Category Archives: inauguration

Obama’s Second Term: The Real Promise of America

The inherent strength of the social movement that reelected Obama in November was perceptible in the spectacle of his second inauguration. The event was designed to be symbolic in a way that both coopted and validated social change in America.

Some of Obama’s liberal critics were surprised by its tone: immigration activist Sarah Uribe “was taken aback by the diversity displayed: an almost surreal portrait of progress and equality. I beamed while watching supreme court Justice Sonia Sotomayor swear in Vice-President Biden; I was thrilled to hear gay, Latino poet Richard Blanco’s ode to working-class people; and my jaw nearly dropped when I heard the Reverend Luis Leon partially recite the benediction in Spanish. And, of course, the historic significance of hearing our African-American president speak on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday was not lost.”

The rhetoric of his inaugural speech aligned Obama politically with this movement, making many references to “We, the people,” leveraging the language of the constitution, Lincoln, and the Civil Rights movement against the philosophy of radical individualism.  He defended the role of government, articulating popular frustration with legislative gridlock in order to undermine Reagan’s “welfare queen” ideology and send a message to Congressional Republicans that the balance of power between executive and legislature had changed.

But while Obama’s themes were squarely in line with popular sentiment, they didn’t include any major initiatives. Former Obama official  Kenneth Baer pointed out in the Washington Post that the speech sounded progressive only because the Republicans have moved political discourse so far to the right. “Defending the idea of a social safety net to guard against the vagaries of life is hardly radical,” writes Baer.

Obama’s commitment to maintaining Medicare and Social Security hinges on reducing the cost of health care and the size of the deficit. This is where the devil is in the details, for if a semblance of equality can be achieved by increasing taxes on the rich, Obama may well agree to cuts in social programs when negotiations resume over the debt ceiling in March.

This possibility is indicated by a major contradiction between Obama’s promises of equality of opportunity and reality. Although he declared: “We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class,” major changes in the relation between state, banks and corporations are needed to stop middle-class jobs from disappearing because of the way the economy has been hollowed out through outsourcing. While more manufacturing jobs have been created in the last four years, they are non-union, low-wage jobs that won’t sustain a middle-class lifestyle.

According to the New York Times, “For millions of workers, wages have flatlined. Take Caterpillar, long a symbol of American industry: while it reported record profits last year, it insisted on a six-year wage freeze for many of its blue-collar workers. … Corporate America’s push to outsource jobs — whether call-center jobs to India or factory jobs to China — has fattened corporate earnings, while holding down wages at home. New technologies have raised productivity and profits, while enabling companies to shed workers and slice payroll. … From 1973 to 2011, worker productivity grew 80 percent, while median hourly compensation, after inflation, grew by just one-eighth that amount, according to the Economic Policy Institute …”

What was also notable in Obama’s speech was his omissions from its narrative. He invoked the images of Selma, Seneca Falls and Stonewall, but ignored present-day struggles for collective bargaining or for a living wage – let alone the contribution of the labor movement to the creation of a large middle class. This omission of any contemporary challenge to corporate America is a sign that, despite the appointment of a former prosecutor to the SEC, Obama is not serious about curbing the power of the financial industry. From Lehman Brothers to HBOS, major banks and their CEOs have gotten away with fraud and criminal conduct which Holder’s Justice Department refuses to prosecute. Changes at the SEC come too little, too late to put any well-heeled bank executives in jail.

Obama’s role is to rationalize the state on behalf of the political class, which means making sure opposition to cuts in entitlement spending is confined to pressure on Congress rather than riots in the street. That’s what he means by calling on citizens to “shape the debates of our time.” However, his validation of the ideal of equality carries the potential of extending it to the fight for economic as well as political equality.

This is why the movement of low-waged workers is more crucial than ever. It has spread from Walmart warehouse and store workers to subcontracted cleaners at Target who are filing charges that they were regularly locked into Minneapolis stores overnight. Walmart itself is trying to head off organizing efforts by introducing a monitoring system for working conditions in its warehouses – no different in principle from its monitoring of factories in Bangladesh, which did nothing to prevent the tragic fire killing over 100 garment workers. And in New York City, school bus drivers are in the tenth day of a strike against the loss of union protections for drivers on special education routes.

Although the Occupy movement is no longer highly visible, it made an indelible contribution to the popular notion of a pluralist society in America. The struggle of low-waged workers for union organization, GE factory workers against outsourcing, communities against evictions, and of the majority against cuts in social security, will mount a real challenge to  corporate privilege. And this is the promise of America as Obama’s second term begins.

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Filed under 2012 Election, austerity measures, bank foreclosures, inauguration, occupy wall street, OUR Walmart, political analysis, Walmart, walmart strikes

Obama closes Guantanamo

Obama’s executive order to close Guantanamo was deeply symbolic. It amounted to a repudiation of the Bush administration’s claim to untrammeled executive authority and the restoration of the rule of law. It was a return to the democratic values of the United States and an appeal for a continued political role for the US internationally.

This achievement was not purely Obama’s, but expressed the repugnance of the majority of US citizens with Bush’s departure from constitutional legitimacy.

However, this return to democratic ideals is not the same thing as reversing the extreme social inequality that has built up within the US over the last 30 years, nor does it resolve the social disruption related to globalization that has created desperation among the poorest and most downtrodden throughout the world.

Its effects include the “network” which Obama pledged the US to continue fighting. In Afghanistan and Gaza the US is looking to set up “states” it can negotiate with and which will discipline and channel the desperation of the peoples there. But it is unlikely that the US, or any power, can create a state from outside of these societies. The US wants a European form of representative state ; but the only legitimacy that has arisen there is a decidedly unsecular “Islamic” or tribal law. This turn to traditionalism does not have a single cause, but underlying it is social uncertainty and loss of resources, together with the history of Western intervention in these areas.

Whatever his intentions, Obama is constrained by the fact that the US is today inextricably connected to the global economy. He has not been in office long enough to show if he will channel the desire of people for change into social change, or to understand the role of the US from the viewpoint of particular struggles in the developing world.


Filed under inauguration, political analysis, US policy

Obama’s speech

Barack Obama’s speech today was a magnificent piece of oratory, tuned with a  pitch-perfect ear to the national mood. Backed by the imagery of US state power and religious righteousness, he rejected the fear-mongering abuses of the Bush administration in order to call for unity in the task of “remaking America.”

Although he spoke of the grave nature of the crisis facing the country, he asserted that “we remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth.”  This is what people want to hear: the problem is bad but it can be fixed, “we” have the resources and capability to turn it around.

But there is a disconnect between his egalitarian rhetoric that “all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness” — and his reference to the economy, when he blamed greed and irresponsibility on the part of some “but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.” Does this mean that we are collectively responsible for the financial crisis?

What brought down the financial markets was the fact that wages have not risen in real terms for years; that people in the lower-wage sections have faced a decrease while the richest of the rich have accumulated ridiculous amounts of wealth for themselves; that banks and corporations focused on squeezing resources from the poorest sections of society in order to pad their profits.

Obama said that the time of “protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions” has passed. This ringing phrase sounds good: but it all depends on whose protected interests he means. Let it be the bankers who expect to receive state funds to bail out their high salaries and massive bonuses, not those living from day to day off a social security check.

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Obama’s inauguration

Obama’s inauguration as US president has attracted enormous goodwill and support for his new administration, both within and without the US. He connects both symbolically and in reality to the history of the civil rights movement and other struggles for fairness and justice. As the first African-American to become president in this nation built on plantation slavery, he embodies the hope that he so assiduously canvassed throughout his campaign: its success signalled a socio-political shift across the whole of the country, a shift towards engagement in the political process, towards a state which would support individuals and families through healthcare and social service provisions, the defence of jobs, the ending of injustice and arrogant privilege, and so on.

“Hope” in this context is loaded with meaning: safety from the bitter consequences of the economic downturn, a return to the chance of a reasonable life based on hard work. Voters displayed their desire for change as well as confidence in Obama’s leadership at a time of increasing economic uncertainty and financial turbulence throughout the world.

Obama’s plan to revive the US economy relies on a neo-Keynesian theory of government spending in order to increase demand, as opposed to the outgoing administration’s approach of manipulating money supply. However, there is no proof that any government ever adopted Keynes’ plans in the 1930s, or that if they had been followed the crisis would have been solved. Essentially it means rebuilding the US with borrowed money; but who is to lend it when the indebtedness of the US government is already in the tens of trillions?

The problem is that Obama’s plan is based on an ideology which, however thoughtfully he examines the problem, commits him to restoring the circulation of capital at a time when US industrial manufacturing is unable to generate a surplus. State credit is simply a claim on future revenues to be obtained from taxation – that is the only way that governments can raise money. It is a reallocation of an overall surplus generated in industry. This part of the surplus is then unavailable for use in future industrial expansion. Without resolving this fundamental problem of capital accumulation, the basis of US state credit will be further undermined and, as looks likely, the dollar will lose its reserve currency status and the privileged position which enabled the US financial industry to dominate a globalized world economy.

Obama is asking people to serve, but chants of “Yes We Can” won’t deliver jobs. If the hope he has generated is dashed, it could well turn into anger: not only with Obama, but also with the whole political system.

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