Change that’s still to come

April 29, 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 Lance Selfa, a columnist and author of The Democrats: A Critical History.

ACCORDING TO the Gallup Poll, Barack Obama will wrap up his first 100 days in office as the most popular president in 30 years. That time period includes the patron saint of the American Right, Ronald Reagan.

This is testament to the desire of the majority of the U.S. public to stick with the decision it made last November--to break with a generation of conservative rule.

Support for Obama among the population surely stands out as his first few months in office has raised criticism from different quarters of the media and political establishment, as well as from liberals who would normally count themselves in his corner.

The opposition from the right so far has been unfocused and largely ineffectual. The motley crew of "tea-baggers" who turned out April 15, radio yakker Rush Limbaugh, and second-rate politicians like Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Texas secessionist Gov. Rick Perry are a pretty sorry excuse for an opposition.

On the other side of the spectrum, most liberals remain strong supporters of Obama's plans, despite their reservations about the administration's kowtowing to Wall Street bankers and its half-heartedness in advancing priorities like the Employee Free Choice Act and health care reform.

OBAMA'S FIRST three months in office should also remind anyone who harbored illusions otherwise that, as the president of the United States, Obama--by definition--is there to preserve the status quo. Even if the status quo has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

Obama has taken some steps to renovate U.S. policy, from ordering the closure of the Guantánamo Bay prison camp to scrapping the global "gag rule" on abortion counseling. In contrast to the Bush administration's denial of global climate change, the Obama administration is acknowledging that this is an issue the U.S. government should tackle.

But on a number of his most important actions, his administration showed much more continuity with the Bush regime than many of his supporters would have predicted.

First, the array of programs that his chief economic adviser Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have hatched to rescue the banking system are extensions of the pro-Wall Street bailout policies of their predecessors under Henry Paulson, Bush's treasury secretary and the former head of Goldman Sachs. These plans amount to a huge transfer of wealth from working people to the banking establishment that is largely responsible for the economic crisis.

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

Obama and his advisers have swatted away liberal critics of their coddling of Wall Street, like Nobel Prize-winning economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. They have even tried to deflect outrage aimed at Wall Street titans who used taxpayers' money to pay themselves outlandish bonuses.

Obama told a group of bankers at the White House that he was "the only thing [standing] between you and the pitchforks" of angry people demanding an end to Washington's favoritism to Wall Street, according to the Washington-based newsletter Politico. If that quote is accurate, then Obama is quite conscious of his role in fronting for Wall Street, while saying that he "feels the pain" of Main Street.

Second, it was largely predictable that Obama would reaffirm a number of the most heinous Bush policies from the "war on terror."

Presidential power is cumulative. Once one president seizes it, his successors don't give it up willingly. From refusing to prosecute authors of the recently released "torture memos" to intervening on behalf of secrecy and against civil liberties in a number of "war on terror" court cases left over from the Bush years, the administration is signaling to the U.S. national security establishment that it has no intention of rolling back policy to a pre-September 11, 2001 state.

Featured at Socialism

Hear Lance Selfa at Socialism 2009 in Chicago and San Francisco, speaking on "Class Traitor or Capitalism's Savior? Roosevelt and the New Deal." Check out the Socialism 2009 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

Coupled with plans to step up intervention in Afghanistan and increase the military budget (carping from conservatives about the "cuts" in the military aside), the military certainly has nothing to fear from the Obama era.

OBAMA'S ELECTION was a part of a general move among the U.S. population to the left, or at least away from the dominant right-wing ideology that shaped American politics for a generation. This evolution is likely to continue, independently of what Obama does or doesn't do.

Witness, for instance, the gathering support for equal marriage rights across the country. Only a few years after conservatives used gay marriage as a "wedge issue" to wind up their base, two rural states--Iowa and Vermont--recently legalized gay marriage after activist campaigns put the issue on those two states' agendas. Now, even some Republicans, like McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt, are calling for the Republicans to dump gay-bashing.

And Obama's recent suggestions that the U.S. may be open to changing its bone-headed policies toward Cuba has brought forth far less wailing and knashing of teeth among all but a handful of anti-Castro diehards.

Where do we go from here? Given the mound of crises that Obama inherited, it's pretty remarkable that he appears to be in as strong a position as he is. But the future may not be as kind to him, and the public's patience may wear thin.

Right now, Obama has the advantage of having put into place a number of programs to address the economic crisis, without the results of any being visible. So people are giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Nevertheless, it's a sure bet that unemployment and economic desperation will increase over the next year or more. Obama's policies are most likely not strong enough to really arrest the economy's decline. And the risk of the U.S. being drawn deeper into a long and unpopular war in Afghanistan is inherent in Obama's drum-beating against al-Qaeda.

So there is much that could undermine Obama's current standing. And his political opposition will not be as clownish is at appears today.

This puts a premium on what has argued consistently since Obama emerged as the Democratic favorite to win the presidential nomination more than a year ago--that is, the shift in mass consciousness has to translate into mass organization that pressures the government on behalf of working people.

The yardstick of judging a new administration by its actions in its first 100 days dates, of course, from the early days of the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. Between March 9 and June 16 of that year, Roosevelt proposed, and Congress enacted, 15 major pieces of legislation, including the repeal of Prohibition, creation of the National Recovery Administration, establishment of federal unemployment insurance, jobs programs, foreclosure relief and banking regulation (the Glass-Steagall Act, whose repeal in 1999 contributed to the current crisis).

Compared to this output of legislation, Obama's stimulus package and budget resolutions don't even seem to compare.

But it's important to remember that none of these pieces of legislation in the 1930s--the beginnings of the New Deal--would have had the impact they did if ordinary people hadn't organized themselves to demand more.

Historian Thomas Sugrue's recent commentary in the Nation is well taken:

Whether Obama can tame the Great Recession, whether his mostly seasoned, Clinton-era circle of advisers will boldly experiment, and whether his presidency will ultimately be compared favorably with Roosevelt's, remains to be seen. It pays to recall that the New Deal was the result of presidential leadership and policy innovation, but also that the drama of the Great Depression and the New Deal played out in places far from the nation's capital--on New York City's streets, in Nebraska's cornfields, in Flint's auto factories and in California's shipyards.

Perhaps the biggest difference between 2009 and 1933 is that Obama has not, at least yet, been seriously tested by organized pressure from below. That might ultimately be what distinguishes FDR's administration from Obama's.

It's up to those who want to see more fundamental change than Obama is willing to contemplate to get on with creating that "organized pressure from below."

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