figuring prominently in the final presidential debate on foreign policy was the prospect of military intervention against Iran following the elections – either by the US directly or by Israel with US approval. Both candidates sought to outdo each other in proclaiming their support for the Zionist state. Regarding Iran, Obama pointedly pledged to “keep all options on the table”. Despite Romney’s effort to appear more decisive and belligerent than Obama, it soon became apparent to most commentators that little divided the two candidates where foreign policy is concerned. As Obama quipped to his opponent, “Governor, you’re saying the same things as us, but you’d say them louder.”
As a result of the failure of US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama seeks to place greater emphasis on remote, high-tech warfare. His sixfold expansion of US drone strikes in the Pakistan tribal areas since taking over from Bush, with a corresponding fivefold increase in (mostly civilian) deaths, are well known, along with the private ‘kill list’ from which the president personally orders the lethal strikes. So too is his government’s vindictiveness toward Bradley Manning and Julian Assange for piercing the veil behind which the empire conducts its military and diplomatic operations.
But subtending these more visible actions is a vast expansion in secrecy, surveillance and repression, abroad and at home. In 2011, 70 million government documents were ordered classified, 40% more than in the previous year. The government now hires 30,000 people to listen in on the private telephone conversations of Americans, and has built a $2 billion facility in Bluffdale, Utah for storing the data thus gathered. The Obama administration pushed through Congress the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which permits the government to imprison anyone, including US citizens, for an indeterminate length of time on suspicion of terrorism, in blatant violation of the right of habeas corpus guaranteed in the fifth amendment to the constitution.
The administration has also authorised the assassination of anyone living abroad said to be participating in terrorist activities, again including US citizens, even though they are not directly involved in armed combat. The most famous target of this policy was Anwar al-Awlaki, a self-exiled American citizen who made propaganda videos for al Qa’eda, and was accused, without public proof, of participating in plotting the 9/11 attack. Al-Awlaki was killed in Yemen by a US drone strike. His 16-year-old son was also killed in another drone strike two weeks later. No one alleged that the Denver-born high-school student was involved in terrorist activity.
Although Obama failed to keep his election promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, and is proceeding with military trials of those held there, he seems inclined to replace the whole cumbersome process of detention, ‘secret rendition’ and military tribunals with the simpler expedient of assassination. Quoting theWashington Post, left-liberal columnist Glenn Greenwald reports that a government agency called the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) has developed what it calls a “disposition matrix”. According to Greenwald, “One of its purposes is ‘to augment’ the ‘separate but overlapping kill lists’ maintained by the CIA and the Pentagon: to serve, in other words, as the centralised clearing house for determining who will be executed without due process, based upon how one fits into the executive branch’s ‘matrix’.” He adds: “… the NCTC operates a gigantic data-mining operation, in which all sorts of information about innocent Americans is systematically monitored, stored and analysed. This includes ‘records from law enforcement investigations, health information, employment history, travel and student records …’ In other words, the NCTC – now vested with the power to determine the proper ‘disposition’ of terrorist suspects – is the same agency that is at the centre of the ubiquitous, unaccountable surveillance state aimed at American citizens” (Common Dreams October 24).
No Republican or Tea Party supporter, for all their talk about the encroachments of “big government”, has to our knowledge uttered a peep of protest about these developments. And no-one who has been on the receiving end of nationally coordinated efforts to remove Occupy encampments from public squares, or stepped-up police harassment of leftwing protestors, will believe that the government will limit itself, in a period of imperial decline and mass austerity, to deploying this repressive apparatus against Islamic terrorists.
Hopes that disappointment in Obama would lead to a leftward break with the Democratic Party have thus far been unrealised. The Occupy movement had little sympathy for Obama. But its stalwarts consider themselves above not only Democratic politics, but politics in general. This abstentionism left Occupy unprotected against the inevitable efforts to channel the energies it had released into electoral support for the party of the ‘lesser evil’. Few among Occupy’s quasi-anarchist core will vote for the Democrats, but almost none were able to conduct the active anti-Democratic propaganda effort that any shift to the left would require.
Hence, on a left spectrum bounded on one end by liberalism and on the other by populist radicalism and socialism, with many indistinct hues in between, little has changed since 2008. The two principal candidates running to the left of the Democrats, Jill Stein of the Green Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party, are local politicians virtually unknown outside their states (Massachusetts and Utah respectively).The anti-Obama minority clustered around the webzine, Counterpunch, has stuck to its guns. The other two left media mainstays – Amy Goodman’s syndicated television and radio programme, ‘Democracy Now!’ and the Pacifica radio network – remain, as before, non-committal.
On the rest of what calls itself the left, lesser-evilism is rampant. In the 2000 presidential elections, the pages of the country’s leading left-liberal magazine, The Nation, hosted a lively debate between the supporters of the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, and partisans of the Green Party’s Ralph Nader. But all the then-Naderites have since been purged, and, with the death in July of the last columnist to advocate an independent politics of the left, Alexander Cockburn, the magazine is drably homogeneous.
A special election issue, titled ‘Why Obama?’ (October 22), contains contributions from 10 writers, all of whom advocate critical support for the president, arguing only about just how critical one should be. The authors can hardly make their case on the basis of the naive hopes of 2008, so completely disappointed in the four years since. They can only argue on the basis of fear of Romney and the Republicans, heightened by the party’s right-extremist dérivé. They provide a pristine example of what Cockburn dubbed the “Zyklon C” approach to politics: resisting the use of Zyklon B (the gas used by the Nazis in the death chamber of Auschwitz) will only result in the deployment of an even more lethal gas called Zyklon C.
Perhaps the most comprehensive Zyklon C manifesto was issued over the summer by a long-time social democrat, Bill Fletcher, and a former Students for a Democratic Society leader and Maoist, Carl Davidson, who is now with the National Committees of Correspondence, a rightward split from the Communist Party. The article is entitled, ‘The 2012 elections have little to do with Obama’s record … which is why we are voting for him’. The best thing about the article is its acknowledgement that the position of the left represents a “Groundhog Day” scenario – alluding to the movie in which the protagonist, played by Bill Murray, finds himself trapped in a perpetual February 2. What they forget to add is that lesser-evilists like themselves are a predictable part of the scenario.
Fletcher and Davidson state that the 2012 elections are “unlike anything that any of us can remember”, and will be “one of the most … critical elections in recent history”. The authors were, however, saying similar things during the elections of 2004 and 2008, in which both also urged support for the Democrats.
The arguments of Fletcher and Davidson boil down to alarmism over the Republican Party, which they claim has been captured by the forces of “revenge-seeking white supremacy”, bent upon resisting the political influence of the country’s soon-to-be non-white majority, even to the point of severely curtailing electoral democracy. They argue further that Barack Obama, regardless of his political record, has become a hate symbol for these forces. His re-election would therefore represent a defeat for white revanchism, which would give “progressive forces” a “breathing space” in which to build their strength.
The problem with this line of argument is its tendency to view the racial question in isolation from the class dynamics with which it is interwoven and to which, in the end, it is subordinate. The ugly racist undercurrent in the Tea Party is certainly real enough. But so also is the fact that the racial (and misogynist) insults that regularly arise from the movement’s depths are a source of embarrassment to its leaders, who routinely apologise and have made a conscious attempt to appropriate the symbols and rhetoric of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Open, vulgar racism may still be alive and well in the south and beyond, but, despite the temptation to pander to these sentiments at election time, there is a recognition amongst national Republican political operatives that the programme of white revanchism, given an eventual non-white majority, could only mean the construction of a neo-apartheid state, which cannot be sold to the electorate, and therefore ultimately not to the ruling class, as the preferred way of pursuing their principal agenda of austerity.
And this agenda is one in which the Democratic leadership shares. It is true that the Republicans, because their base includes far fewer of the victims of austerity, are less constrained than the Democrats about pushing it. But the Democrats are hardly a rampart against Republican reaction. A victory for Obama and Democratic Congressional candidates will not be the electoral equivalent of the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, affording the working class and unemployed “breathing space”, as Fletcher and Davidson think. It is rather more akin to the Munich Pact, opening the way for a new round of retreats before the Republicans, and Democratic-sponsored measures to weaken social programmes and worker rights, encouraging even bolder rightwing thrusts.
It may be true, as Fletcher and Davidson aver, that merely not voting for the Democrats, or voting for a protest candidate, is hardly a political strategy. Voting for them, however is not a strategy either, but a resigned acceptance of the status quo. Refusing to vote for the lesser evil is at least the beginning of the wisdom required to exit Groundhog Day.
Obama’s lacklustre performance in the first presidential debate was not only the result of the mountain altitudes in which it took place. What the country perhaps glimpsed was the real Obama, lacking the will to do battle with the Republicans, and profoundly bored with the whole adversarial charade (he even went so far as to say that he and Romney had the same essential views on social security). That performance cost the president what was till then a commanding lead in the opinion polls, and the contest has become much closer. Some opinion samplings even show Romney with a slight advantage.
The president is not elected by direct popular suffrage, but the Electoral College, whose delegates are apportioned according to the population of the state, and in which the candidate with the majority in each state gets all of its delegate votes. The popular vote in solidly Republican or Democratic states is therefore irrelevant, having been figured into electoral calculations from the start. The outcome therefore hinges on a few ‘swing states’, the most important in this election being Ohio, where both contenders are campaigning heavily. Despite the evening out of opinion polls, the arithmetic of the Electoral College still favours Obama only a few days before November 6.
An Obama victory will surely cause great consternation in Republican ranks, and a ripple or two in the ruling class. Certain factions will be driven even further to the right. But perhaps others will become convinced that racial innuendo and open contempt for the majority are no way to run a country or an empire. It would be wrong to be too confident in the rationality of the bourgeoisie, but we shall see. And perhaps the inevitable rightward trajectory of a second Obama presidency may yet convince the enemies of the ruling class that Obama is, in the words of Black Agenda Report editor, Glen Ford, not so much the lesser evil as the more effective one.