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Change we can achieve

President-elect Obama (savour the phrase) offers historic possibilities and challenges for progressives. Bill Fletcher Jr reflects on his victory and the kind of critical support that will be needed if we are to build on it

December 5, 2008
9 min read

I found myself facing a peculiar choice about Election Day. Because I was taking the day off to do election work, I could have submitted an absentee ballot. In fact, that would probably have been the most logical thing to do. It would have saved me a lot of time. I kept procrastinating in filing for such a ballot until it was too late.

On Election Day I realised why I did not ask for the absentee ballot. Like millions of other voters, and particularly African Americans, I felt compelled to physically touch the voting machine. In my case, it was a touch-screen computer, but it would not have mattered whether it was that or an old-style lever that I had to push. The Fourth of November 2008 was a moment when I had to make physical contact with the voting machine and actually see my vote counted. I had to know that it was really happening. And I needed to stand in line – in my case for two and a half hours with hundreds of other African Americans – and wait patiently, for my moment to influence history.

Irrespective of any reservations one might have regarding the proposed policies of President-elect Obama (yeah, I get a kick out of writing ‘President-elect’), there is no question that his victory had a profound emotional impact. I never expected to see a liberal black person elected president, and I was not sure that a conservative would be elected either. As the returns were coming in my stomach was tied up in knots unlike anything that I have experienced since my daughter was born. I did not make predictions and I do not trust polls. More importantly, I did not trust the white electorate.

What to make of the election?

Obama won the popular vote by 52 to 46 per cent. This has not been achieved by a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Nevertheless, it also shows that the USA is divided: McCain’s 46 per cent of the vote represented more than 55 million people.

It is noteworthy, though, that while Obama won only 43 per cent of the white vote, whites under the age of 30 backed him by a 66-32 per cent margin. Sixty-seven per cent of Latinos voted Obama, an important increase over those who went for John Kerry in 2004, while 55 per cent of women did so – again, better than Kerry, though he lost the white women’s vote by five per cent. It is also noteworthy that though Obama only received 45 per cent of the veterans’ vote, compared with McCain’s 54 per cent, this remains significant in light of the red- and terrorist-baiting targeted at him. Additionally, 60 per cent of union voters backed Obama compared with McCain’s 38 per cent, a lower percentage than should have sided with Obama in light of the current economic crisis but a reflection that racial divisions within the house of labour were fewer than had been feared.

The election reflected several important issues:

n The economy There is no question that the economic crisis had a significant impact on the electorate. 63 per cent of voters indicated that the economy was a priority issue. McCain never succeeded in crafting a message that resonated with the public.

n A concern about the perception of the US overseas There was a sense among Obama supporters that there needed to be a change in the relationship of the US to the rest of the world. This feeling was very unfocused, however.

n A decline in the importance that voters attached to the Iraq war and terrorism With regard to Iraq, this probably reflects a growing sense that the Iraq war is coming to an end and that the occupation is not a critical issue.

n The next Supreme Court appointments For 47 per cent of the electorate this was a critical issue. The next appointments are especially important to liberals and progressives who have been watching the Supreme Court make increasingly indefensible decisions that reflect its right-wing course.

n Race matters … sort of Particularly among younger voters, race was a less significant factor in influencing voter behaviour than had been thought. The economic meltdown led many white voters to put racial concerns on the back burner. That said, the ‘racial neutrality’ of the Obama campaign took matters of racist oppression largely off the table for any significant discussion, a fact that may return to haunt the incoming administration.

Obama’s mandate

Obama’s mandate is vague, yet it is identifiable in two key areas: first, to address the economic crisis immediately in a manner that favours ordinary working people; and second, to change the relationship of the US to the rest of the world. This second point is unfocused, but it is evident that voters are increasingly concerned about the perception of the US overseas and what that means for matters of national security.

Most people were unfamiliar with the actual programmatic steps Obama is advocating on the economy, yet they were unwilling to be swayed by the red-baiting rhetoric of McCain/Palin, who called Obama a ‘socialist’. This may offer an opportunity for progressives to advance a redistributionist approach.

With regard to foreign policy, this is extremely complicated and quite troubling. While Obama has emphasised the need for negotiations as a first step towards better international relations, when confronted by forces to his right he has tended to back down and suggest military and crypto-military options in handling crises, such as unilateral attacks on al-Qaeda bases in Pakistan. Some people around Obama also seem to be advocating a get-tough approach towards Iran, which itself could lead to hostilities. While the US people, by and large, are not looking for more war, the ability of the political right to manufacture the ever-present threat from right-wing Islamists (including but not limited to targeting Iran) has successfully promoted a climate of fear. This will, more than likely, be a weak point for the president-elect and a place where pressure must be placed by anti-war forces.

The world is expecting a great deal from an Obama administration. Obama will more than likely reach out to traditional US allies to repair the damage done by the Bush administration. There will more than likely be outreach to Africa too. As a senator, Obama expressed a great deal of interest in Africa, and developed legislation focusing on the ongoing crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He will probably try to alter the relationship of the US to Africa, though it is not clear how thorough such an alteration will be. We should expect outreach to the African Union to offer support in cases of humanitarian disasters and crises, but unless Obama is prepared to break with the whole ‘war against terror’ framework there may be continued militarisation of the continent (through vehicles such as Africom and the Trans-Sahel Military Initiative).

Critical support

Progressives will need to perfect an approach of ‘critical support’ towards the Obama administration. The corporate backers of president-elect Obama have no interest in a transformative agenda; they are interested in stabilising capitalism. They are open to selective nationalisations as long as these do not bring with them significant popular accountability. We will need to be organised in such a way to mount a challenge from the left. President Obama will need to be pushed in many areas, including foreign policy, healthcare, housing, jobs, and, in general, the need for a pro-people approach to the economic crisis. Critical support means, tactically, pointing out what has not been accomplished in the Obama agenda on the one hand, and, on the other, challenging the new administration when it advances policies that are regressive, such as threatening Iran or Cuba, or compromising on healthcare.

Critical support also means raising issues that the Obama administration may tend to shy away from, such as race and racism. Race is fused into the US system. Racist oppression and the differential in treatment between people of colour and whites remains a major part of the US reality. For that reason, progressives must push the Obama administration to address the continuing impact of racist oppression. This may lead to clashes that appear to be tactical (matters of timing), but are actually quite fundamental (about whether there needs to be a systemic challenge to racist oppression).

None of this happens in the absence of organisation. Those who rallied to the Obama campaign came from various political tendencies and experiences, and many of them will seek to return to their ‘everyday life’. At the same time, there are those who mobilised who are looking to be part of implementing the ‘dream’ and they will be unable to do this as individuals operating alone. If one really wants to advance an approach of critical support for the incoming administration, it will mean creating the grass-roots organisational structures around the country that are capable of educating and mobilising the millions of people who are seeking a new direction. This approach, a neo-Rainbow Coalition approach, can be used to exert pressure to ensure that the incoming Obama administration lives up to its full potential.

So many of us cried with joy and amazement on the evening of 4 November after this historic breakthrough. Our excitement cannot rest with the electoral success, but must be fused with a genuine effort to create a new politics.

Bill Fletcher Jr is the executive editor of BlackCommentator.com and a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the co-author of Solidarity Divided, which analyses the crisis in organised labour in the US. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on BlackCommentator.com

Photographs by Stefano Serra (serrastefano@gmail.com)

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