If the United States today elects an African American man to the presidency, that event will mark a turning point in US history and culture. It will genuinely represent a triumph of hope over fear – all the more so because Barack Obama for the most part ran a dignified and inclusive campaign, in the face of the hateful and divisive rhetoric of John McCain. It’s significance cannot be overstated, Yet, as Ken Silverstein of Harpers observes, an Obama victory is “not about politics but about the man.” Ironically, Obama may transform the face and spirit of a nation, without dramatically changing the substance of its policies.
As everyone knows, Obama is a cautious politician. He doesn’t look like a leader who is ready to launch anything as bold as FDR’s New Deal. But then, Roosevelt didn’t initially look like that kind of leader, either. Perhaps if Obama wins the White House he will be emboldened by the remarkable groundswell of support that put him there. Perhaps he will be one of those men who has greatness thrust upon him, and will become fully worthy of the faith and optimism that so many millions have invested in him.
But in the humdrum world of political reality, what happens in the coming years will depend a great deal upon the behind-the-scenes workings of Congress, without which significant change cannot take place. All the polls indicate the Democrats will increase their majorities in both the House and Senate, but whether the character and direction of Congress changes is hard to predict. Since they gained control of Congress in 2006, the Democrats have been careful and conservative. Although they ran against the war in 2006, congressional Democrats voted to continue the war. Despite perennial calls for healthcare reform, the only program that actually materialized came from Republicans, in the highly compromised form of Medicare drug subsidies for the elderly. The Democrats promised to root out corruption and malfeasance, and while much has been exposed under the leadership of Henry Waxman and a few others, the exposure so far has resulted in few real consequences and little change. Social welfare programs have been cut back and state government budgets have continued haemorrhaging. As for the roots of the current financial crisis, the Democrats, if the truth be told, largely stood by while the financial regulatory structure established during the New Deal was dismantled. Some, like those in Bill Clinton’s treasury department, were in fact all too eager to lend a hand.
Some of these facts can be blamed on the presence of a rightwing Republican in the White House and a Democratic congressional majority too slim to survive a Senate filibuster, much less a presidential veto. Others, mostly likely, have deeper causes. What obstacles to real change would remain with a Democratic president and a stronger majority in Congress?
* In Iraq, it means mustering a sizeable coalition that can implement a policy to bring the troops home. But does that mean leaving Iraq altogether? Probably not. The key to Iraq has always been oil, and we still need the oil. One way or another, obtaining that oil will depend on divvying up what were under Saddam nationalized reserves and putting them into the hands of the international oil companies, returning essentially to the days at the beginning of the 20th century when those companies created a cartel. The US military already has set down a long-term policy of maintaining permanent bases in the region. That is unlikely to change any time soon, although meaningful changes in energy policy could begin to gradually have their effect. As for Afghanistan, the west has tried without success to dominate the place for centuries. A stalemate is likely to continue indefinitely.
* The debate over universal healthcare has been carried on nonstop since before Medicare was enacted in the 1960s. Everyone in Washington knows the clear course here: improve and extend Medicare to everyone. To make that work, the government must reign in the drug prices and eliminate the participation of the insurance industry. But the unwritten deal on Capitol Hill is that token reforms – getting rid of the gap in Medicare Part D, for example, or negotiating better drug prices – can be discussed, but only if everyone agrees to the participation of the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Only the most incremental changes, therefore, are even remotely possible.
* The financial mess requires direct government participation in reorganising defaulting mortgages with public financing if need be. It requires reinstatement in one form or another of the New Deal Glass Steagall Act that separated investment banking from banking. And most of all it requires a drastic reform in the Federal Reserve System, the central bank that is run not by Congress but by the banking industry. Wall Street is unlikely to stand for any of these changes – and a Congress and a president with campaigns so lavishly financed by the finance industry is unlikely to force them through. The Democrats will undoubtedly pursue some modest regulatory improvements, but nothing like what $700bn ought to buy.
* Finally, creating a fairer and sounder tax system would mean taking on the formidable bloc of conservative Democrats in the House. These fiscal conservatives can be counted on to join with conservative Republicans to fight for fiscal conservative measures which in the past often end up as cuts to the social welfare programs.
What might happen under an Obama presidency is certainly a preferable alternative to the warmongering free-market free-for-all promised by John McCain. But the promised change, when it boils down to policy, will be modest, slow, and hard-won – and no doubt disappointing to many who expected more of the new world they worked so hard to create.
JAMES RIDGEWAY is the author of 5 Unanswered Questions About 9/11, It’s All For Sale: The Control of Global Resources and A Guide to Environmental Bad Guys, co-written with Jeffrey St. Clair. Ridgeway can be reached through his website.