Is this where change will come from?

December 2, 2008

What our side does to make our voices heard and demands felt is the key to the shape of the new era in American politics.

"POWER CONCEDES nothing without a demand," said the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. "It never did, and it never will."

Those words are worth reflecting on for anyone who hoped that Barack Obama's election as president would, by itself, produce a new course in Washington.

To judge from his appointments to Cabinet and staff positions, Obama's "new" course is more like 10 years old, picked up used from the presidency of Bill Clinton. The new administration is filling up with veterans from the last Democratic one, with Hillary Clinton at the top of the list--the same people who pushed through deregulation of the financial system, who championed welfare "reform" and "small government," and who carried on the genocidal U.S. war on Iraq.

One exception to this not-so-new course is a veteran of the same-old course under George W. Bush. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will stay on under Obama, to finish the job he started after taking over from Donald Rumsfeld of repackaging the occupation of Iraq and escalating the war on Afghanistan.

Barack Obama's picks for his administration include HIllary Clinton, James Jones and Robert Gates (speaking)
Barack Obama's picks for his administration include HIllary Clinton, James Jones and Robert Gates (speaking) (Jim Watson | AFP)

Short of bringing back Rumsfeld or asking Dick Cheney to stick around, it's hard to think of an appointment more diametrically opposed to the promise of change that inspired tens of millions of people to vote for Obama.

At the same time, it will be important to resist the impression that the die is cast--even before Obama's inauguration--for a four- or eight-year rerun of the Clinton era.

Some of the faces from those years may be returning to the White House, but they can't bring with them the same conditions of economic boom times and conservative political dominance that shaped the Clinton presidency.

On the contrary, the Obama administration is faced, even before taking office, with the worst crisis of the economy since the Great Depression--and the conservative stranglehold over U.S. politics for a quarter century under Republicans and Democrats alike has been broken. Even the most dyed-in-the-wool neoliberals and triangulators from the Clinton years can't respond with the same old answers.

What will the new answers be? That's the most important question, and it depends crucially on what our side does to make our voices heard and demands felt, regardless of who sits in Obama's Cabinet.

The challenge now is to connect the high hopes and expectations in Obama that led to the massive turnout on November 4 to every opportunity to mobilize those voices.

AT ONE level, it's not a surprise that a presidential candidate who comes squarely from the moderate mainstream of the Democratic Party leadership should be filling his administration with people who come squarely from the moderate mainstream of the Democratic Party leadership. Obama's rhetoric about change was always more radical than his actual policies and political positions.

Still, the consistency with which Obama has made establishment choices and avoided even tame liberal alternatives is striking.

In picking his economic team, Obama bypassed progressives like the Economic Policy Institute's Jared Bernstein, and went for protégés of Clinton's Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin--a man who bears as much responsibility as anyone for the Wall Street financial crisis, both in political office in the 1990s and as the head of Citigroup afterward.

"The ultimate irony, of course," wrote Washington Post writer Steven Pearlstein, "is that just as Rubin and Co. at Citi were being bailed out by the Bush administration, President-elect Barack Obama was getting set to announce a new economic team drawn almost entirely from Rubin acolytes."

At Homeland Security, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano will take over--which would put her in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. As author and activist David Bacon wrote, "[T]he situation of immigrants in Arizona is worse than almost anywhere else. Napolitano herself has publicly supported most of the worst ideas of the Bush administration, including guest worker programs with no amnesty for the currently undocumented, and brutal enforcement schemes like E-Verify and workplace raids."

Then there's foreign policy, where Obama's new team inspired right-winger Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard to celebrate the "surprising continuity on foreign policy between President Bush's second term and the incoming administration...certainly nothing that represents a drastic change in how Washington does business."

There may be some gestures toward liberals when less prominent administration roles get filled, but it will hard for any of them to overshadow the message Obama sent with these appointments.

Remember that the most important issue in Obama's crucial early victories in the Democratic primaries was the Iraq war. He insisted on his opposition to the invasion before it took place and hammered his main opponent Hillary Clinton for voting as a senator to authorize the war.

So what does it say about Obama's opposition to the war then--and the importance he places on the question now--that he chose war supporters for his vice president (Joe Biden), his secretary of state (Hillary Clinton) and just about every other major foreign policy position in his administration?

Obama's national security adviser will be retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, who shared a Springfield, Mo., stage during the campaign with not Obama but John McCain, and was considered a possible vice presidential running mate.

And, of course, there's Robert Gates. He was brought on as defense secretary from the "responsible adult" faction of the Republican Party to clean up the mess made by Rumsfeld and Cheney.

Gates was a prime architect of the 2007 "surge" of combat troops that escalated the violence in Iraq. The relative stability established since--not primarily as a result of the surge itself--has led to a bipartisan consensus that unites Republican hawks and both pro-war and "antiwar" Democrats: a highly conditional withdrawal of some U.S. troops, maintenance of an apparatus of occupation with the acquiescence of the Iraqi government, and the further projection of U.S. power in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region.

Socialist Worker has always argued that the Republican and Democratic wings of the bipartisan political establishment agree on the aims of U.S. war and empire, and differ on tactics. The outlines of Obama's administration show that sometimes, they don't even differ on tactics.

SO HAS the promise of change under an Obama administration already been buried under the weight of recycled Clintonites and Republican holdovers, as some alarmed liberal commentators seem to be saying?

Their frustration with Obama's appointments is more than justified. But they shouldn't succumb to the mistaken belief that the policies of the future administration will be determined solely by the ideological inclinations of the Cabinet secretaries and advisers around the president. That's really just the flip side of the illusion that Obama would turn Washington politics upside down from day one.

On the economy, for example, Obama and his advisers all recognize--along with most of Wall Street and Corporate America, for that matter--that the old neoliberal remedies they loyally touted in the past are part of the problem now, not the solution.

Thus, Lawrence Summers, a Clinton treasury secretary who preached the importance of reducing the federal budget deficit, is now, as head of Obama's National Economic Council, regularly upping his estimate--$300 billion, $500 billion, $600 billion--of how large the administration's initial economic stimulus package should be.

In other words, the scale of the problems facing the economy will drive old neoliberals like Summers toward a different agenda.

This isn't to say that who Obama selects is insignificant. The instinct for all these officials will be to fall back on the familiar policies of the past. And in some cases, such as foreign policy, the establishment consensus is that Obama should do nothing different at all--that the U.S. has turned the corner on the disasters of the Bush administration, and the new administration should "buy into the change that has already occurred," wrote the Wall Street Journal's Gerald Seib.

But even on this front, the real world will present questions that can't be answered in the same old way. If the Obama administration turns to outdated solutions on the economy or other issues, those solutions will fail--and will have to be junked eventually, one way or another.

Even more important is the factor that never enters the Washington conventional wisdom: the struggle from below and how much pressure it exerts on the administration.

The best illustration of this was the outpouring of protest that followed the narrow victory of the Prop 8 same-sex marriage ban in California. Tens of thousands of people came out to quickly organized demonstrations--not least among them the 18,000 couples who would have their marriages annulled if the referendum goes into effect.

The response of Democrats and mainstream gay rights organizations to Prop 8--caution and retreat--has been a striking contrast. In New York, for example, Democratic state Sen. Liz Krueger explained that plans to pass a law legalizing same-sex marriage needed to be put off. "We want to get there, but we want to get there the right way, or else we risk setting ourselves back another decade," Krueger told the New York Times. "I think the California proposition...[has] a lot of people going back to the drawing board."

That conclusion couldn't be more at odds with the sentiment among the demonstrators who both celebrated the defeat of the right at the national level with Obama's election and protested Prop 8.

Their actions turned the tide of opinion much more effectively than the tame No on 8 campaign organized by mainstream LGBT groups before the election, which was tailored to be as inoffensive as possible. After the protests, even Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had to state that he hoped the referendum would be struck down.

In circumstances like these, what individuals do to take a stand is enormously important. Without, for example, the handfuls of people--many of them without experience in activism--who took the initiative to call out the demonstrations, the prevailing response to Prop 8 would still be defensive and passive.

Of course, not every attempt will see the same big results as the protests against Prop 8. But the history of movements of the past shows that the modest steps taken to prepare the ground have been indispensable for every major stride forward. So have the debates and discussions among activists about what the struggle is about and how best to organize.

The same dynamics apply to other questions today. For example, organized labor is looking forward to seeing Obama honor his promise to support the Employee Free Choice Act that would make it easier for workers to join unions. Yet according to reports, top union officials are hesitating to go all out to mobilize support, fearing that a "backlash" from Corporate America would alienate them from their allies in the new administration.

But big business has already thrown down the gauntlet on this question--and it's likely to get its way if there isn't a fight. What individual labor activists do now to mobilize for that fight matters a lot--whether that's by taking advantage of every opportunity opened up by labor leaders, such as the state AFL-CIO meetings planned to mobilize for labor's political agenda, or by organizing new initiatives.

Our side has an important advantage in struggles like these over where we stood in past years. The Obama election has stirred high hopes for the future among millions of people who were previously unsure or demoralized about the possibilities of real change in U.S. society.

Among the people who were politicized by the debate during the campaign and energized by the effort to elect a candidate who appealed to their expectations of something different, many will sense that it's time to put their efforts into something new--something that will take them further along the path to change.

A new era has opened up in American politics, but the shape of that era--the pace of change, the priorities that get set--is still to be determined. What our side does to make our voices heard and demands felt is the key.

In other words: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will."

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