From Socialist Voice, April 2011

Letter from America

Thomas Kenny

A couple of years ago I was in a car heading back to Dublin after attending a SIPTU conference in Tralee. My SIPTU friend, driving, heard his mobile go off. He listened for a second, and then handed it to me. I heard his Dublin colleague: “Your Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize.”
     Since then “my Obama,” the Peace Prize winner, has intensified the war in Afghanistan, prolonged the war in Iraq, launched the war in Libya, and commands imperial armies active in Yemen, Pakistan, and goodness knows where else.
     “Change you can believe in” was his slogan during the successful campaign in 2008. I never was quite sure what “you can believe in” meant exactly. As opposed to “change you can’t believe in”? Was the inferior brand of change on offer from another candidate? Who dreams up these stupid slogans? In the event, a more truthful slogan would have been “Change you don’t want.”
     The political pundits on television say President Obama plans to raise a billion dollars for his 2012 campaign. It began today (4 April). One can raise such immense sums only from big corporations. If Obama succeeds and if he is re-elected, his policies will be the same.
     No, actually, probably they will be worse, so beholden will he be to Big Banks, Big Oil, Big Insurance, and Big Armaments.
     I don’t charge him with incompetence. He chose to squander his huge political majority in Congress (sixty senators—a “supermajority”) and an even bigger margin in the House of Representatives. What did he do with all that political capital he enjoyed in 2008–2010? He pushed through a health insurance “reform” bill, secretly negotiated with the insurance companies. He rejected the many progressive reform alternatives.
     Why are millions of American voters who voted for him in 2008 disappointed? For one thing, unemployment. Filled with bankers, CEOs, Republican politicians, and conservative Democrat politicians, this White House is remarkably tolerant of a nearly 10 per cent rate of unemployment. It says, “We can’t have another stimulus programme and create jobs.” Why? “It might mean raising taxes on the rich.” But the Administration can always find billions for the banks.
     The main thing he promised the trade unions, which tirelessly canvassed for him and spent tens of millions of dollars on ads for him, was labour law reform. The bill, the innocuously named Employee Free Choice Act, has been written for years and is ready to go. It would make organising in the private sector possible again. He decided he had other priorities.
     As for labour rights in general, when the battle of Wisconsin arose a few months ago he confined himself to uttering a few platitudes. His Administration harbours pro-Wall Street conservatives who want to weaken social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. They want these social insurance systems privatised.
     Thanks to tax policies he offers (or acquiesces in), inequality in the country has reached levels not seen since the nineteenth century. Joseph Stiglitz, the renowned economist, wrote yesterday: “The upper 1 per cent of Americans is now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 per cent control 40 per cent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 per cent and 33 per cent.”
     Obama’s military budget breaks all records, at around $700 billion. The United States has eleven aircraft carriers, and 750 or so military bases across the globe, and now a new fleet, the Fourth Fleet, circling South America.
     On Cuba, the blockade stays in effect. The Five stay in prison.
     On immigration policy he is worse than Bush, deporting each year hundreds of thousands of undocumented Mexican workers, more than Bush by a large margin.
     Racism? Despite the genuine democratic significance of the election of the first Black head of state of a republic long disfigured by racism, all indicators suggest a worsening of racism. The housing crisis (foreclosures, evictions), is hurting communities of colour hardest. The unemployment rate of Black and Latino workers is much higher than for white workers, as has been the case for decades.
     Repression? Peace activists’ houses are raided by the FBI. Guantánamo stays open.
     How did he get elected?
     1. By 2008 revulsion against Bush and Cheney ran strong. Even the mere sight of Bush and Cheney on television was repellent, with their frank, mailed-fist foreign policy and their “robber baron” domestic policy. Voters did want something much different. They did want change.
     2. Money. Wall Street decisively shifted to Obama’s side in September 2008.
     3. Race and racism. Race cut both ways. Among progressives there was the reasonable assumption that a person of his background would almost certainly be, instinctively, a champion of progressive causes.
     New voters, many of them young Blacks, voted in large numbers. For many it was a first-time vote. Naturally, and quite understandably, they favoured a candidate from their own community, presumably more sensitive to their special oppression.
     Of course racism depressed Obama’s vote among right-wing whites. Only 43 per cent of white voters voted for him. The other factors, however, offset this.
     4. Luck. In the crucial Iowa primary it was the front-runner Hillary Clinton’s folly not to apologise for her Senate vote authorising the Iraq war. Iowa peace voters noticed that. Obama was not in the US Senate in 2003.
     5. More luck. He was not leading when the world financial collapse of September 2008 occurred. Big banks were crashing every day. Millions, remembering the Great Depression, believed they would be best served by a reformist Democrat of some sort. Wall Street also, seeing the likelihood of Democratic victory in November, poured money into his campaign coffers.
     6. Personality. On television he speaks in sentences, in the manner of a university professor. Bush was . . . (The less said about Bush the better.)
     The more things change, the more they remain the same. One last memory: The present writer was part of a trade union study trip to Ireland in 1984. The ITGWU conference happened to end at the weekend when Ronald Reagan arrived to sup with Garrett Fitzgerald in Dublin Castle.
     Many will remember the Ballyporeen nonsense in 1984. The Irish papers focused on the briefcase with codes for launching nuclear war carried around by a Secret Service agent (the one with sunglasses on). At the weekend most of my fellow-participants headed to the countryside to visit relatives, or just to see the sights of the west of Ireland.
     I stayed behind in Dublin and took part in the Ring around Reagan. It was one of the finest demonstrations I ever saw. I marched near the front, as a guest of Sisters for Justice, a group of Irish missionary nuns working in Central America and furious at Reagan’s wars there.
     That was the Ring around Reagan. I hope the Irish people will put an Oval around Obama.

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