Sunday, 9 November 2008

Obstacles to Obama's Change

I am already hearing strange things coming from the USA in the wake of Barack Obama's victory in the presidential election. The odd rumours that he was going to plunge the USA into some kind of race war and that black people will be favoured over any others. Bizarrely people did not say when George W. Bush was elected that they feared a class war or that the super-rich would be favoured over everyone else. I was fearful up to the last that this election would resemble the UK election of 1992 at which it was assumed that the Labour Party would win and end 13 years of bleak Conservative rule. However, at the last, the 'grey man', John Major pulled off a surprise victory which led to a further 5 years of Conservative rule, whilst not as proactively nasty as the period under Thatcher, still a period of economic troubles and social division. Major was held by the eccentricities of the British electoral system just as Bush had been aided by the eccentricities of the US system in 2000. Thus, it is heartening that Obama won with such a majority, 364 of the college votes to McCain's 162, which was 94 more than the 270 Obama needed to win. The fact that he took all the Great Lake states shows the advantage for the Democrats of selecting him over Clinton. Also vitally important is the fact that the Democrats have majorities in both houses of Congress and Obama will not face the opposition to policies from that quarter that previous Democrat politicians have faced.

In 1997 when Tony Blair won the election in the UK for New Labour with the largest majority in living memory people expected radical change in British society of the kind they are expecting from Obama. Of course many people had been deluded and they had elected not a Labour government but a Blairite government, which effectively was simply an invigorated version of the Major Conservative government which had just led office. Naturally the reason why Blair attracted support was that he was not radical and presented no threat to the majority of the British public who are conservative and want the status quo maintained in so many aspects of British life, even if that leads to a weaker economy and wide social division. They always see the reason in scapegoats rather than realising that the UK needed substantial change.

I feel, and I hope I am right, that Obama represents a government that actually does want true change rather than simply using the rhetoric of it. To some degree there would have been change whoever had been elected President in the USA or if there had been no outcome and the Speaker of the House of Representatives had stepped in to fill the gap. This is because Bush was utterly incompetent. He lacked the intelligence to run a company let alone a country. He did not really even effectively carry out the Republican agenda. It was embarrassing to see him speak because he simply showed up his ignorance and inability to address the office he held. Even Ronald Reagan, despite his substantial flaws, came across as slightly more in control, and that is a shocking comparison to have to make. In fact John F. Kennedy dead, would have made a better president that Bush alive, because even though his image has been augmented beyond the truth, his legend presents a better guide to how the USA should be run than Bush ever could.

Though I am not doubtful of Obama's sincere wish to change the USA, I think still faces major challenges in bringing about genuine reform. The first problem is that people are so willing to believe the lies. Hearing white Americans from states that elected Obama, commenting that he will be running the USA like an African state, shows the level of racism still prevalent in the USA. All the rumours around Barack Obama being a Kenyan were also silly. Anyone who knows the US constitution would know if that had been the case he never would have been able to stand for the position (this is why Arnold Schwarznegger can never be US President under current laws) and the Democratic Party would have never made such a blunder. Such a level of ignorance opens people up to believe whatever lies are levelled at the new president and Obama is constantly going to have to fight such ridiculous stories even before he can explain his policies. What these people do not realise is that Obama represents so many aspects of the 'American dream'. All people in the USA are immigrants. Even the ancestors of the native Americans, immigrate into the continent from Asia. Many people in the USA have ancestors of different races, Barack Obama has a white mother and a black father. Obama, his parents and his wife all benefited from the US attitude to education which sees it as a way to get on and improve yourself. So, attempts to portray Obama as somehow alien to US culture fails immediately.

The other key obstacles to Obama will come from vested interests. The US$ did go from US$1.67 to £1 to US$1.58, but we have not seen the stock exchange 'bounce' that you usually witness following a US election no matter who has won. This is partly due to the ongoing financial crisis, but also shows that the super-rich know that their man, Bush, is going and they will not receive such preferential treatment as they have seen since 2000. Bush said these people were his core constituency and his policies have been mainly to help them. He secured Iraqi oil to keep it out of the hands of the Chinese and he baled out the banks who had brought themselves down by their greed. Such policies will not be pursued by Obama. In fact quite likely they would not have been pursued by McCain. However, I will anticipate a capital flight from the USA as the big investors seek to salt away funds so that they will not be asked to contribute to social reform programmes in the USA. Bush did do one thing in Obama's favour by nationalising AIG in September. This could provide a useful basis for a reformed social insurance scheme for the USA and the stigma of 'creeping Socialism' which has long been used against real social reform in the USA can be diverted to Bush's lap rather than Obama's.

In introducing reforms especially in economic and the social sectors, Obama will face the might of US big business. Brown has seen how tough this can be in the UK when he tried to introduce a windfall tax on the very wealthy power companies here, and Obama will face similar opposition, effectively blackmailing the president by holding consumers to ransom. Both Brown and Obama need to gain state control of the real levers of the economy whilst facing condemnation that this is 'wrong', 'dictatorial' or 'unhealthy' in a 'free' market economy. Of course there is no 'free' market it is just the way those who actually control it portray it. Markets have always been manipulated, since the 1980s almost exclusively in favour of those who already have money and power so they can protect and augment that money and power and reduce the gains of the rest of society made in the 1940s-1970s. Obama will not be able to overturn such ingrained power, especially as the 'norm' now says that state intervention is evil, when in fact it can really benefit far more people than any effect of the market could ever do. It would take at least a decade to shift away from this terrible 'free' market attitude that shackles so many people to life without opportunity. If Obama was becoming president after 8 years of the Gore administration, well then, things might be different, but unfortunately this is real history not a 'what if?'. Divisive, super-rich friendly policies are so fixed into Western societies that it is going to require more than one or two terms of office to alter them.

Obama will not only face harsh opposition from those who have power but also often from the ordinary people who will actually benefit from his reforms. It is fascinating how hostile the ordinary American is to policies which would actually help them (many Britons are the same though). They have been so misled by politicians like Bush to think that anything which makes the USA a more socially equal place or at least one where the people at the bottom (the majority) do not suffer so much, is somehow unpatriotic. Too many Americans believe that they will gain through force. This is why there is so much adherence to the use of guns. People feel they buy them a place in society whereas in fact they just contribute further to the deterioration of that society. The post-apocalyptic myths are still too strong in the USA. Too many Americans believe that in a 'simpler' society they would be better off, whereas in fact, those with the power currently would be the barons of such a landscape. More Americans, whites particularly, need to see how their ancestors were exploited and had short, bleak lives. They were not successful or powerful, they were ground down in the way current working class is by the US system. Despite this somehow many white Americans in that category today see such a society as being better. Blacks look back to slavery and can see how things have improved, but whites need to learn much more how far they have come in the past century in the USA but also how much further they could go if they did not think a gun buys them a good life. Of course one great fear is that someone will assassinate Obama. Of course it will win him yet more profile in history but it will deny the ordinary American the reform they need and the rest of the World the peace they require.

For the sake of the World I wish Barack Obama all the best in trying to bring about change. However, I am not going to be among the critics in 2012 complaining that he has not changed much at all, because I am already aware of how many people with so much power and wealth, aided by the entrenched attitudes of so many others, will be out to stop him.

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