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Socialism Today 132 - October 2009

The end of the Obama honeymoon

JUST SEVEN months after taking office on a wave of hope and euphoria at the end of George Bush’s rule, President Barack Obama has seen a sharp fall in public support. Discontent is building from all sides, as disappointment with Obama’s inability to bring real change has brought about the end of his honeymoon.

Obama’s job approval is down to about 50% from a high of 70% on inauguration day. On Obama’s signature issue – healthcare reform – there has been a sharp fall-off in support for his approach. A CNN/Opinion Research Poll conducted at the end of August found that only 44% of Americans supported his handling of healthcare, while 53% disapproved.

According to David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, "all presidents fall from their honeymoon highs, but in the history of polling, no newly elected president has fallen this far, this fast. Anxiety is now pervasive… Fifty-nine percent of Americans now think the country is headed in the wrong direction". (1 September)

Reflecting general disgust with the political establishment, 57% say they would vote to replace the entire Congress and start all over again; 42% say people randomly selected from the phone book could do a better job than the current Congress! (Rasmussen Reports, 30 August)

The driving force pulling down Obama’s popularity is the economy. There is deep anger among workers and broad sections of the middle class at the state of the economy. Millions have lost their jobs or homes, while tens of millions are still working but are barely able to pay their bills and have seen the value of their homes and retirement savings plummet.

Opposition is also growing rapidly to the deteriorating war in Afghanistan, which Obama has sent more troops into. Support for Obama’s handing of the situation in Afghanistan is down 18 points since March, to only 49% (CNN/Opinion Research Poll, 1 September).

In the 2008 presidential election tens of millions of workers and young people voted for Obama hoping for a fundamental change from the big-business, right-wing, militaristic policies of George Bush. However since taking office Obama, while striking a more sympathetic tone, has fundamentally carried out a corporate agenda.

Measures that would make a real difference for working people – such as a massive public works programme, bailing out ordinary homeowners from their crushing mortgages, or a single-payer (general taxation-funded) healthcare system – have been rejected. At the same time Obama has continued Bush’s enormously unpopular bank bailouts, giving billions of dollars with no real strings attached to the very Wall Street crooks that sparked this crisis.

As a candidate Obama promised unions he would be a strong supporter of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a bill strengthening workers’ right to organise unions. Yet since taking office, under pressure from big business, Obama and the Congressional Democratic leaders have virtually dropped any mention of it.

On democratic rights, Obama has deeply disappointed his supporters by continuing Bush era policies on rendition and other ‘national security’ measures, at the same time refusing to prosecute top Bush officials for their criminal policies on domestic spying and torture.

While opposition to Obama has boiled up most visibly around healthcare, it is linked to anger at broader economic issues. Paul Krugman, a liberal supporter of Obama, commented that opposition to Obama’s healthcare policies are "a proxy for broader questions about the president’s priorities and overall approach… I don’t know if administration officials realise just how much damage they’ve done themselves with their kid-gloves treatment of the financial industry, just how badly the spectacle of government-supported institutions paying giant bonuses is playing". (New York Times, 21 August)

Right-wing populists have tapped into this anger at the bailouts and economic anxiety in general, directing it against a ‘big government’ takeover of healthcare and runaway deficits, while whipping up racist sentiments. Republicans have been emboldened by the Congressional town hall meetings on healthcare reform, which were dominated by protests fuelled by right-wing talk shows and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.

These protests, while financed and backed by wealthy interests such as health insurance and pharmaceutical companies, have demagogically tapped into a broader anxiety about the economy among a section of more conservative, mostly white, workers and middle class people. This has been given a particularly reactionary twist by strong overtones of racism.

Some liberal leaders have pointed to these developments as evidence of the supposedly conservative nature of Americans, arguing Obama has no choice but to move to the ‘centre’ to remain popular. However, the reality is that it is Obama’s big business policies and his failure to effectively address the economic misery facing workers that is leading to the accumulation of discontent. The question is, how will this anger be expressed?

If the left and trade unions continue to cling to Obama and the Democratic Party, it will inevitably lead to the strengthening of right-wing populist forces which can harness anti-establishment anger at the economic crisis by denouncing the ‘Washington elite’ and the bailouts, while channelling anger in a racist direction. Of course, this in itself can act as a spur for struggle among African Americans, Latinos, women, and young people who will see a dire need to confront and combat this poison.

Lost in all the media’s talk about the right-wing attacks on Obama is the fact that he is also losing support from the left. Obama’s back-peddling on the public option – a government-run health insurance plan that would compete with private insurance companies – has brought to the surface growing frustration among his more left-wing supporters.

The public option was the key ‘progressive’ element in Obama’s healthcare plan that kept left-wing supporters from rebelling and demanding an end to for-profit healthcare through a single-payer system. If Obama eventually abandons the public option, which looks increasingly likely, it will strike a serious blow to the illusions in him among a politically active minority.

While Obama is still very popular among progressive workers and youth, his support is falling. Paul Krugman argues that Obama now faces a "backlash in [his] progressive base" over healthcare, bank bailouts, Afghanistan, LGBT rights, and torture. "Progressives are now in revolt. Mr Obama took their trust for granted, and in the process lost it. And now he needs to win it back". (New York Times, 21 August)

Of course, these are still early days. Obama still rests on a deep reserve of illusions and support from wide sections of workers and youth. Public opinion polls are fickle and can swing back in Obama’s direction on the basis of new events. As Krugman alludes to, under pressure from falling support or Republican attacks, Obama may move in a more populist direction at a certain stage, which could temporarily boost his support on the left.

Further, it is one thing to register discontent in a poll, it is another thing in an election when the danger of a return to the Republicans looms. Given the disastrous experience of the Bush administration, there will inevitably be a strong revulsion to going back to Republican rule. However the experience of the first period of the Obama administration makes it absolutely clear that Obama, and the Democratic Party as a whole, are tied to Corporate America and US capitalism.

Real change will only be won through organising mass struggle from below, such as for single-payer healthcare, jobs, union rights, an end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and for full and equal rights for LGBT people. History shows again and again it is only the self-organisation and preparedness to struggle by workers and the oppressed that has won progressive gains.

The emergence of the reactionary forces mobilised at town hall meetings with their thinly veiled racism is a stark warning to workers and youth. Today these right-wing forces are a minority. But if no fighting left-wing, anti-corporate movement is built to give a coherent lead to the growing anger in US society, right-wing populism can grow and benefit from the inevitable discontent that will develop in the next period.

Fundamentally, this requires a break from the two parties of Corporate America – the Democrats and Republicans – and the building of a new political party that provides a genuine voice for workers and young people.

As TV host Bill Maher asked recently, "Shouldn’t there be one party that unambiguously supports cutting the military budget… gay marriage, higher taxes on the rich, universal health care?... What we need is an actual progressive party to represent the millions of Americans who aren’t being served by the Democrats".

This is a question that will increasingly be raised in the coming period by the most politically conscious workers and young people. Socialist Alternative will be at the forefront of this process, popularising the need for a new, broad party representing working people which fights at the ballot box and in our communities for fundamental change.

Philip Locker

Socialist Alternative (CWI USA)


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