AS THE longest-ever presidential campaign season moved into its last month, it became increasingly likely that Democrat Barack Obama would be the next president. As the ISR goes to press about three weeks before Election Day, it appears that not only will Obama win, but that he will carry with him a substantial Democratic sweep that will toss Republicans out of office at all levels of government. In the language of mainstream political analysis, 2008 is shaping up as a “wave” election that will alter the political landscape that has dominated American politics for a generation.
The ascension to the White House of an African American—in a country founded on African slavery—is historic. Obama even has a good chance of winning southern states like Virginia and North Carolina that no Democratic presidential candidate has won in decades. A huge Obama sweep will put an exclamation point on the end of a political era largely characterized by a backlash against the racial and social progress of the 1960s. The conservative domination of mainstream politics and rhetoric over the last generation began with Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” of coded racist appeals. It reached its apogee with Ronald Reagan, who proclaimed that “the South will rise again” and whipped up resentment against “welfare queens.”
But the politics that Nixon, Reagan, and their successors in the Republican right—from Newt Gingrich to George W. Bush—promoted wasn’t simply about making racism respectable. It was about creating a popular base of support for a domestic neoliberal program of tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, union-busting and cutbacks in vital government programs for the poor. Coupled with this free-market fundamentalism was a huge increase in the military budget and a more aggressive U.S. foreign policy stance.
That era now appears to be at an end. After the administration of George W. Bush, governing for most of his term with a Republican majority committed to all of the tenets of the “conservative revolution,” ordinary Americans have seen the results: two disastrous wars draining hundreds of billions from taxpayers, a major American city washed away in a flood while the government looked on, and the greatest financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression. As Obama might say, the electorate looks set to deliver the “final verdict” on the “Republican revolution,” and it won’t be pretty for the GOP.
Amidst the elation that millions will feel when they see George W. Bush and his cronies slink away from Washington will be the realization that the next four years—if not longer—will be difficult. In addition to the disaster the economic crisis will bring ordinary Americans, the U.S. will also face the prospect of repeated overseas crises. Richard Holbrooke, on the short-list to be secretary of state in an Obama administration, put it succinctly in the lead article of the September/October 2008 Foreign Affairs: “The next president will inherit a more difficult opening-day set of international problems than any of his predecessors have since at least the end of World War II. In such circumstances, his core challenge will be nothing less than to re-create a sense of national purpose and strength, after a period of drift, decline, and disastrous mistakes.”
Aside from general statements that “the next president will have to scale back his agenda and some of his proposals,” as Obama told the Associated Press, Obama and his team have been coy about what they plan to do. So far, they have spent more time talking about what they won’t cut back—the military budget, plans for health care reform, investing in infrastructure, and so on—then what they will be forced to scale back.
It would be nice to assume that health care reform, an energy and infrastructure jobs program, and aid to education wouldn’t be casualties of the ill-conceived $700 billion bailout plan passed in October (for which Obama campaigned and voted) or of future similar efforts that are sure to come. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way Washington works. You can be sure that while Obama is promising to make greedy Wall Streeters pay and promising not to cut essential programs, his advisers are reviewing ways to do exactly that. The challenge for them will be to identify not only places to cut the budget, but also ways to sell the cuts to a fed-up electorate that will be expecting relief. In the current climate, Obama will have to sell austerity in such a way that it does not appear that he is bailing out Wall Street and doing nothing, as his campaign rhetoric emphasized, for “Main Street.” That means he will have to sell the idea of shared sacrifice.
Any austerity-driven program that he and his Democratic colleagues pass will reflect the fact that they want to step up to the role of American capital’s preferred team—after an election that looks set to leave the GOP in shambles. Wall Street quite obviously leaned on the Democrats to win the unpopular bailout plan. Meanwhile, business viewed the Republicans as “irresponsible” for having provided more “no” votes than the Democrats did. One way for the Democrats to continue to rake in millions from big business is to continue spending billions to subsidize business, while providing the political cover for cutting back on spending that would benefit ordinary people.
Given that Obama is likely to have a Democratic Congress with strong majorities, he should be able to get a program passed that’s not too much different from his own proposals. So if that program ends up making unpopular cuts to sustain Wall Street bailouts or the Pentagon, he shouldn’t be allowed to use the excuse that he had to tilt right to win bipartisan support.
Nor should the Democrats be allowed to get away playing both sides of the fence—bashing the GOP for the free-market policies and wars that have produced the current disasters, while providing critical support for both of these failures. Lost in the standard partisan posturing that takes place in each election year is the fact that the Democrats are complicit in virtually all of the disasters that Obama is hanging around the Republicans’ necks. There was no more zealous supporter of deregulation, free trade, privatizing government and welfare reform than the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton. Obama’s economic advisers come from the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party.
And hearing Obama’s consistent rhetoric about “taking out” Osama bin Laden, keeping “all options on the table” regarding Iran, and stepping up the war in Afghanistan, it was sometimes hard to tell who was the neoconservative in the election—McCain or Obama. And as the Democratic Congress’s capitulation to Bush on almost all aspects of the war in Iraq has shown, a Democratic administration will want to prove itself as a responsible trustee of U.S. imperialism.
Despite all of this, millions of Americans will have voted for Obama and Democratic candidates hoping that they will act on the issues that concern the majority: ending the war in Iraq, fixing the housing mess, providing economic relief to ordinary Americans devastated by the crisis, and providing universal health care. If the mainstream political system began to raise these “liberal” issues, people’s expectations that something could be done about them would be raised. And just breaking the stifling conservative orthodoxy of the last generation would make liberalism a more viable ideological alternative for millions who want to see real social change.
But no one should expect that positive social change will come from Washington or from Obama without pressure for it. Our challenge will be to organize working people to demand that the next administration reflect their priorities, rather than Wall Street’s.
Lance Selfa is the author of The Democrats: A Critical History (Haymarket 2008).