Hoping For Change: Obama And The Limits Of Elections
In the minutes after Barack Obama’s victory was announced in 2008 an elated woman in a bar on the south side of Chicago turned to me and shouted: ‘My man’s in Afghanistan. He’s coming home.’ Given the euphoria of the night I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Obama had explicitly said the war would be continuing. If her man was coming home, it would be no thanks to the new president.
As Obama stands for re-election it is important for people to own their disappointment. Rhetorically, at least, he projected a far more dynamic, idealistic and populist campaign than the one he was actually running. As the community organiser-cum-presidential candidate, he managed to simulate the energy and vision of a movement and then super-impose it onto a tightly run, top-down presidential campaign bid.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the manner in which he sought to harness the symbolic resonance of his race while simultaneously denying its political significance: at one and the same time posing as a direct legatee of the civil rights movement and little more than a distant relative. But when it came to matters of substance, far from raising expectations too high he actually set them quite low. He stood on a moderate platform in the middle of an economic crisis that demanded drastic action. At the very moment he might have extracted enduring and far-reaching concessions from the banking industry he not only flinched but went out of his way to rescue it.
A few months into his presidency he called the bankers to a meeting to tell them: ‘I’m not out there to go after you, I’m protecting you.’ As one of them told Ron Suskind in The Confidence Men, ‘The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.’
Yet those who believed he would achieve nothing must own their own assessment also. In his first term he has appointed two female supreme court justices, one of whom is the first Latina on the bench, withdrawn combat troops from Iraq, announced a date for withdrawal from Afghanistan and introduced a healthcare reform – however tepid. That’s a more impressive record than any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson.
After re-reading The God That Failed, a book in which six prominent ex-Marxists relate their disillusionment with communism, the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said expressed his irritation at what seemed like a show trial for a straw man: ‘Why as an intellectual did you believe in a god anyway? And besides, who gave you the right to imagine that your early belief and later disenchantment were so important?’
To concentrate so wholly on Obama, as if he exists in a vacuum, is to succumb to the reactionary notion that history is made by ‘great men’ rather than the far more complex interaction of people, time, place and power. The ire is trained on one man and one alone. Not a system, institution or kaleidoscope of forces but Obama. If he were better, things would be different. If he tried harder, he could succeed. Such charges betray a devotion to a man and reverence for an office that is indecent in a democracy and incompatible with left politics.
For his limitations have always been apparent, not only in his politics but in the alignment of forces and institutions in which both he and the office he occupies are embedded. A leader elected in a winner-takes-all voting system where both main parties are sustained by corporate financing, the congressional districts are openly gerrymandered and 40 per cent of the upper chamber can block anything is never going to be a benign vehicle for radical reform.
That is not making excuses for Obama’s shortcomings. He does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. He’s the president of the most powerful country in the world. He has enough benefits already. Meanwhile, those most likely to have elected him – blacks, Latinos and the young – are most likely to have fared the worst under him.
Unemployment for 18 to 19 year olds is 23.5 per cent; for those aged 20 to 24 it’s significantly lower at 12.9 per cent but still significantly higher than the national rate of 8.2 per cent. The economic gap between blacks and whites has actually widened under the nation’s first black president, who has also overseen an unprecedented rate of deportations. And while these groups are doing particularly badly, few beyond the very rich are doing well. A report earlier this year revealed that between 2007 and 2010 the median US family lost a generation of wealth. And that’s before we get to his kill list, Guantanamo Bay and drone attacks – to name but a few foreign policy horrors.
No appraisal of Obama’s record is credible beyond the confines of what is possible within the US electoral system. Virtually every enduring progressive development in US politics since the second world war has been sparked either by massive mobilisations outside of electoral politics that have forced politicians to respond or through the courts. Obama’s first term has provided a painful lesson in the distinction between elections, politics and power.
Elections change personnel; politics changes agendas; power is the means by which those agendas are put into action. Getting Obama into the White House was the beginning of a process, not the end. The leap, by many on the left, from disenchantment to accusations of betrayal owes more to emotional and cognitive dissonance than political critique or strategic intervention. His victory, put simply, was the most progressive viable outcome of the 2008 elections – which illustrates not his left credentials but the severe limitations of US electoralism.
From the outset there were many attempts to put pressure on Obama – particularly from Latino activists seeking immigration reform, gay activists campaigning for marriage equality and trade unions looking to restore security and wages that have been effectively stagnant over the past 40 years. But these forces did not crystallise and converge into an effective critical mass until late last year under the broad tent of Occupy Wall Street. OWS managed to shift the national conversation from small government to inequality and give popular voice to the case for redistribution. Taking place almost without reference to electoral politics – beyond acting as a focus for anger at the huge amounts of money and lobbyist influence that dominate US elections – it diverted attention from questions about Obama’s left authenticity to the structural issues blighting US society. In this respect Occupy worked.
Polls showed that almost twice as many Americans agreed with Occupy’s aims as disagreed. Another poll, released in December by the independent Pew research group, revealed that 77 per cent of Americans believe there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and corporations, while those who believed ‘most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard’ was at its lowest point since the question was first put in 1994.
In his address to the Republican Governors Association in December, rightwing pollster Frank Luntz said: ‘The public … still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we’ve got a problem.’
This not only put the right on the back foot but provided considerable space to the left of the Democratic Party that the White House was forced to take notice of. Obama did not embrace the OWS agenda – beyond the demand for more progressive taxation, which was in any case part of his 2008 platform – but he has repositioned himself in the wake of it. Seeing an active and impatient constituency to his left he has been forced to respond in ways both rhetorical and substantial.
Having remained silent on the issue of race for most of his tenure, he felt the need to address the murder of Trayvon Martin, a black unarmed teenager shot dead by a Latino vigilante in Florida who was not even arrested, let alone charged, for several weeks. ‘If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,’ said Obama. ‘I think [Trayvon’s parents] are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.’
A few months later, after years of claiming he was evolving on the issue of gay marriage, he expressed his support for it. He used the power of his office to halt the deportation of thousands of young undocumented immigrants. In an executive order he ruled that young immigrants who arrived in the US illegally before age 16 and spent at least five continuous years here would be allowed to stay and apply for work permits if they had no criminal history and met other criteria, such as graduating from high school or serving honourably in the military.
All three of these acts carried significant risk in an election year. All three he could have done at any time – Trayvon Martin wasn’t the first black person to be summarily executed in the past four years. But he felt he had to do them now to shore up a restless base and respond to the frustrations of those who put him in office.
All three, like his stimulus package, healthcare reform or new financial regulations, were inadequate. None compensates for the dead by drones in Pakistan, let alone the growing poverty at home during his tenure. For socialists the hope that emerged from Obama’s campaign was not in the candidate himself but the coalition of forces that made him and his victory possible. Those forces are still out there. Obama was never going to organise the left opposition himself. But when an effective left opposition has emerged, he has been forced to respond.