The inauguration of Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States of America, is a source of intense hope for a great many American workers. More people than ever before, including more people from Afro-American and Latino backgrounds, turned out to vote for Obama in the November 2008 elections.
His emphasis on the importance of “change” mobilised tens of millions, deeply disillusioned with the state of their country and the inability of the current political system to change it, to reinvest some hope in American democracy and become active politically for the first time.
265 trade unionists, including members of both of America’s main union federations (AFL-CIO and Change to Win) participated in Obama’s official inauguration day parade. The union float carried placards with slogans such as “healthcare for all”, and “good jobs, green jobs.”
The AFL-CIO’s website highlights the participation of Maria Somma, a Vietnamese immigrant, who said: “it’s very exciting to be welcoming a person of colour into the White House and to be a part of history. For Barack Obama to come from his background and rise to the top is not the typical American story. His inauguration is part of the transition of this nation to fully embrace all its citizens.”
Somma’s attitude reflects the feeling among many American workers that Obama’s election represents a real, qualitative “transition”.
Socialists shouldn’t be dismissive of these hopes; with segregation still a living memory and slavery only a few generations in the past, the election of a black president is a deeply significant event. And despite the vacuity of so much of Obama's rhetoric, the fact that millions of workers in the most powerful capitalist country in the world are coming to believe that progressive political change is possible is good news for revolutionaries. So we abjure cynical disdain for the hope which would castigate ignorant Yankee proles who don’t realise that Obama merely represents capitalism
But our job, to paraphrase Leon Trotsky, is to tell the truth at all times, no matter how bitter it may be.
Obama’s party, the Democratic Party, is as much a party of capital as its Republican rival. Obama is as much a politician of the ruling-class as his defeated opponent John McCain. Despite making healthcare a primary plank of his campaign, he opposes a single-payer system which would, according to American socialist Barry Finger, writing in Solidarity before the election, “cut duplicative, overhead administrative costs and applies those savings to cover the uninsured.”
Despite his anti-war posturing, he supports the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan and moreover favours its escalation.
He supports the death penalty.
He voted in favour of building a 700-mile long fence across the Mexican border designed to stop desperate immigrants fleeing Mexico for the US.
Despite the euphoric hope of many US trade unionists it is far from certain that the Employee Free Choice Act, a basic piece of pro-union legislation that would make it easier for unions to gain workplace recognition, will get passed under an Obama presidency.
Obama’s appeal to America's disenfranchised, workers and poor is not on the basis of accountable, direct representation, or even on those people mobilising to assert themselves politically. It is a populist appeal, based on asking people in general, of all classes, to invest their hope for change in the figure of Obama himself.
In this, and indeed in many other respects, he bears a striking similarity to Franklin Roosevelt — a similarity which is made even more profound by the economic crises that define the beginnings of both presidencies.
Obama’s election also has a certain amount in common with New Labour’s victory in 1997; a shared euphoria at finally ending a length period of government by brutal conservatives. Then, as now, the hope was understandable but it cannot be based on illusions.
None of this is to imply that Obama will necessarily be as bad in office as the arch-conservative John McCain would have been, (or as George Bush was). We should be clear about what we believe he is, but equally importantly we (or rather our American comrades) should attempt to harness the hope and direct it.
Obama has promised “change”, but we know that lasting, fundamental and meaningful social change can only be won by workers' struggle from below.
The inspiring campaign of the Chicago workers who occupied their workplace in protest against job-losses proves that elements of the American labour movement are still capable of taking radical direct action.
The Roosevelt era was full of workers’ struggles that occasionally reached near-revolutionary pitch; the Minneapolis and Toledo strikes of 1934, in which Trotskyist activists were central, are particular examples. The American left must aim to reinvigorate the spirit and tradition of those struggles.
It is entirely possible that Obama's presidency will open up greater opportunities for workers’ struggle than have existed in America for a decade or more. If those opportunities do present themselves, it will not be enough to simply “hope”, and rely on Obama to deliver change from on high. Don’t celebrate, organise!