Change Lite from the Obama White House

The political sea change at the level of ideas hasn't been matched by the development of movements that can force the politicians to act.

EVERY PRESIDENTIAL election in which the "out" party knocks out the incumbent party brings promises of "change" from the incoming administration.

Columnist: Lance Selfa

Lance Selfa Lance Selfa is the author of The Democrats: A Critical History, a socialist analysis of the Democratic Party, and editor of The Struggle for Palestine, a collection of essays by leading solidarity activists. He is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review.

This was never more evident than last November, when Barack Obama, running as the candidate of change against a widely unpopular Republican-led administration, scored a sound and groundbreaking win.

The victory wasn't Obama's alone. For the first time in 15 years--and for only the second time since the 1970s--the majority of the electorate gave the Democrats full control over Washington, from the White House to the Congress.

But fewer than six months into the new administration, we're finding out just what kind of "change" that Obama and the Democrats have in mind.

As usually happens in the U.S.'s corporate-controlled political system, the atmospherics of "change" belie a reality in which there is a lot more continuity between administrations than the election rhetoric--and what people thought they were voting for--predicted.

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TAKE THE related issues of Obama's announced intention to close the Guantánamo Bay prison camp and his repudiation of Bush-era policies of torture. On these issues, the media whipped themselves into a frenzy when former vice president and torture defender Dick Cheney and Obama staged dueling May 22 speeches intended to justify their respective views on these issues.

Barack Obama

One could ask why someone as thoroughly discredited and unpopular as Cheney receives a hearing at all. And yet after all the hot air dissipated, we were left with the result that Obama had accepted many Bush policies--military tribunals to try detainees and indefinite detention based on presidential fiat, among them--as his own.

Coupled with his double-speak on torture--Obama repudiated the Bush policies as illegal, but wouldn't actually prosecute anyone who executed them--you have the makings of a presidential betrayal.

In fact, it's not out of the question to ask if a more full-fledged capitulation to Bush-Cheney is in the offing--as in the Obama administration deciding to keep Guantánamo open. Democrats in both houses of Congress already made that possibility more likely by voting in overwhelming numbers to deny funding for closing the camp.

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Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, attended a meeting with Obama and major human rights groups held prior to Obama's Guantánamo speech.

He wasn't satisfied, telling reporters: "The president was very open to hearing CCR's concerns on a range of Guantánamo policy issues, but I came out of the meeting deeply disappointed in the direction the administration is taking, and I don't see meaningful differences between these detention policies and those erected by President Bush."

On the issue of climate change, congressional Democrats are in the initial stages of passing a "cap and trade" bill that would cap carbon-based emissions and allow corporate polluters who exceed that limit to buy government-backed credits to cover the gap.

In theory, this "free market" solution--forcing business to buy credits to pollute--would give businesses the incentive to lower their emissions. As Budget Director Peter Orzag told Congress in March: "If you didn't auction the permit, it would represent the largest corporate welfare program that has ever been enacted in the history of the United States."

Yet as the Wall Street Journal's David Wessel pointed out in an analysis of the bills passing through liberal House Rep. Henry Waxman's committee, 85 percent of the energy credits would be given away to business through 2026. The remaining 15 percent up for auction are those that are meant to fund programs to help low-income people pay their energy bills!

Nevertheless, even though the cap in trade legislation is shaping up to be a massive corporate welfare program, Obama hailed the bill as a "historic leap."

When we turn to foreign policy, we find an even bigger shift taking place. Here, Obama made no secret of his desire to break with the Bush administration's obsession with the war in Iraq and its "neglect" of Afghanistan. And the administration appears largely to be following through on its promises.

The problem is that the promises embody a policy of "rebooting" the imperial project that, if it has any chance of succeeding, will plunge the U.S. into a multi-year commitment in Southwest Asia that may end up being an even bigger disaster than the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

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AS ONE ticks off this list of Obama administration policies, it would be easy to make the case that last November's election didn't really change anything. But that would be the wrong conclusion.

There's little doubt that we are living through a different political era than what we've known for much of the last 30 years. Most opinion polls place support for the Republican Party--still identified as the main representative of American conservatism--at somewhere near Watergate-era levels.

And a widely reported April poll by the respected but right-leaning research firm Rasmussen Reports found that only a bare majority of Americans said they supported "capitalism" over "socialism." One out of three Americans under age 30 said they preferred a socialist system, according to Rasmussen.

A Pew Center for People and Press comparison of political attitudes in 1987 and today shows that Americans are much less conservative on social issues, and far less religious, than they were two decades ago.

This sea change at the level of ideas indicates that most Americans are interested in a break from the past. If the U.S. government enacted a bold new health care reform or a commitment to help homeowners or job seekers, it is likely to find much more public support than conservative, moderate (or even many liberal) politicians are willing to grant. Yet those politicians will not grant reforms on their own. Only a powerful movement from below can force them to.

Unfortunately, those movements have not yet developed. And until they do, popular aspirations will continue to be frustrated by backroom deals between corporate lobbyists, the Obama administration and members of Congress. Moreover, if our side allows its "friends" in the administration and Congress to define the limits of what's possible, we will always come up short.

The likely defeat of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a measure that would make it easier to organize unions if a majority of workers in a workplace signs cards in favor, is a testament to this. As the Los Angeles Times' Tom Hamburger reported May 19, despite the key role that labor union mobilization for Obama played in his election:

Once [Obama] was elected, labor leaders made a fateful decision. Originally, they had planned to keep in place their extensive network of field organizers, who had just worked to elect Democratic candidates, and ask them to build pressure on lawmakers to vote for card check.

Instead, they changed course. The labor groups scaled back, partly to give Obama time to get his bearings amid the deepening economic crisis. Business groups, meanwhile, had started work well before the election and did not stop.

The result of this decision is the likely defeat of EFCA without its even coming to a vote in Congress.

The vicious corporate assault on EFCA--and Democrats' fleeing from support for it--should give us a taste of the type of opposition that we're up against. And it should tell us that for whatever reform we want--from health care for all, to an end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq--a different approach is essential.

What's needed isn't a better lobbying strategy or flashier media, but a broad, independent and militant movement that won't be placated with empty rhetoric or allow its demands to be ignored.