What Can He Change?

No. 228 - March 1, 2008

It now seems highly probable, although not yet certain, that Barack Obama will be the Democratic candidate for president. And it seems highly probable that he would win a contest with John McCain. It also seems almost certain that the Democratic majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives will be enlarged. Thus, it seems that Obama would enter office with a relatively strong mandate from the voters.

If one asks how Obama, who entered the race some six months ago as a young and unlikely victor, has been able to achieve this, the answer seems clear. He has emphasized the theme of “change” and this theme seems to have resonated with the voters, including many who have not voted before. Of course, change is an ambiguous term, and its meaning varies according to those who embrace it. But it seems that the theme of “change” responds to a high degree of discomfort in the United States with the present overall situation in the country and the world. The two zones of maximum discomfort are the war in Iraq and the state of the economy.

What a majority of voters seems to be saying is that they think the war in Iraq is a quagmire, and that it was a mistake to have invaded the country. As for the economy, the voters seem to be saying that their actual standard of living has been going down and they are very afraid that it will go down still further. So, basically, they are rejecting the main lines of argument of the Bush regime, and are blaming it in large part for their discomforts. What specific changes the voters want seems less clear, but they want something.

Obama has a second appeal beyond embracing the theme of change. It is a question of style. He says he is willing to talk with anyone – with presumed unfriendly forces internationally, with presumed allies internationally, and with persons from all political factions internally. This contrasts with Bush’s repeated insistence that there are all kinds of groups with whom the United States should never “negotiate.”

There is a second kind of stylistic appeal of Obama. He says, over and over, “Yes, we can!” This is a theme borrowed from the legendary leader of Hispanic farm workers, Cesar Chavez, whose slogan was “¡Sí, se puede!” This theme appeals particularly to all those who have felt marginalized in the U.S. political system, and who find this theme one that empowers them.

So, now that Obama seems so near to becoming president, there has begun to be considerable discussion in the press, on the internet, and in public debate about what kinds of changes Obama actually intends to undertake. This seems to me the wrong question. The real question is what kind of changes Obama can make, a quite different question.

Obama’s record is that of a liberal Democrat who opposed the Iraq war and whose mode of action has always been left-of-center, sometimes forcefully, sometimes very prudently. He certainly intends to bring a different style to the White House. How radically different a policy he intends to implement is far less clear. But even supposing that he is more politically radical than he seems to be on the surface, the question still remains, what can he do? Presidents of the United States can undoubtedly affect policy in important ways – George W. Bush has proved that – but they are also prisoners of their office. It is therefore worth reviewing what are the options in foreign policy, in economic policy, and in that looser arena we might call cultural policy.

In foreign policy, the most immediate and overwhelming issue is the Middle East – not only vis-à-vis Iraq, but also vis-à-vis Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Israel/Palestine. Bush has worked hard to bind the hands of his successor. But Bush has made the error of thinking that U.S. policy in the Middle East is primarily in the hands of the U.S. government. I do not think this is true any longer. There is a whirlwind of forces in this region that are far beyond the limited power of the United States government to channel their directions.

Anti-American nationalism is slowly but surely gathering enormous steam in Iraq. The Taliban are creeping back into de facto power in Afghanistan, and threatening as a by-product to disrupt the functioning of NATO as an international force. In Pakistan, it seems that the United States is reduced to praying quietly that its ever less popular friend, Pervez Musharraf, can weather the storm. The Iranians have decided that they can simply defy the United States without incurring any real danger. And both Israel and the Palestinian Authority are on ever-shakier ground, internally and internationally. Condoleezza Rice is largely being ignored by everyone. Will Obama’s Secretary of State be treated differently?

If the whirlwind undoes U.S. policies in the region, then even if U.S. forces are withdrawn from Iraq, will it follow that western Europe, Russia, China, and Latin America will actually move closer to the United States, even if they will appreciate Obama’s friendlier and more intelligent style? The underlying geopolitical trends are against the United States. Obama can do better than Bush, but how much better?

The story is not too different when we look at the state of the U.S. economy. No doubt, a Democratic administration will have a different policy on taxation, on health care, on the environment. And probably the poorer 80% of the population will be better off. But the manufacturing jobs are not going to return, even if the United States scuttles its neoliberal trade pacts. In this arena, too, there is a whirlwind, one that is perhaps even more powerful than the geopolitical whirlwind in the Middle East, and the United States does not control its unfolding.

That leaves one arena in which Obama may have some leeway, what I called loosely the cultural arena. His campaign has been mobilizing a popular force that is both gaining strength and autonomy. It is that of people saying “yes, we can.” Obama may have been of help in igniting the force, but it is becoming a self-driven force that will now have much impact on what he does as president. In a broad sense, it is a force that will be pushing him, as president, to the left, both directly and via its impact on members of Congress.

It is very difficult to say exactly where this force would push Obama. But its impact may turn out to be comparable to that of the so-called religious right on Republican party policies in the last thirty years. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “I have a dream.” The dream was of a different United States with different priorities and far more egalitarian mores. If this next period leads to even a partial realization of such a dream, it will of course have a long-term impact on the role the United States plays, and wishes to play, in the world-system. It will have a long-term impact on the kind of economic structures the United States maintains for itself and the world maintains for itself.

Change is indeed possible, and potentially a very positive change. It all depends far less on Obama than on the rest of us. But Obama might, only might, give us the space in which the “we” of “yes, we can” can push him and the United States.