Looking Back: Five Years after the Obama Election

By 2008, the US electorate was fed up with George Bush. In fact, the US ruling class was fed up, too. Internationally, US prestige was at a low point, thanks to the Bush administration’s brazen and failed military aggressions. Domestically, the bottom had fallen out of the US economy. It was time for him to go. His failings cast a shadow over the system’s legitimacy.
Anyone with even a passing understanding of US history understood that “regime change” was in the cards. That is, it was the moment for the two-party juggernaut to spit out a fresh face untainted by the previous administration, vigorous, and promising a new direction. It was essential that new leadership appear different, self-confident, and representative of policies contrasting with the old regime.
We saw this before.
Franklin Roosevelt was such a figure. He came forward as a clean, untainted alternative to the failed Hoover administration. Disgust with Hoover was so great, that merely by avoiding large, looming issues, FDR was able to capture the Presidency with a virtual carte blanche to rescue the sinking capitalist economy. Yet he was, as a leading commentator of the time, Walter Lippmann, observed before Roosevelt’s election, “… an amiable man with many philanthropic impulses, but he is not the dangerous enemy of anything. He is too eager to please…. Franklin D. Roosevelt is no crusader. He is no tribune of the people. He is no enemy of entrenched privilege. He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President. All historians agree that Roosevelt was, first and foremost, practical. If policies worked or were popular, he supported them.
Over time, a myth arose that Roosevelt was a savior, a messianic figure who arose and smote the rich and powerful. Those who organized the bonus marches, the unemployment councils, the general strikes, the tenant and share cropper actions of the Depression era, like those who built the industrial unions that made up the powerful CIO, were swept under the historical rug. Acknowledging that they were the source or driving force for New Deal reforms was an inconvenient truth. That said, Roosevelt’s pragmatism, his respect for new ideas in desperate times, marked him as an uncommon political leader.
The New Deal myth sustained the Democratic Party for decades, even though Party leaders began a retreat from the New Deal upon Roosevelt’s death. After 1944, the “New Deal” label fell into disuse as both political Parties rallied around anti-Communism and a relatively benign social compact. Political leaders willingly conceded a modest social contract with labor for cooperation in the anti-Communist campaign and business unionism.
Anti-Communist excesses (so-called “McCarthyism”), overt and institutional racism (segregation), setbacks in foreign policy (Cuba, the U-2) tarnished the US reputation internationally and stirred discontent at home by the end of the 1950s.
Once again, a new face, representing religious diversity, youth, cosmopolitan life style, and change, emerged as an alternative. John Kennedy, like FDR, injected vigor into a two-party landscape driven by the now dominant medium of television. Again regime change was in order and the appearance of regime change was achieved. Despite the mythology of the Kennedy Camelot– and sealed by his assassination– Kennedy’s administration was ruled by the continuation of the Cold War and lip-service to domestic discontent. While some opportunistic adjustments were forced on his administration, Kennedy largely sought to construct a more compassionate, tolerant face to US capitalism; his assassination obviously shows that this was not acceptable to many important, powerful members of the old club.
Months after the Kennedy assassination, left pundit I.F. Stone captured Kennedy’s role: “ …Kennedy, when the tinsel was stripped away, was a conventional leader, no more than an enlightened conservative, cautious as an old man for all his youth, with a basic distrust of the people and an astringent view of the evangelical as a tool of leadership.”
Less than a decade later, with the criminal implosion of the Nixon administration, the credibility of the US political system was undermined. Resignations, criminal charges and Impeachment bred an unprecedented cynicism and challenge to two-party legitimacy.
A fresh face entered from the wings: Jimmy Carter, neither a Senator nor a corporate attorney, but an obscure Southern Governor and a peanut farmer. Like Roosevelt, Carter brought a fresh, unstained image to the political game, a much-needed contrast to the sleaze of his predecessors.
I wrote in 2008 of the 1976 election: “Most citizens looked to the then forthcoming elections with a profound desire for a new course. The Democrats chose a political outsider, Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia. Carter promised to make the government ‘as good as the people.’ Pundits hailed Carter as a departure from the old politics and a fresh, honest voice for change (e.g. The Miracle of Jimmy Carter, Howard Norton and Bob Slosser, 1976).”
I went on to note that Carter proved to be a prophet of false hope and absent change. He quickly turned his back on the most progressive Democratic platform since the New Deal and ushered in economic policies that were soon to be dubbed “Reaganomics.
It was this historical backdrop that prompted me to suggest that candidate Barack Obama might well be another postured savior at a moment of crisis in the two-Party system, a carefully crafted, groomed alternative to a bumbling, embarrassing regime.
There are some striking and illuminating parallels between this election season and the Presidential election campaign of 1976… Like the eight years of the Bush administration, the eight years of Nixon/Ford produced an unparalleled collapse of support for the Republican Party. The Watergate scandal coupled with the failure of the US military in Vietnam and an economic crisis left the Republican Party wounded and regrouping.
Similar to 1976 Presidential candidate J. Carter, his presumptive 2008 counterpart, Barack Obama, is viewed as a Washington “outsider”. He has campaigned as a candidate of change. Pundits hail him as a fresh voice untainted by the vices of the establishment.
Obama must contend with similar issues: a brutal military adventure, collapsing mass living standards, and an economy exhibiting more and more of the symptoms of “stagflation.” Like Carter, his campaign is geared to appealing to the mass base of the Democratic Party: the working class, liberals, and African-Americans. His campaign strategists will likely recommend – as Carter’s advisors did – that the candidate tack to the right to garner center-right and independent votes going into the general election. Every Democratic Party Presidential candidate since has employed a similar strategy. Despite this maneuver, Carter managed to lose his huge lead in the polls and eke out a narrow victory in the November election. Nonetheless, this failed approach continues to seduce Democratic Party tacticians. (ZZ, 2008: A Reprise of 1976?Fall, 2008)
Obama represented a constant of modern US politics: political crisis or threat to legitimacy spawning a face-lift, cosmetic changes, and a re-kindling of “hope” and “change” in the form of a vigorous, youthful, well-spoken Democrat. And Obama, as an African American, had the special appeal of breaking through racial barriers and perhaps sharing some common sensibilities with diverse peoples outside of the US.
While contemporary history taught that appearance generally belied actual change, liberals and most of the US Left succumbed to the allure, putting aside their picket signs, marching shoes, and petitions to open their pocketbooks and enthusiasm to the Obama campaign.
With the November, 2008 victory under his belt, Obama’s unprecedented campaign contributions from the financial sector, his lame, discredited cabinet appointees, and his blatant, shameless, scandalizing of his home-town pastor, Reverend Wright, left the adoring Left unfazed.
By fitting Obama with the mantle of progressive change, the leadership of the broad left – much of the peace movement, liberals, environmental social justice activists, etc. – surrendered their critical judgment, independence, and influence to a blind trust in a fictitious movement for change. In the history of social change in the US, every real advance was spurred by independent organization and struggle,unhampered by the niceties of bourgeois politics. From the Abolitionist movement to the Civil Rights movement, from the Populist movement to the Great Society, from the Anti-imperialist League to the Anti-Vietnam War movement, the initiative for change sprung from committed, independent activists who defied the caution and inertia of elected officials. Why have these lessons been ignored? (ZZ, Let Obama be Obama? December 29, 2008)
Yet everyone from the Hollywood liberal set to the Communist Party USA hailed Obama as the Second-coming of FDR, if not Lincoln.
Over the top, but representative of the self-delusional moment, one hopped-up “progressive” wrote in a widely disseminated 19page homageto the election of Barack Obama: …hundreds of millions-Black, Latino, Asian, Native-American and white, men and women, young and old, literally danced in the streets and wept with joy, celebrating an achievement of a dramatic milestone in a 400-year struggle, and anticipating a new period of hope and possibility.”
Leaving aside the hyperbole (less than 130 million people voted for BOTH candidates and 400 years takes us back to well-before there was a USA), this screed correctly captured the unjustified euphoria that swept through the Left.
Seemingly, every generation of the Left surrenders to the false hope of the Democratic Party; every generation repeats the same mistake.
Tragedy? Farce?
Today, the Obama administration owns the betrayal of the EFCA promise to labor, an untenable healthcare system borrowed from Mitt Romney, 800 hundred deaths a month in the failed state of Iraq, an Afghani nation that may kick the US military out before it plans to leave, the destabilization of Libya and Syria, a broken promise on Guantanamo, widening income and wealth gaps, crumbling infrastructures, a host of unfulfilled promises, a legacy of corporate coddling, and cowardly and illegal (drone) murders. The shattering of a racial barrier– the election of the first African American President– has shamefully served to cover the criminal neglect and decline of the well-being of African Americans.
And everyone knows it. In 2013 alone, Obama’s approval rating dropped nine points to 43%; the percentage believing that Obama is honest and straightforward has dropped ten points to 37%.
And this is the candidate embraced by the broad Left in 2008?
With three years left– two years before the 2016 Presidential campaign begins in earnest– Democratic Party influentials are pressing Obama to establish some kind of legacy to energize the base, to charge up the “respectable” Left and labor for future elections. As a lame-duck, he will likely make numerous gestures towards the social, life-style issues valued by the upper-middle strata– the petty-bourgeoisie. There may even be a highly publicized, but feeble attempt to raise the minimum wage. But expect no serious changes in ruling class foreign or economic policy. Liberals have demonstrated that they will not hold elected Democrats to any promises on these questions.
Will this herd the sheep-like liberals and soft-Left back into the fold? Will they repeat again the slavish loyalty of the past? Will they drink the Kool-aid?
Or will people finally recognize the Democratic Party trap and begin to construct a movement towards independent politics, perhaps rallying around Jill Stein and the Green Party? Will there be a long overdue departure from bankrupt ideology and shameless opportunism? Will the idea of people power and the companion notion of socialism take root?
We have a new year to find out…
Zoltan Zigedy