Ernie Haberkern gives a view from the USA on the Obama presidency
“You can put lipstick on a pig..It’s still a pig.
You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change.
It’s still gonna stink.
We’ve had enough of the same old thing.”
Barack Obama on the Republican campaign
Obama’s attack on McCain/Palin (or was it Palin/McCain?) was intended to expose the hollowness of their attempt to coopt his “the change we need” slogan. There is no question that the Republican Party’s attempt to present itself, rather than Obama, as the anti-Bush party – which is what the “change” slogan meant – was laughable. But Obama inadvertently highlighted what was the real meaning of his use of the “change” slogan.
The fact of the matter is that Obama’s own slogan is nothing more than an attempt to put lipstick on the pig that is American domestic and foreign policy. That he is the first black president of the country is itself part of this charade. There is no question that his election is one more nail in the coffin of slavery and segregation. But that only makes Obama a more effective salesman for the American government’s criminal foreign and domestic politics. In addition to being black, Obama is an intelligent, articulate, suave salesman. A sharp contrast to the mentally challenged George W. Bush and the crazed Dick Cheney.
I myself have been surprised at Obama’s behaviour. How quickly he has betrayed, not only his slogan, but his supporters.
The first blow was his choice of Rick Warren, a fundamentalist preacher notorious for his homophobia and his support for the anti-gay referendum in California, as the man to give the invocation at his inauguration. Gays were among Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters and the victory of Proposition 8 which outlawed gay marriage in the state is arguably due to the fact that most gay activists were completely absorbed in his presidential campaign and had no time to spare for their own program.
But it is not just a question of “life style” issues. On the most fundamental questions of foreign and domestic politics Obama has chosen as his principle advisors former Clinton administration officials. Chief among them, of course, Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. What has been buried by the stupidity and arrogance of the Bush/Cheney (Cheney/Bush?) administration is that the Clinton team, and the Clinton administrationwas as much a dual presidency as the second Bush administration, were pioneers in the new aggressive foreign policy of the United States in the post-Cold-War period. It was the Clinton administration that pushed for the expansion of NATO into the former Russian satellite states – right up to Russia’s borders. This aggressive imperialist policy was denounced in the New York Times and London Times by none other than George F. Kennan, the principle architect of America’s post-WWII foreign policy. A man not previously known for ultra-leftist views. This culminated in the intervention in the former Yugoslavia by NATO and the US. The breakup of the nation that was the co-founder of the non-aligned block was the task assigned Richard Holbrooke. Using the services of Military Professional Resources, Inc., a private firm staffed by retired US military officers—Blackhawk’s model— Holbrooke organized the Croatian assault that drove over 100,000 Serbs from the Krajina where they had lived for several hundred years. It was the largest ethnic cleansing of the war. Richard Holbrooke is, in effect, second in command to Hillary Clinton in Obama’s foreign policy team of advisors.
As the war in the Middle East heated up who did Obama choose as his chief of staff? None other than Ralph Emmanuel. The son of a former Irgun fighter, Emmanuel was an ardent and uncritical supporter of Israel in the congress. Obama’s uncritical support of Israel’s recent actions in Gaza are another indication of his determination to present himself as a safe, reliable, defender of American imperialism at the same time as he pushes for “change”.
When it somes to domestic policy, especially economic policy, Obama has done the same. Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s secretary of the treasury, is his principal economic advisor and his choices for various position have been old Clintonistas. This is especially important now since Clinton and his economic staff came out of the Democratic Leadership Conference. This think tank was, and is, the American equivalent of “New Labour”. That is, its aim was, and is, to wean the Democratic Party away from a platform based on union and liberal economic programs and turn it towards the kind of “free market” neoliberalism that has led to the current economic collapse. Just in the last couple of days Obama has begun to talk about “reforming” Social Security (the American state pension fund) and Medicare (the federal health program for the elderly). This was the agenda Bush tried, and failed, to sell to the American people.
With the exception of his appointment of Hilda Solis, a strongly pro-labor congresswomen from a union family background, Obama has chosen his administration from the extreme right of the Democratic Party. Apparently, he thinks he is all the lipstick the pig needs.
So what is going on here?
In part, this is a specifically American problem. The constitution, especially in the case of the Presidency, favors a plebiscitarian politics in which the electorate chooses between candidates who are put forward by wealthy backers who are, in most cases, unknown to the general public. The enormous expense involved in contemporary campaigns adds to the problem. It is a classic illustration of Engels’ crack that in bourgeois republics the working class decides periodically which capitalist candidate will represent them.
But I think something more is going on. Even in England with its parliamentary system the Prime Minister has taken on more and more “presidential” authority. He or she runs parliament rather than the other way around. Blair’s “New Labour” campaign may have raised this to a new height but Blair didn’t invent the phenomenon.
I think what is going on is part of the “bureaucratic collectivisation” of capitalism. Increasingly, an unelected state bureaucracy makes the real decisions. The capitalist class has increasingly become dependent on this bureaucratic class. It might be better to say that they are merging. Both Robert Rubin and Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Paulson, came from the same banking firm. Elections become a side show meant to distract the public. In a sense all elected officials are just lipstick on the pig. Unlike classic stalinism, where dissent and opposition are suppressed, modern politics simply renders them meaningless.
So, where do we go from here? I think it would be a mistake to simply ignore electoral politics. Especially in a country like England, where local constituencies still mean something, electoral politics offers the working classes a possibility to intervene. It is a way to raise issues, to put pressure on the ruling classes, to make it more difficult for them to get away with their crimes. The mistake, so clearly illustrated by the “New Labour” fiasco, is to think that “we” can “take power” by parliamentary means (if only we are willing to make a few compromises). Elections are one way, not the only way, for labour and other popular movements to make their influence felt. “Change” has to come from below, not from media events like the Obama campaign.