By any standards, Barack Obama’s journey from a deprived and underprivileged background to the White House is truly remarkable and welcome on several counts.
First black president
First, Barack Obama is the first black man to be elected the president of the US, which for more than a third of its history practised the most brutal form of chattel slavery. Sixteen of his 43 predecessors in the White House were slave owners and, as one bourgeois journalist correctly pointed out, any one of them could have owned him.
Even after the abolition of slavery in 1865, following the victory of the Union Army over the Confederate Army, the blacks continued for an entire century to suffer legal segregation in the south, and de facto segregation and gross discrimination everywhere else in the US, enforced through terror at the hands of the police, the prison system and the lynch mobs of the KKK. As recently as 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person in Alabama.
Only the powerful civil rights movement of the 1960s made it possible for the abominable laws, which banned black people from using the same toilets, schools, water fountains and bus stations as their white compatriots, to be swept away.
Only in 1967 did the US Supreme Court overturn the last anti-miscegenation laws that banned marriage and sex between blacks and whites. And it was the year 2000 before Alabama earned the notoriety of being the last state to remove language outlawing interracial marriage from its constitution.
Although legal discrimination against black people is a thing of the past, they continue to be the victims of several hundred years of poverty and continued discrimination in jobs, housing, education and politics.
For Barack Obama to have burst through these formidable barriers is an extremely significant achievement. When, in 2007, he announced his presidential candidacy on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, very few people took him seriously.
No one thought that he would get even as far as getting the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency, faced as he was, among others, by Hillary Clinton, at the time the clear favourite to secure the coveted nomination. She had all the necessary qualifications. Her right-wing politics, support for the predatory war against Iraq, her servility toward AIPAC, the powerful zionist lobby organisation in the US, with the powerful Clinton electoral machine, headed by her husband and former president, Bill Clinton, behind her and the backing of exceptionally rich donors – all served to give her a sense of entitlement to the nomination and led her to haughtily dismiss Obama’s chances.
Then came the shock result of the Iowa primary. Obama’s win in this state (99 percent white) shattered Hillary’s complacency. Thereafter, there was no mean trick that the Clinton campaign did not employ in its efforts to defeat Obama – from reproducing the embarrassing, but truthful, remarks of Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, condemning US genocide, to pictures of Obama wearing a turban and whispers about his middle names.
Hillary even went so far as to say that John McCain, the war criminal and Republican contender, would make a better candidate than Senator Obama.
Having agreed with the Democratic National Committee that the Florida and Michigan primaries be discounted for they had been held too early, in violation of the party’s rules, Senator Clinton, in desperation as the race for nomination tightened, changed her mind and laid claim to the delegates from these two states.
But all this to no avail. By a narrow margin, Barack Obama emerged the winner from the primaries. All the same, the Clinton camp carried its campaign right up to the Democratic Convention in Denver, Colorado, where Hillary’s supporters did all they could to embarrass and weaken Obama. But, with his fiercely disciplined approach, calm demeanour and inspiring, if empty, oratory, Obama managed to disarm the Clinton camp and made a speech accepting his party’s nomination amid the rapturous applause of over 80,000 delegates.
A brilliant campaign
Once nominated, Obama and his team organised a brilliant campaign, which won the grudging admiration of even his opponents, and which involved an unprecedented resort to modern telecommunications.
Millions of people, especially the young, were mobilised via the internet and mobile telephones, to canvas support and funds. Seven million people are reliably reported to have given their time free of charge to help the Obama campaign, which raised the enormous and record-breaking sum of $640m – largely through small donations.
During the campaign, the Republican Party’s dirty tricks department worked overtime to portray Obama variously as sleazy, an alien, soft on terrorism, weak on national security, inexperienced to be the commander-in-chief, etc. While some disparaged him as a self-appointed Messiah with less executive experience than Jesus, others decried his alleged elitism and arrogance.
Sarah Palin, the exceptionally ignorant and enormously bigoted vice-presidential Republican candidate, with the experience of running the tiny Alaskan town of Wasilla (population 9,000), felt entitled to attack Obama for his lack of experience and his alleged connections with terrorists and property dealers.
In the end, none of the Republican tactics worked. Senator Obama won, becoming the 44th President of the US on 20 January 2009, and that too at the young age of 47. On a sharply higher turnout than at any election in the past generation, he secured 53 percent of the popular vote.
He is the first Democrat to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote since 1976; he outvoted McCain in almost all voting groups save the whites and the elderly. Of those who went to the polls on 4 November, 56 percent of the women, 49 percent of men, 95 percent of African-Americans, 66 percent of Hispanics and 69 percent of first-time voters voted for Obama.
Among the whites, he received 44 percent of the vote – a larger share than any Democrat has won since president Lyndon Johnson, whose 1964 election victory preceded his alleged ‘betrayal’ of the southern cause.
Even a majority of voters who earn more than $200,000 a year gave their vote to Obama – the first time a Democrat has achieved this feat – in spite of the fact that he had promised to raise taxes of anyone earning more than this figure, while cutting taxes for every other income group.
Obama’s victory is all the more remarkable considering how different he is from all the previous occupants of the White House.
He is black and the product of a broken mixed-race marriage; his childhood was marked by penury to such an extent that he was raised on food stamps; he spent several years away from the US mainland, in Indonesia and in far-flung and racially diverse Hawaii, where he was brought up by his white grandparents.
In his twenties, he worked for two years as a community organiser among unemployed steel workers on Chicago’s south side, when he could have been minting it on Wall Street.
Yet at every crucial stage in his life he has struggled, and succeeded, to rise above the harsh conditions surrounding his birth, childhood and adolescence. He was the first black editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. He then became an Illinois state legislator for eight years, before serving four years in the US Senate, the last two of which were spent on the campaign trail resulting in his elevation to the presidency of the US.
These qualities made him attractive to younger voters and others who wanted something different, especially an end to the predatory wars waged by US imperialism during George Bush’s two terms as president.
A large swathe of the population, opposed to the war and worried about their economic condition, was pining for change after eight years of Republican jingoism at home and abroad. The Republican administration’s popularity had hit rock bottom in the period leading up to the election, forcing even John McCain to distance and dissociate himself from Bush.
The electorate, however, saw through McCain’s fraudulent attempt and quite correctly perceived in him an incarnation of Bush – not an agent of change. Not surprisingly then, the Republicans suffered the heaviest popular vote defeat in a presidential election since 1964, resulting in the biggest Democratic majority in the Congress since 1992, and leaving the Republicans bereft of control of any arm of federal government for the first time in 14 years.
Of course, Obama was lucky on several counts: he was lucky that Hillary Clinton so mismanaged her campaign, through a mixture of arrogance and incompetence; he was lucky that he faced such an inept opponent as John McCain in the election; and he was lucky that the current financial meltdown, with its plunging stock markets, slumping real-estate prices and collapsing giants of finance capital, bringing in their train rising unemployment, housing foreclosures, poverty and misery, occurred at a crucial stage in the election campaign.
But good fortune has to be exploited. Senator Obama exploited his good luck with skill and dexterity verging on the brilliant. Few presidents-elect of the US have prepared as assiduously as Obama did for the moment of his victory. He roused and excited tens of millions of people across the US with his message of hope and change, weaving this message into the journey of his own life of humble beginnings and struggle to hurdle over the obstacles placed in his way through the accident of birth, and inspiring vast numbers of people to enlist in his campaign.
Early in the evening of 4 November, large crowds started gathering in Grant Park, Chicago, in anticipation of the election result. As the news of Obama’s victory was beamed into the park, the 200,000-strong crowd exploded into a powerful roar. When Senator Obama made his appearance, the crowd went delirious with joy; when he spoke it listened with rapt attention to catch his every single word; when he finished it danced and sang ecstatically; veteran civil rights leader Jesse Jackson wept openly.
Obama’s victory was greeted with spontaneous celebrations in the towns and cities all across the US, especially by the young. Indeed, throughout the world hundreds of millions of people felt elated at Obama’s victory, partly because they enjoyed the spectacle of the Republican administration biting the dust after eight years of the terror it had unleashed on the oppressed people, especially through predatory wars in the Middle East, and partly because they saw in his victory a step forward in the long road traversed by African-Americans towards equality, freedom and justice.
No one ought to deny the historic significance of the election of the first black person to the office of the president of the US.
Mobilisation of the young
Second, Obama’s campaign inspired and mobilised millions of young people, particularly African-Americans, who had hitherto been characterised by apathy and cynicism, and brought them into the arena of politics.
Hitherto marginalised and excluded, lots of young people were swept into the Obama campaign as agents of change. African-Americans, accounting for 13 percent of the electorate, discarding their original caution, supported Obama’s candidacy, with a whopping 96 percent of them voting for him.
The wider involvement of young people in politics provides a basis for mobilising them for far more radical changes than are within the vision of the president-elect Obama.
Lessening of prejudice
Third, a significant number of white people (43 percent), including white workers, voted for Obama. This in itself represents social progress in a country founded on slavery, segregation and racial discrimination, a country in which 10,000 blacks were lynched between 1880 and 1960, a country where more black people are locked up in prison than attend college, a country where the top echelons of government and business have been the exclusive preserve of white males.
For white people to vote in such numbers for a black candidate is symbolic of a sizeable shift in racial attitudes; it is a sign that the deep-seated white supremacist prejudices inherited from the era of slavery in the US are beginning significantly to loosen their hold on the US masses, and his election will doubtless help further the process.
Lessons in class politics
Fourth, hitherto, black people have been under the impression that their economic and social position at the bottom rung of American society was perhaps due to the fact that no black man had ever been elevated to the presidency of the US. Quite reasonably, therefore, they suffer from the illusion that with the election of Obama, their economic and social conditions will register a remarkable transformation.
Not in any way desiring to minimise the significance of the first black person as US president, and the resultant political and social shift, we must insist that on this count the blacks are bound to be disappointed. And this disappointment is no bad thing, for people, including Afro-Americans, need to grasp that it is not just racism that is responsible for their misery and destitution; that it is capitalism which inflicts these ills and that, in an effort to divert attention from its many ills, it is the capitalist class that divides people along racial lines.
Surrounded by the mother of all financial meltdowns, facing a slump of unprecedented proportions, in the midst of two genocidal and predatory wars waged by US imperialism, combined with their newly-acquired active interest in politics and a shift in voting patterns, the American people are better placed today than in many past decades to gain such an understanding.
Thus, Obama’s victory provides a fertile terrain for the realisation to grow amongst the most oppressed sections of American society that their oppression is primarily class oppression, not just race oppression; that no matter what the colour of the skin of the occupant of the White House, their own status and conditions of life as proletarians must remain unchanged as long as capitalism lasts; that only the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism can for them furnish an era of peace and prosperity, free from the worries of war, homelessness, unemployment, destitution and the recurrent crises of overproduction.
Looked at from this angle, America will never be the same again.
Fifth, there is the sheer joy that the people in the US and all across the world felt at the booting out of the Bush administration – the representative of the most reactionary, tyrannical and war-mongering sections of US monopoly capital – and the humiliating defeat of the Republican Party.
People all over the world were sickened by, and angry at, the imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US’s unreserved support for zionism’s occupation and atrocities in Palestine and its wars against Lebanon, its provocations against Iran, Syria and the Russian Federation, its proxy war against Somalia.
A change of administration by itself will not right these crimes. All the same, the defeat of the neoconservatives is certainly a cause for jubilation.
Obama’s campaign has roused very high expectations among the people. In his victory speech, he told the large crowd in Grant Park: “The road ahead will be long. We may not get there in one year or even one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.”
He went on: “Tonight we have proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and hope.”
By uttering the above words, while inspiring his audience with the message of hope and change and dangling before them the ideals of democracy, liberty and opportunity, Obama simultaneously laid the basis for the disappointment of the masses, which will not be long in coming.
The truth is that the strength of the present-day US, the strength of this most powerful imperialist country, lies precisely in its armaments and military machine, combined with the power of its monopolies.
The truth is that this enormous power is deployed for securing world domination, not in the furtherance of democracy, liberty and opportunity.
The ideals that Obama preaches are in violent conflict with the interests of US imperialism, which very shortly, as its chief executive, he will be obliged to serve, safeguard and extend further still.
This will be particularly so just now, when world imperialism is facing the worst crisis since 1929, in which the various imperialist powers, while attempting to crush the national-liberation struggles of the oppressed peoples everywhere – from Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Colombia to Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Venezuela and Bolivia – are at the same time engaged in a scramble for a redivision and domination of the world.
No matter how nice and inspiring an individual, the election victory of Obama cannot alter the basic conditions of the American people, nor can it essentially alter the US’s relations with the rest of the world, if for no other reason than that no election can effect a fundamental change in the social system – in the US or elsewhere.
The Obama campaign and the Democratic Party have been engaged in perpetrating the fraud that, through Obama’s victory, real change is about to be ushered in. The communist movement needs to disabuse the working class of such illusions “For the proletariat needs the truth and there is nothing so harmful to its cause as plausible, respectable petty-bourgeois lies.” (‘The tasks of the Third International’ by V I Lenin, 14 July 1919)
On 20 January 2009, Obama will, on being sworn in, become the commander-in-chief, the leader of what is referred to by its bourgeois and petty-bourgeois apologists as the ‘free world’.
Translated into ordinary language, shorn of all euphemism, subterfuge and obfuscation, this means that Obama will be the chief executive and commander-in-chief of the main bulwark of world capitalism, namely, US imperialism, which for more than a century has performed the role of a counter-revolutionary gendarme, a hangman of the liberation struggles of the people around the globe.
For all its relative decline, and for all the reverses it has suffered, US imperialism remains the number one exploiter and oppressor, and number one enemy of the people of the world.
Obama has little choice but to serve the class that rules the US – the monopoly capitalist class. Of course, he will use conciliatory language, very different from that used by his imbecile predecessor and the latter’s neoconservative bellicose mentors; doubtless he will deploy his oratory, full of empty rhetoric, his powers of persuasion and conciliation, in an effort to persuade everyone, within as well as outside the US, that what is good for the US ruling class is just as good for the masses of Americans, that what is good for US imperialism is just as good for peoples elsewhere.
In this, Obama would be a far more effective representative of US imperialism than, for instance, George W Bush. He will prove a far more formidable opponent for US imperialism’s rivals as well as for peoples resisting US hegemony.
On all the basic questions affecting the interests of US imperialism – from the economic crisis and national security to questions of war and peace and US plans for world domination – his views are not that dissimilar to those of the Republican Party, or the Bush administration for that matter.
He is in favour of a permanent US military presence in Iraq; he wants to send far more US troops to Afghanistan to continue the imperialist predatory war against that country; he is in favour of attacking Pakistan by way of an extension of the war in Afghanistan; he is in favour of a preventive strike against Iran, allegedly to prevent that country from acquiring nuclear weapons; he, too, has demonised Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro of Cuba.
He wants to unite the American people, rich and poor, to the benefit of the rich. He has supported the $700bn bailout of the very criminals whose greed has brought about the financial meltdown and the near collapse of the financial system in the US.
Following his victory, he assembled a team of 17 advisers to grapple with the economic crisis. All of these advisers are multibillionaires, CEOs of monopoly corporations and representatives of finance capital, with not even a token representation of either the labour movement or the most downtrodden sections of American society. It will be the job of these advisers to attempt to steer to safety the decadent, parasitic and moribund system of monopoly capitalism, and US hegemony within this system.
The very first important appointment made by Obama following his election gives a clue to the way his administration is likely to operate. He appointed former Congressman Rahm Emmanuel as Chief of the White House staff. Rahm is a committed zionist, whose father is an Israeli citizen and made it clear that his son will influence the Obama administration in favour of Israel.
In January 2008, Obama submitted to pressure by the zionist lobby in the US and changed his earlier statement that “nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people” to “nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people from the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognise Israel”. (Our emphasis)
So much, then, for Obama’s concern for the victims of the longest illegal military occupation – the long-suffering Palestinian people.
Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, spoke a disconcerting truth when he said that the 11 September 2001 attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon were consequent upon US violence across the world. The US monopoly media insisted that Obama disown Wright and subscribe to the Bush machine’s lie that ‘terrorists attacked America because they hate our freedoms’.
Obama obliged, saying that the conflict in the Middle East had its roots not “primarily in actions of stalwart allies like Israel”, but in “the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam”. For this Islamophobic statement, the liberal Mr Obama received due accolade from the mercenary journalist fraternity.
Survey after survey of opinion reveals that American people desire nothing better than decent jobs, health care and housing; they want US troops to pull out of Iraq and want an honourable peace between Israel and the Palestinians. People all over the world want an end to American aggression, occupation and interference.
The alleged democratic credentials of the new US administration headed by Barack Obama will be judged against these overwhelming wishes, sentiments, needs and interests of the masses in the US and throughout the world. The Obama administration, even if it were willing, will not be able to give effect to the above needs and interests, for the latter run counter to those of US imperialism, which Obama has no option but to serve.
From a long-term point of view, whether Obama’s victory serves US imperialism or the masses in the US and all across the world, will depend upon two factors.
First, who in the US is able to utilise the vast numbers of Obama supporters, and those enthused by his campaign – US imperialism to silence and placate opposition to its home and foreign policy, using Obama’s name, charisma and oratorical skills as a battering ram to blunt all opposition; or the masses of people, having been disabused, through their own experience, of the illusions about the ability of the Obama administration to cater for their interests, going on to build a powerful and vibrant movement of opposition to US imperialism.
Second, it will depend on the reaction to Obama’s victory in other parts of the world. If people elsewhere, dazzled by Obama’s charm and rhetoric about peace, democracy, liberty, opportunity and prosperity, drop their guard and give up resistance, nothing but disaster lies ahead of them. If, on the other hand, learning to judge the new US administration by its actions, not words, disabusing themselves through their own experience, which will not be long-delayed, of the notion that replacing Bush by Obama will bring peace and prosperity to them, they go on to intensify their resistance to US imperialism, they have nothing to fear from the charm offensive of the new US administration.
As it begins to get to grips with the incurable capitalist crisis of overproduction and the financial meltdown, the new US government will increasingly come into conflict with the labouring masses at home and the oppressed aboard, as well as its imperialist rivals.
The US government cannot but come up with ‘solutions’ that are at the cost of US labour, billions of oppressed peoples in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and the US’s imperialist rivals in Europe and Japan.
In this situation, it is the bounden duty of the parties of the proletariat everywhere, and the leadership of the national-liberation movements throughout the world, especially in the Middle East, to warn the masses against entertaining any illusions about the new US administration.
Only an end to imperialism can bring peace; only its overthrow, and its replacement by socialism, can usher in an era of everlasting prosperity and fraternity among the peoples of the world. Let this thought permeate the working-class and national-revolutionary liberation movements throughout the world.