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Why Obama won

Feature by Eric Fretz, December 2012

Obama won a second term as US president despite his record. Here US socialist Eric Fretz argues he benefitted from a shift to the left in US society. But what are the prospects for the growth of movements from below that challenge big business and the two-party system?

Four years ago Barack Obama won a historic victory during an economic downturn and widespread opposition to the Bush administration by running as the candidate of hope and change. This year Obama won re-election, in the face of a still bleak economy and widespread disappointment in his own administration, by not seeming as bad as his opponent. The Republicans wanted the election to be a referendum on Obama's first term. Noting the disappointment with "hope and change". Mitt Romney asked at the Republican Convention, "If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn't you feel that way now that he's president Obama?"

But the Democrats were able to successfully tie Romney with "going back" to the Bush years. In his widely watched Democratic Convention speech, Obama claimed, "You will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation." There were differences between them, but on all their basic assumptions the two parties agreed with more than they admitted.

In every state turnout for this election was less that in 2008. In most states it was even less than the yawnfest of 2004. In the end about 62 million voted for Obama, 60 million voted for Romney, while 84 million eligible voters chose not to vote. A majority of America preferred Obama to Romney, seeing Romney as a right wing vulture capitalist less likely to care about people like them. But the minority who voted for Obama did so with little enthusiasm.

Obama's record

It is hard to remember now the euphoria felt by so many when the young black former community organiser, named Barack Hussein Obama, was elected president after eight years of Republican rule.

But there were already signs of things to come. Even before he officially became president, Obama retained Bush's secretary of defence and brought in Wall Street figures to advise on the economy. So it should have come as no surprise that his plan to get troops out of Iraq was to adopt Bush's timetable or that he initiated another round of bank bailouts. At the start of Obama's term the Republicans were in disgrace and disarray with a minority in both Houses of Congress. Instead of taking advantage of the situation, or appealing to his supporters, Obama consistently sought a cross-party bipartisan compromise.

Promises, like the one to close Guantanamo Bay prison, were not fulfilled. Despite his rhetorical differences with the Republicans on global warming, Obama played a significant role in avoiding a binding international treaty, and has approved new drilling for oil and gas in US waters and public lands. The deportation of immigrants increased under Obama, up to almost 400,000 last year. Some anti-war activists went into opposition mode after Obama's expansion of the US war in Afghanistan. For others the last straw came with his "kill list" and increase in the use of military drones in Pakistan. Then he signed the multi-billion Defense Authorisation Act, which also contained new limits on civil liberties at home.

But it is the economy that was always in the foreground. After the official end of the US recession growth has been slow, with 23 million people still seeking full-time work, while the jobs that have been created are at lower wages. The real median income of US households fell 4.1 percent between Obama's election and 2011. Continued home foreclosures coincided with rising stock prices on Wall Street and increasing wealth inequality.

"If I don't get this done in three years," Obama said in 2009 about the economy, "then there's going to be a one-term proposition." At the mid-term election in 2010 when an angry Tea Party helped Republicans take back Congress, the conventional wisdom was that no president could be re-elected in this situation.

But then the Occupy Wall Street movement brought the issue of wealth inequality to the fore. And the Republicans picked the closest candidate they could find to Mr Burns of the Simpsons.

Why the Republicans lost

Obama's Republican challenger Mitt Romney was a millionaire ex-governor, the son of a millionaire governor. He campaigned as a businessman who knew what to do about the economy after running a private equity firm which destroyed jobs. Despite the efforts and money of those behind the Tea Party movement inside the Republican Party, most Americans did not buy the idea that what is good for Bain Capital, Romney's company, is good for America.

Romney was further hurt when he was caught on videotape telling a private fundraising meeting that 47 percent of Americans would vote for Obama anyway because they paid no income tax, were dependent on government and believed they were victims. This wasn't an isolated incident either. During the Republican primaries he told one audience how his wife, Ann Romney, drove "a couple of Cadillacs", and during a debate in Iowa he challenged one of his rivals to a $10,000 bet on the spot. A majority of voters earning over $50,000 a year picked Romney to represent them, while those earning under $30,000 a year chose Obama by 63 percent.

Parts of the Republican campaign relied on appeals to racism. This seems to have had some effect on white men in the rural South. But the changing demographics of the US and growing racial diversity mean that is not a road to the White House. Where I live, in Brooklyn, it appeared rumours of black disenfranchisement at the polls led more black people to exercise their right to vote. They supported Obama by 95 percent. Obama, as usual, said next to nothing about race. The influence of the Tea Party has moved political debate to the right, but this did not help the Republicans in the national elections.

Abortion rights

In defending a bill against all abortions, even in cases of incest and rape, Republican Todd Akin of Missouri made his infamous comments about pregnancies not happening in cases of "legitimate rape". Not only did he lose his election, but this extremism became associated with the Republicans in general. While mainstream Republicans rushed to distance themselves from his remarks, many (including vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan) had backed similar bills, as did the Republican Party's national platform. Just as that uproar was calming down, the Republican Senator from Indiana, Richard Mourdock, chimed in with his thoughts that pregnancies due to rape were still a gift from god. He also lost his safe seat.

These statements helped the Obama campaign turn out a pro-Democratic women's vote. "Women's issues", including "a women's right to choose her own healthcare" (code for abortion rights) became a key talking point at the Democratic Party Convention. Women voted for Obama 56 percent to 44 percent, the biggest gender gap in a presidential election in history.

Traditionally, the Democrats pay attention to "women's issues" once every four years and then let them slip into the background again. They did not push to increase child care programmes or welfare for single mothers. While Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act (making it easier to sue for equal pay), he let the Employee Free Choice Act die, which would have helped both women and men's pay by making it easier to form a union.

Women still make just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, and more are slipping into poverty. Obama also signed an order reaffirming the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding of abortions for poor women.

Joe Donnelly, the Democrat who defeated Mourdock in the race to become Senator for the state of Indiana, had been a pro-life member of the House of Representatives for a small section of the state. There he voted to block Planned Parenthood from receiving federal funding. It did not receive national coverage when he declared, "In keeping with my personal faith and family values, I have consistently opposed abortion and will continue to do so in Congress. I believe that being pro-life means promoting life at every stage, from conception until natural death. I will always vote according to my faith and my conscience on life issues."

Despite being "pro-life", Donnelly is supported by the National Rifle Association, voted against registration laws for handguns, and was one of eight Democrats to vote with Republicans against accelerated withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Those of us throughout America who smiled when hearing Mourdock was defeated were not backing Donnelly's politics, and neither were the people who voted for Donnelly.

LBGT equality

Many supporters of gay equality were elated when in May 2012 Obama said he thought "same-sex couples should be able to get married." It definitely helped win some votes and campaign contributions.

Yet he didn't vow to take any action on the issue, leaving it up to individual states. Obama was very slow to be pushed on gay marriage, expressing this "evolved" opinion only when it was politically advantageous. In the 2008 campaign he had said, "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman." He did not take action to repeal the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, even when his Justice Department went to court to defend it.

Obama eventually repealed the Clinton era "don't ask, don't tell" policy on the position of gay people in the military, but only when over 80 percent of people in the US supported its repeal, including the top Pentagon military brass.

It took a vibrant movement of LGBT people and supporters to get him there. The Democrats (and the Republicans) can be pushed on social issues more easily than on fundamental issues of the economy, or the use of military power to project the interests of the US empire.

Polls have consistently found the majority of US society to the left of its leaders on many issues. Those involved in activism tell of growing support on issues from the existence of man-made climate change, LBGT equality, opposition to wars and US funding of Israel, excessive executive pay on Wall Street and lack of corporate taxation. But activists are grappling with how to turn this support into participation in mass movements for change.

This election again confirmed that the corporate-backed and media-hyped Tea Party reflects only minority opinion in America. It turns off more people than it attracts, and Obama was able to take advantage of that. But the US electorate said "no" to more than the Tea Party. They explicitly rejected a pro-business rhetoric and "get a job" attitude to the needy. Only because of the very limited choice available in the $6 billion-funded US presidential campaign was Obama able to emphasise relatively minor arguments to take advantage of this class-based mood.

Part of the support for Obama came from his promises to protect the highly popular programmes of Social Security (state pension) and Medicare (national health insurance for the elderly and the disabled). It is already apparent that Obama is preparing a ready-built "compromise" with the Republicans in Congress that would attack these "entitlement programs," as well as Medicaid (health insurance for the poor). "I don't expect the Republicans simply to adopt my budget. That's not realistic," said Obama after the election. "So I recognise that we're going to have to compromise." The excuse is that an agreement has to go through the Democratic majority in the Senate and the Republican majority in Congress to avoid the looming "fiscal cliff".

Fiscal cliff

This precipice was manufactured when pre-election budget negotiations were postponed. Obama and Congress agreed that if a new agreement was not reached by the end of the year, across the board 10 percent cuts in government spending (including the military), along with the end of Bush tax cuts, would automatically come into effect. This is an outcome all sides are desperate to avoid. Estimates are that the loss of jobs and income would push the US back into recession.

While Republicans in Congress want to renew the supposedly temporary Bush-era tax cuts, Obama has pledged to renew them only for the first $250,000 earned a year. Above that people would have to pay the old rates. Obama repeatedly used this in the campaign to point out how the Republicans did not want the rich to "pay their fair share". But he also pointed out that, compared to simply letting the breaks expire, his plan "means every American, including the wealthiest Americans, gets a tax cut".

Obama will not act to raise the 35 percent top tax rate on the wealthiest - a rate that stood at 91 percent under Eisenhower and was still 50 percent in 1986 under Ronald Reagan. And Obama pledged to lower the top corporate tax rate to 28 percent (still higher than Romney's promise of 25 percent). Unsurprisingly he gave no hint of slashing the record Pentagon budget, which stood at $554 billion in 2012.

Twin parties of capitalism

Despite their small disagreements, both Obama and Romney see helping business as the key to helping the economy for everyone. This is because the Democrats and Republicans are twin parties of capitalism. Of course, Obama could still do much more in terms of Keynesian stimulus and more progressive taxation. But in a time of economic trouble and low profit rates, helping business will always be their first priority. Obama's apparent timidity in negotiations with the Republicans is actually a sign that they are operating under the constraints of the same system. Neither will Obama mobilise public opinion against defenders of capital in a way that could get out of hand.

Often the Democrats appear the lesser evil of the evil twins. Think of Roosevelt in the Great Depression, using public support against Wall Street oligarchs to create a welfare state as the best way to save capitalism. Or think of Obama's limited support for abortion and gay marriage. But at times the Democrats are able to implement atrocities the Republicans would not be able to get away with. So Obama agreed to increased drone strikes around the world including targeted assassination of US citizens. While having a Democratic president may postpone some active opposition, when people's patience does break it is harder to pull resistance off the streets and into electoral campaigns.

One election night poll by Peter D Hart Research Associates found protecting Medicare and Social Security from benefit cuts was more important to most voters than bringing down the budget deficit (by 73 percent to 18 percent). Most (72 percent) say corporations and wealthy individuals have too much influence on the political system.

A post-election poll by Democracy Corps found the groups who voted for Obama were against lowering taxes, for investment in education and for protecting Social Security and Medicare. "Looking ahead to their post-election agenda, this is not a group looking for Ďausterity,'" the report concluded. Many Obama voters will have to face this contradiction soon.

Non-voters

Non-voters, often disparaged as cynical or not political, leaned at least as much to the left. In a pre-election poll, those who stated they would not vote preferred Obama to Romney two to one, but 42 percent said there was not a dime's worth of difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. Non-voters are more likely to support welfare spending and raising the taxes paid by the rich. And 67 percent are for withdrawal from Afghanistan as soon as possible, while a majority think we need a third party (or more).

Yet none of the third parties received 1 percent of the vote nationally. One local exception was in the Democratic fiefdom of Seattle, Washington. There Kshama Sawant, a revolutionary socialist, activist in the teachers' union and prominent member of Occupy Seattle, ran for a seat in the state legislature and received 28 percent of the vote. Any creditable opposition to austerity will have to arise in the streets and workplaces, before being reflected in the ballot box.

A 2011 Pew Poll found that among those aged 18 to 29, and among people making less than $30,000, more had a positive attitude towards socialism than to capitalism. The difference was higher among black people, where a solid majority had positive reactions to socialism and negative attitude to capitalism. These are the same groups who voted overwhelmingly for Obama (95 percent for blacks).

In this economic climate, a successful opposition to austerity presents real challenges. Connecting it to a vision of an alternative to capitalism is a necessary step. The huge labour and community rallies in Madison, Wisconsin, last year, followed by Occupy Wall Street, showed the potential for flare ups, and how they could grasp the attention of the country. When union heads resisted pressure for strikes in Wisconsin, the occupation of the Capitol ended and the movement was diverted into an unsuccessful electoral strategy.

The structure and diverse ideas within the Occupy movements, which helped them grow explosively, made the movement hard to maintain once the encampments were violently shut down by the cops. But they had a positive impact on the nation's thinking, and a material impact through defending people threatened with eviction and radical solidarity during the West Coast Longshoremen's strike.

Here in New York, although the Occupy movement died down before the election, thousands of Occupy participants came back together in an impressive display of solidarity following the devastation left by Hurricane Sandy, especially working with residents in public housing left abandoned by the state for weeks after the storm. Various sub-groups of Occupy participants are also active in supporting small workplace struggles, often involving immigrant workers.

Chicago teachers strike

On a larger scale, the left and the labour movement were galvanised by the successful seven-day strike by 26,000 Chicago teachers and support staff against Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his school board. Emanuel had been Obama's chief of staff and fundraiser, and his school "reform" agenda was one pushed by both corporate interests and Obama's administration.

While the national American Federation of Teachers supported Obama and would rather have put off such a fight, a militant group of activists, organised as the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, had been elected to the leadership of the Chicago union and prepared each school for the contract struggle. They also built alliances with parents fighting school closures, and parents supported the strike two to one. Obama refused to take sides, yet a majority of the parents and teachers most probably voted for him.

Many hope Chicago will be the start of a post-election turnaround in American labour.

There is no guarantee, of course. The huge 1997 15 day strike at UPS also aroused hopes of a turning point in labour's fortunes but was instead followed by more defeats.

As this article goes to press, struggles in the largest corporation in the US, Walmart, notorious for its anti-union stand, are escalating. Occupy Wall Street, unions and community groups are planning for actions at stores across the country on the day after Thanksgiving.

A struggle of these non-unionised and underpaid workers against their rich and right-wing owners would be a sure sign that the spark of Chicago is spreading.

No one can tell where the next flare up will be. It is clear that, unlike four years ago, after this election people are not starting out with the same illusions in an Obama presidency or with any predilection to wait and give him a chance. Voices outside the two-party system can seem isolated during American elections.

But a clear call for independent action, not dispirited by Obama's sell-outs, will be crucial in the battles to come. Obama voters and non-voters will need to work side by side in resistance and fighting for the future.

Eric Fretz is a socialist activist in New York


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