The killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces in Pakistan was more of a symbolic act of revenge than a military victory. However, it also served to undercut the political charades of the “birthers” and Republican right to win another sort of victory for Obama in an ideological war within the U.S. itself, establishing him as an effective commander-in-chief.
As E.J. Dionne explained in the Washington Post: “Supporters of a muscular and interventionist American foreign policy suspect [Obama] of believing that the decline of the United States is unavoidable and of seeing himself primarily as a steward whose task is to manage our steady loss of influence. It is this last claim that took such a profound blow when Obama approved the operation against bin Laden and chose the riskiest option involving a face-to-face confrontation with American commandos.”
Josh Marshall made essentially the same point: “The Republican critique of the president has been that he’s a hesitant and vacillating figure, one who fundamentally misunderstands the nature of power politics and the threats the country faces. … Obama himself opted for the most aggressive and riskiest option. And it worked. That simply doesn’t sound like the caricature Republicans have been trying to paint.”
However, recognition of Obama’s leadership qualities must also accept that the agenda was set under the Bush presidency. Obama’s ideological detractors like Charles Krauthammer took the opportunity to praise this legacy: “The bin Laden operation is the perfect vindication of the war on terror. It was made possible precisely by the vast, warlike infrastructure that the Bush administration created post-9/11.”
But now that bin Laden is dead, why is it that the U.S. needs to maintain the infrastructure for surveillance of its own citizens? The Patriot Act was renewed for another four years by the Democratic administration; after being rushed through both houses, “in an unusual move, a White House spokesman said that President Obama, who was in Europe, would ‘direct the use’ of an autopen machine to sign the bill into law without delay…”
Two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee objected that “the Justice Department had secretly interpreted the so-called Patriot Act in a twisted way, enabling domestic surveillance activities that many members of Congress do not understand….” Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, “said that the executive branch had come up with a secret legal theory about what it could collect under a provision of the Patriot Act that did not seem to dovetail with a plain reading of the text. … Another member of the Intelligence Committee, Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, backed Mr. Wyden’s account, saying, ‘Americans would be alarmed if they knew how this law is being carried out’.”
Obama’s presidency, in other words, is more concerned with expanding state surveillance powers than changing society. The fact that the anti-democratic “security” measures started under Bush are being renewed by the Obama administration gives more context to an examination of the nature of the division between the two major parties.
The Republican right stands for the collapsing of the social compromise achieved by the New Deal on the basis that the working class is no longer a viable force and can be left to rot without pensions, housing, health care or education. Dissent can be contained by the expansion of Homeland Security surveillance and police powers.
The Democrats, on the other hand, are concerned about preserving the legitimacy of the state. Instead of a frontal assault on welfare provisions, they aim for a more rational management of government which combines the defence of wealth and property through massive bank bailouts with a creeping undermining of workers’ rights.
The policies identified with Bush and the Republican Party turn out to be the goals of the state itself, irrespective of government. The trajectory of a secret national security state, in the words of the Washington Post, continues independent of changes in political power. Obama himself does not represent the social movement that elected him, but has merged his presidency with the more rational elements within this state. That is why Guantanamo remains open, the war in Afghanistan is still being prosecuted, and his Justice Department is intensely penalizing dissidents within the system.
Permanent wars and a security state have to be financed from taxes (which are not paid by the super-rich), or by borrowing, but the national debt limit has been reached and voters have shown clearly that they want to preserve social benefits and will punish politicians who support cuts in Medicare and Social Security. E.J. Dionne points out: “The Tea Partyers were joined in voting Republican by many middle-of-the-road Americans understandably unhappy with the state of politics and the economy. But those middle-of-the-roaders never bargained for what Paul Ryan — or Govs. Rick Scott, John Kasich of Ohio or Scott Walker of Wisconsin — had in mind for them. Now they’re talking back. They’re not as loud as the Tea Party. But as [Democrat Kathy] Hochul’s victory showed, they’re starting to be heard.”
Even if Republican electoral gains are reversed, a Democratic majority cannot escape a major crisis in political legitimacy in the United States. Social Security and Medicare represent an important part of the social bargain that underpins capitalist hegemony. Attempts to renege on this bargain will provoke national opposition, whether through voting or mass protests like in Wisconsin. The stage is set for a struggle within the Democratic party between those who retain a connection to the unions and working class, and corporate Democrats who have become agents of capital.