SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 144 - December/January 2010/11

Two years in power

Obama fails to deliver

"YOU WOULD be hard-pressed to identify a piece of legislation that we have proposed out there that, net, is not good for businesses", said Barack Obama before this year’s US midterm elections. "We are pro-growth. We are fierce advocates for a thriving, dynamic free market". (, 2 October)

On the 2008 campaign trail, Obama was greeted by huge crowds based on his promises to attack special interests and abuses of corporate power. He promised to usher in a new era of progressive politics. Those seem like days from a bygone era as his supporters have had to grapple with an administration that quickly shifted to the right, failing to deliver on its promises. Instead of resting on its popular mandate to make change, his administration has disappointed its most ardent supporters by failing to enact any fundamental progressive changes.

Once in power, Obama surrounded himself with Wall Street executives and conservative foreign policy spokespersons. He handed over key positions of authority for economic policy to leading big-business figures. The appointees to his 17-member economic advisory board included billionaire Warren Buffet and CEOs and senior executives of Google, Hyatt Hotels, Time Warner, Xerox and JP Morgan Chase.

Most startlingly, his economic team did not contain a single representative from the labour movement, which gave hundreds of millions of dollars to Obama and the Democrats. Nor did it have any representatives from any other social movement organisations.

While campaigning, he railed against George W Bush’s reckless foreign policy in Iraq and made promises of a speedy withdrawal from Iraq. However, once elected, he weakened his timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and then escalated the war in Afghanistan.

At the end of 2009, he announced a surge of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, on top of the 21,000 soldiers he ordered there earlier that year. He also continued the Bush doctrine of using private forces like Blackwater (ie, mercenaries), whose actions are effectively outside of US and international law.

Despite Obama declaring the end of active US involvement in Iraq, the US is leaving a country ravaged by its bombing and occupation. After over seven years of occupation, electricity is available only a few hours per day. Political tensions are so great the government has been unable to meet. Also, this is not a total withdrawal. Fifty thousand US troops are to remain ‘on base’ but available to become active when necessary.

This year has seen US casualties in Afghanistan rise to a record level. The WikiLeaks documents describe an occupation that is on the ropes and has failed in all its objectives. In the meantime the occupation continues, with returning soldiers suffering from huge medical problems and military families suffering huge hardship. On top of this must be added the colossal destruction and loss of life inflicted on the people of Afghanistan.

Obama has failed in his promises to workers on the economy. Tens of millions suffer from unemployment, foreclosures and evictions. The stimulus money was temporary and is now running out. Two years after the start of the great recession, 15 million workers are still officially counted as unemployed, 8.5 million are working part time but need full-time work, and 3.9 million have given up looking. There has been no bounce-back on this recession. Forty-five percent of those unemployed have been out of work for over six months. Yet the Obama administration is still insisting they must wait until the market provides new jobs.

This has fallen particularly hard on African Americans, who had hoped that the first African-American president would be focused on addressing the issues of poverty, lack of jobs, and the massive injustices of the criminal justice system that particularly hit their communities.

On education, the Obama administration is leading the charge to push a right-wing agenda. His Race to the Top initiative was built on Bush’s discredited No Child Left Behind education policies. In order for states to receive additional education funds, the administration insists they take steps toward the development of charter schools, weaken teacher seniority, and pay teachers based on the test scores of their students.

The main promise the Obama administration made to win labour support was to enact the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have made it easier for unions to organise new members. Labour leaders then repeated this promise as a key reason why workers should once again vote Democrat. Since then, the only activity on EFCA has been Democrats dropping a key provision from it: the right of workers to form a union by signing up a majority of workers who are in favour of it. EFCA has now almost vanished from view.

Millions were hoping that the removal of the party of oil from power would open the door to a radical change in the environmental policies of the US. While certain initiatives have been taken, Obama has failed to take a bold approach to reversing the backward position of the US on global warming and to shift its energy policies away from carbon-based fossil fuels.

The Deepwater Horizon BP disaster found the administration continuing the oil-drilling policy of the Bush administration and leaving in place the same corrupt officials of the past. Obama’s statement a few weeks before the spill: "Oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills – they are technologically very advanced", speaks volumes about his disastrous policy of making concessions to Republicans in order to win possible votes.

Here was a golden opportunity for the president to use the power of his office to shift the debate on energy. A massive federal programme to create millions of jobs in new green industries could have begun to put millions back to work and lay the basis for new industries and the retooling of key sections of the US economy. Instead, Obama’s failure to move decisively against BP and allowing it to control the clean-up activities seriously weakened efforts to contain this disaster.

On the campaign trail, Obama promised to take on the insurance companies and corporate health care interests and to provide ‘universal healthcare’. Most people had a vision of a healthcare system where the government would step in to ensure everyone was covered from cradle to grave while shackling corporate interests.

What they did not expect was healthcare ‘reform’ constructed around the private drug companies, hospitals and insurance companies that are responsible for all the inequities in the healthcare ‘system’ in the US. Popular support slipped away once people saw that, instead of healthcare becoming a right, it was going to be a duty backed up with fines; that insurance companies were going to be further entrenched in the system; and that quality healthcare policies were going to be taxed.

The central issue was the refusal of the Obama administration to put forward a single-payer system in which the government provides one insurance policy that covers everyone. By cutting out the profits of insurance companies, this could have been enacted without any extra cost to the public. Also, such a change was very popular.

The administration has failed to deliver on issue after issue that was important to those who voted for Obama. For example, Democrats failed to use their majority to act decisively to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the military. They also failed to provide legal security to the millions of undocumented immigrant workers by implementing an amnesty programme, as Republican president, Ronald Reagan, did in 1986.

Unfortunately, Obama’s promises were just that: promises. The Democrats are part of big business’s two-party system. Once the Republicans and Bush were discredited, corporations shifted their resources to support their alternative political party, the Democrats. Under Obama, the Democrats have delivered for big business. Now big business has its alternative party, the Republicans, bolstered by their mid-term results, ready to profit from the disappointment of those who had supported the Democrats.

Tony Wilsdon

Socialist Alternative (CWI USA)


Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page