The real battles lie ahead

April 22, 2009

Millions of people looked forward to Barack Obama's presidency with a sense of pride and hope. But Obama's first 100 days have raised critical questions about the limits of what we can expect from a Democrat in the White House--and what it will take to get the change we want.

What do you think of Obama's 100 days? And what does the left need to do now to move the struggle forward? We asked a group of writers and activists for their answers to these questions. This commentary is from Sharon Smith, a columnist and author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States and Women and Socialism: Essay's on Women's Liberation.

FORMER HOUSE Speaker Newt Gingrich, along with former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and other architects of the "Republican Revolution" of the 1990s, now hope to resuscitate their careers through bold opposition to all things Obama.

On April 15, they aimed to ignite a tax revolt by organizing angry mobs for teabag protests around the country. But only their colleagues at Fox News seemed convinced that these staged events represented a sea change in popular opinion.

These Republican has-beens have grossly underestimated the degree of class anger toward the wealthy elites whose interests they so proudly represent. As Huffington Post blogger Paul Abrams noted recently, Armey "complained on Meet the Press that too many lower income wage-earners were taken off the tax rolls, and that they ought to be paying higher taxes. He went on to say, and to gesture with his hands so it was clear what he meant, that that would enable us to lower taxes on the top bracket."

The hysterical right described above continues to insist that Obama has imposed socialism on an unwilling American majority. Yet Obama remains a very popular president, with approval ratings still consistently in the 60 percent range. Indeed, Republican hostility toward the Obama administration has, if anything, only exaggerated his accomplishments.

To be sure, Obama has finally broken the chokehold that the Christian Right held on Washington for the last three decades. He ended the global "gag rule" signed into law by Bush that banned U.S. funds to any family planning agency around the world that allowed abortion to be mentioned as an option in the case of an unwanted pregnancy. He has restored federal funding for stem-cell research.

But such changes in policy are actually a matter of political expediency in today's liberal climate. Obama is following, not leading, majority opinion in the U.S.

The pendulum has been swinging leftward since the Democrats swept Congress in November 2006. The Republican Party's current internal crisis is the result of its own unwillingness to end its fealty to its Christian Right voting base when majority sentiment has turned decisively away from its hate-based politics.

A few far-sighted Republicans have also drawn this conclusion. John McCain's top campaign adviser, Steve Schmidt, recently acknowledged that the Republican Party's religious stands are "off-putting to many people"--as he urged the party to end its opposition to same-sex marriage.

After Obama’s 100 days

What do you think of Obama's first 100 days? And what does the left need to do now to move the struggle forward?

We asked a group of writers and activists for their answers to these questions, and published their contributions to a roundtable discussion on "After Obama’s 100 Days: Where Do We Go from Here?"

Sharon Smith
The real battles lie ahead

Dave Zirin
Bursting Washington's bubble

Mike Davis
Plutocrats 1, Workers 0

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Race and racism under Obama

Bill Fletcher Jr.
New openings to push Obama

Lance Selfa
Change that's still to come

Rose Aguilar
How much has really changed?

Haidar Eid
The complicit silence continues

Lee Sustar
Blank check for the bankers

Brian Jones
The sense of possibility

In an address to the Log Cabin Republicans, the party's gay organization, Schmidt argued, "It seems to me that denying two consenting adults of the same sex the right to form a lawful union that is protected and respected by the state denies them two of the most basic natural rights affirmed in the preamble of our Declaration of Independence--liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

BUT ANY honest assessment of Obama's first 100 days in office must acknowledge that his administration has fallen far short of his campaign promises.

Populist rhetoric aside, Obama's response to the banking crisis has differed little from Bush's before him. The Feds are still throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at the same Wall Street banks that caused the housing crisis, while millions of working-class Americans continue to lose their homes to foreclosure.

And the bailout has failed to achieve even its stated purpose of easing the credit crunch by encouraging banks to start lending again. The biggest banking recipients of taxpayer money lent 23 percent less in February than last October, when the bailout began, according to the Wall Street Journal. Foreclosures rose 17 percent just between February and March.

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Hear Sharon Smith at Socialism 2009 in Chicago and San Francisco, speaking on "The Role of Radicals in the Working-Class Struggle" and "The Return of Socialism." Check out the Socialism 2009 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

Yet Obama warned recently, "There will be more job loss, more foreclosures and more pain" in store for working-class people, as if he could do nothing to prevent it. On the contrary, if the president can dedicate hundreds of billions to bank bailouts, he certainly has the power to offer real help to the unemployed and those losing their homes--increasingly due to job loss.

And despite Obama's much-ballyhooed handshake last week with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (who Gingrich, on his morning talk show rounds, bolstered as "the enem[y] of America"), Obama's foreign policy changes amount to more form than substance. Shutting down Guantánamo Bay is a welcome blow against torture, but continuing renditions to countries that allow torture is a continuation of Bush's policies.

Cuba is another example that has made the news recently. Obama enacted a couple of very timid reforms a couple of weeks ago, relaxing restrictions on Cuban-Americans' travel to Cuba and on their ability to send remittances to their families--which were predictably greeted with outrage by Republicans.

But this move can hardly be described as a bold action in improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Although Obama pledged to end the embargo against Cuba back in 2004 while running for the U.S. Senate, as president, he has reversed himself on this key issue, arguing that continuing the embargo allows the U.S. more leverage to pressure the Cuban government to make democratic reforms.

ORDINARILY, THE first 100 days of a presidency establishes its political character. But these are not ordinary times.

The scale of the economic crisis today has not been matched since the Great Depression of the 1930s. As such, Obama now finds himself, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt did then, at the helm of a thoroughly corrupted capitalist system.

Contrary to the popular mythology about Roosevelt's New Deal, he did not take office with the intention of implementing widespread working-class reforms, but rather of salvaging the capitalist system.

His first legislative accomplishment was the Emergency Banking Act aimed at rescuing the financial system. His second was the opposite of a stimulus plan, a bill cutting government workers' salaries by 15 percent, while slashing veterans' benefits. His third legislative accomplishment was the Volstead Act, allowing the sale of beer and wine, which had been banned by Prohibition.

Even the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), while establishing minimum pay and maximum work hours, also offered a very large carrot for big business--giving corporations the authority to make agreements controlling prices and output, defying established anti-trust laws.

The NIRA's infamous Clause 7a authorizing collective bargaining was interpreted both as a green light for company unions by employers, and also for labor unions by workers. The outcome was determined only after an upheaval of class struggle in the years that followed.

Roosevelt did not sign the signature legislation of the New Deal until 1935, when he was seeking re-election--and only then, after a massive rise in working-class struggle. Roosevelt granted Social Security and the Wagner Act, at last guaranteeing workers the right to choose their own collective bargaining agent, to motivate working-class voters in 1935, when he was getting ready to run for re-election. He won by a landslide.

But Obama's first 100 days have paralleled the early days of Roosevelt's administration. Both took office with the intention of balancing the interests of labor and capital, and both succeeded in the short term. But the interests of these two contending classes are diametrically opposed, and as the crisis continues, class struggle holds the potential to dramatically shift the direction of the Obama administration.

A significant rise in struggle can easily bypass the political parameters of Obama's present policies. Already, we have seen a glimpse of this possibility in the battle for same-sex marriage--which Obama opposes. The spontaneous protests after the passage of California's Prop 8 quickly spread across the country. Since that time, popular sentiment has become much more supportive of gay marriage in the face of a series of legal victories in California, Iowa and Vermont.

It is no longer a matter of whether, but only when, same-sex marriage is a legal right. That will be the first victory for our side in the battles that lie ahead.

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