Ruling out unforeseen catastrophes, it is likely that Barack Obama will enjoy a second term. The scenario playing out is fairly close to the two-term Clinton presidency, another centre-clinging project that – in the fashion of Nixon’s famous trip to China – achieved traditional Republican goals as only a Democrat could. While Clinton could be ‘credited’ for a welfare reform that left single mothers vulnerable to marketplace vicissitudes, Obama’s ambitions are far greater: he is laying the groundwork for abandoning the New Deal-type safety net in the name of ‘reform’, even if his most ardent and self-deceiving supporters continue to hold out hope that he will live up to his promises.
The liberal establishment in the United States is having a tough time rallying the troops in this election cycle, however. In 2008 there were fond hopes that Obama could usher in a new New Deal to put the unemployed millions back to work, revive the American economy through a massive investment in green energy sources, and re-regulate an out-of-control financial industry.
It did not take long for these illusions to be smashed by the appointment of a number of former Goldman Sachs employees as economic advisors. Of course, those who studied the New Deal, rather than relying on the myths about it, understood that FDR started out by accommodating the rich. One of his first major pieces of legislation was the Economy Act of 1933, which cut federal spending by $243 million (equal to $4.2 billion today). When First World War veterans learned that their benefits had been sacrificed at the altar of fiscal responsibility, they rallied in Washington in the same spirit as those who occupy Wall Street today. Roosevelt only sponsored genuine reforms after the working class threatened to go beyond the boundaries of private property.
Obama has little incentive to follow Roosevelt’s example, in light of the major differences between the Great Depression and the Great Recession. The working class no longer has the leverage it had in the 1930s when the US was still heavily invested in manufacturing. Back then, a sit-down strike of auto or steel workers would make the business class take notice, but today workers might be intimidated by threats that a factory will move to another country or shut down altogether. Often the boss is only bluffing, but the stakes are much higher than in an average poker game.
The other important difference rests on the nature of the suffering of working people. In the 1930s, the problem was obviously massive unemployment, and lay-offs in a place like Detroit affected workers collectively. Workers tended to live near the factory, walk or take public transport to work, and hang out at the same bowling alleys, saloons or parks, so they tended to think in terms of joint action.
Today, workers are being crushed by debt, much more than joblessness, and are dispersed into suburban tract housing, far from the workplace. More importantly, someone in debt will tend to see himself or herself as an individual whose adversary is another individual at a bank or a collection agency. Going into debt often strikes people as a personal failing, and thus they blame themselves rather than larger political and economic forces.
Perhaps in an effort to cover his Left flank, Obama cast himself as a new Roosevelt – but not Franklin Delano. He announced that he would be the second coming of Theodore Roosevelt in a speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, the site of Roosevelt’s famous 1910 New Nationalism address. Framing himself as the scourge of the rich, Obama managed to pull the wool over the eyes of Steve Kornacki (of the liberal Salon) who gushed:
His embrace of defiant, populist messaging also represents a final, definitive break with the bipartisan-friendly political style that defined Obama’s rise to power and the first two-and-a-half years of his presidency.
Just two months later, Obama announced that he would be establishing a Super-PAC (political action committee) to compete with the Republicans. The Super-PAC is a way of funnelling millions of dollars to election campaigns from the super-rich. While the Republicans benefit from the Koch brothers’ largesse, the Democrats hope to feed at the trough of Wall Street hedge fund operators who have learned to distinguish the president’s deeds from his lofty rhetoric. As the Washington Post reported on 20 October, ‘Despite frosty relations with the titans of Wall Street, President Obama has still managed to raise far more money this year from the financial and banking sector than Mitt Romney or any other Republican presidential candidate, according to new fundraising data.’
Why would Wall Street back Obama when Republicans depict him as a socialist? The Washington Post cited an answer from one anonymous fat cat contributor: ‘it probably helps from a political perspective if he’s not seen as a Wall Street guy.’
It would seem that Wall Street has a much better handle on the president’s loyalties than the Black community, 96 per cent of which voted for him in the last election and 95 per cent of which still supports him. A New York Times article from October 2011 describes the faith that Black workers have in a man they see as one of their own:
Mr. Malik, 48, lost his job as a grading and landscape worker a year and a half ago, another victim of the housing bust. Since then, he has been searching for something, anything, to help make ends meet.
Yet, Mr. Malik, who is black, says he has every intention of again voting for President Obama next year. So does Bobby Hart, 46, a former construction worker here. And Dorothy Artis of Greensboro, N.C., who is looking for a job to help support her grandchildren while her daughter is deployed in Kuwait. And Larry Bennett, who worked for 27 years at Cooper Industries before he lost his job when his division moved out of state.
‘I don’t blame Obama,’ said Mr. Malik, who had never voted before 2008. ‘I don’t blame him at all.’
In February 2012 the unemployment rate for Black Americans was 14.1 per cent, compared to the overall rate of 8.3 per cent. While it is foolish to think in terms of conspiracies, Obama’s candidacy in 2008 certainly seems like a smart move for keeping a lid on Black discontent. For white America, it was a Great Recession, but the Black unemployment rate was only two points lower than that of the entire nation in 1931.
Up until this point, there have been very few Black leaders willing to openly criticise President Obama. The exception has been Union Theological Seminary’s Cornel West who described him as ‘the Black mascot of Wall Street’. At the time West was on tour with Tavis Smiley, a TV and radio talk show host who is equally critical of the president. As the election approaches, however, the pressure on these two men will mount. Smiley, in particular, has already felt the lash, having been dropped as the keynote speaker for a Martin Luther King Jr holiday luncheon in Peoria, Illinois: the local NAACP refused to have a guest speaker who didn’t support Obama’s re-election. As a result, Smiley, who lost out on a $37 500 speaker’s fee, might in future be persuaded to play ball.
In January, legendary singer and activist Harry Belafonte was a featured guest on Smiley’s PBS talk show. A segment that included this comment by Belafonte was deleted:
I am very cautious of the fact of those who thinks that he has some hidden agenda and that if only he could be given a second term for us to see the new light, new things will be revealed … I just don’t trust that. I don’t think that is a safe way, an accurate way to look at the scenario. I think that if there was the kind of moral compass serving Barack Obama in the way we had all hoped, the moral force would have helped him make choices. The absence of that force in his equations, the absence of that barometer to guide him when he has to make these decisions … are hugely complicated especially from the political perspective. He should have come to the table with things that I think would have helped us in this moment of crisis.
The show’s producer tried to minimise the importance of Belafonte’s comments being cut, claiming that ‘it was the least interesting part to be honest. A lot of people have been saying that [about Obama], Fox News says that every night’. Of course, it is a total fiction to argue that the ultra-Right Fox News network has ever been upset with Obama’s failure to help the Black community in a moment of crisis.
Perhaps the first sign of change is the outrage over the de facto lynching of seventeen-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed ‘neighbourhood watch’ vigilante. While walking back to his father’s girlfriend’s apartment in a gated community, Martin was accosted by Zimmerman for looking ‘suspicious’. This boiled down to wearing a hooded sweatshirt and having black skin. After Zimmerman fatally shot Martin, the cops let him go under a ‘Stand Your Ground’ law, versions of which exists in twenty-nine other states. In the name of self-defence, these laws allow racist vigilante attacks.
The case has galvanised Black America, prompting the Miami Heat basketball team to be photographed in hoodies. Former Black Panther and current Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush, who defeated Obama for that seat in 2000, donned a hoodie in the House of Representatives on 28 March to show solidarity with Trayvon Martin, an act that resulted in his removal from the floor.
The liberal establishment has used the case as a battering ram against an ultra-Right that has taken up Zimmerman’s cause. Obama made a statement that was characteristically noncommittal. He said that he would refrain from direct comment since the matter was under investigation by the Justice Department. But he added that he trusted Florida’s governor to conduct his own investigation and delivered a message to the dead youth’s parents: that if he had a son, the boy would look like Trayvon.
One imagines that the Black community in Florida does not share Obama’s faith in Governor Rick Scott who has distinguished himself by rescinding legislation that provided voting rights for ex-felons, a move that is prejudicial against the disproportionate number of Black people who have spent time in prison.
The Institute for Policy Research recently released a report that found half of Black youths between the age of sixteen and twenty-four were unemployed, compared to 20 per cent of whites. This staggering figure does not square with the relative quiescence of the affected population. But like a tank filled with gas, it is an explosion that can be ignited by a spark. If Trayvon Martin’s martyrdom finally precipitates a renaissance of Black activism, this would be a much bigger tribute to Martin Luther King Jr than the empty speeches made on his birthday by Democrat politicians.
Signalling a possible convergence of a new civil rights movement and the Occupy movement, Trayvon Martin’s parents spoke at a rally organised by Occupy Wall Street. As Atlantic Magazine reported:
The family of Trayvon Martin joined thousands of demonstrators, who teamed up with Occupy Wall Street, to march across New York City last night to protest the shooting death of the Florida teenager. The ‘Million Hoodie March,’ as it was dubbed, was organised to show support for the Martin family and call for the arrest of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Martin last month, but has not been charged after claiming self-defense. Martin‘s parents spoke to the crowd to thank them for their support and continue to push for charges to be filed against Zimmerman. Martin’s mother Sabrina Fulton told the gathered protesters that ‘My son is your son.’
While history does not repeat, it is difficult not to be reminded of the 1960s. In a kind of perfect storm, the long-standing civil rights movement evolved into a Black Nationalist movement that challenged the status quo at the very same time student activists were demanding an end to the war in Vietnam. Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in the military was a symbol of how the two movements were fighting a common enemy.
Although there were hopes, perhaps overblown, that the working class would join in, nothing like the revolts in France and Italy ever took place in the US. This time, however, things might be different. Despite its origins outside of the trade unions, the Occupy movement has resonated deeply with working people who have seen their erstwhile privileges disappear.
Important local trade unions like New York City’s Transit Workers Union have come out in support of the movement. Similarly, young Occupy activists have shown solidarity with the striking telephone workers of Verizon and the poorly paid Black and Latino workers of Sotheby’s.
Despite the business press’ talk of ‘green shoots’, there are few signs that America’s Great Recession will be replaced by any kind of robust recovery. In February, the economy added 227 000 jobs, but the unemployment rate was stuck at 8.3 per cent. Even if the job picture clears up, deepening inequality will not leave the average American worker feeling happy about his or her state. As the liberal economist Robert Reich points out:
Corporate profits are up but the money isn’t flowing to American workers. The ratio of profits to wages is the highest on record – since the government began keeping track in 1947. Not only has the median wage continued to drop, adjusted for inflation, but a far smaller share of working-age Americans is now employed (58.6 percent) than was employed five years ago (63.3 percent). Today’s employment-to-population ratio isn’t much higher than it was at its lowest point last summer, when it dropped to 58.2 percent.
Similar inequalities in Britain resulted in the election of George Galloway, who then blasted the Labour Party’s neoliberal turn. However, even if the time is ripe for a similar response in the US, there are a number of difficulties that militate against it, at least for the time being. First and foremost, the electoral system is not based on proportional representation, the hallmark of parliamentary systems. In America’s ‘winner takes all’ system, elected officials will tend to be either Republican or Democratic. This tendency is bolstered by corporate America’s preference for a two-party system that effectively shuts out any voice from the Left.
In normal times, this does not matter much to voters, who often vote on the most trivial basis, deciding, for example, which candidate is more like the kind of guy you would want to have a beer with. The discourse is cheapened further by interminably repeated television commercials that treat candidates like products to be sold. Obama definitely has the advantage over Romney in this respect because he is the past master of appearing all things to all people, except for the lunatic Right.
Liberal supporters of Obama fail to understand that it is precisely his Ivy League veneer and empathetic rhetoric that conceals the bitter pill. In order for the austerity drive to be carried out to the satisfaction of the ‘1 per cent’, Obama’s election – not Romney’s – is essential. If Romney tried to ‘reform’ social security or Medicare, there would be such an outcry that he would be stopped in his tracks; ironically, it has been the last two Democrat presidents who have come closest to shredding the safety net.
During his second term, Clinton asked economic advisers Larry Summers and Gene Sperling to establish a task force to draft a plan that would effectively privatise social security, but he was forced to shelve the plan after the Monica Lewinsky scandal eroded his political capital beyond repair. It is certainly worth mentioning that Obama appointed Sperling to head up the National Economic Council in January 2011. Three months after this appointment, Sperling urged the president to cut social security benefits in order to reduce the deficit. One can anticipate that the larger the vote for Obama in 2012, the greater chance there is for similar cuts. Given such attacks at home and continued military aggression abroad, it is no wonder that Obama has been labelled the ‘more effective evil’ by Black Agenda Report editor Glen Ford. In a recent Left Forum talk in New York, Ford spoke truth to power:
The prevailing assumption on the Left is that Obama has good intentions. He intends to the Right Thing – or, at least, he intends to do better than the Republicans intend to do. It’s all supposed to be about intentions. Let’s be clear: There is absolutely no factual basis to believe he intends to do anything other than the same thing he has already done, whether Democrats control Congress or not, which is to serve Wall Street’s most fundamental interests.
There are, however, signs of strains in the electoral system. When the rich and powerful insist on limiting voters’ choices, offering candidates who differ only in the tempo of their attack on the working class, voters are likely to start thinking outside the box.
In a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in January, nearly half of all Americans expressed a desire for a new political party. Even more striking, 75 per cent of people who have lost financial ground under Obama indicated a willingness to consider a third-party candidate.
As a rule of thumb, political action tends to lag behind consciousness: past habits tend to inhibit the way that activists strategise. That is why the Occupy movement is so important. Young people deciding to take over public spaces around the country was a gamble since there was no guarantee that it would strike a chord. The results were beyond anybody’s expectations. The wiki on Occupy protests in the US lists 322 different sites, including six in Alabama, a state that has long been a symbol of racist reaction.
With police repression organised nationally and coordinated with the White House and the largest financial institutions, the movement has been forced to assume a new identity, as public spaces have been largely and unconstitutionally made off-limits.
Given the audacity and creativity of the young people involved, it is not too much to expect the movement to rise once again on a new footing. As we move towards the beginning of the Romney-Obama campaign season, Americans will be looking for some kind of alternative to business as usual. An energetic and visible Occupy movement joining forces with renewed civil rights and labour movements will find a receptive audience. Furthermore, a movement that understands how to engage the ordinary family in mass actions will be fulfilling a historical duty that the 1960s generation failed to meet. And despite proclamations about the ‘end of history’ and the triumph of democratic capitalism, there are real signs that a new chapter in American history has begun.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!