Barack Obama used to joke about his being regarded as the Messiah by awed supporters. But he’s going to have to be a real miracle worker if the 44th Presidency of the United States is not to end in disappointment and disillusion. Never as an incoming world leader had such an in-tray of unmitigated doom: two unpopular wars, a climate out of control, a world economic system in an advanced state of collapse. And that’s before he gets round to race, poverty and the Middle East.
In private, many Republicans are content to let a new and inexperienced leader clean up the mess they’ve left after eight years: a crippling trillion dollar deficit, a dysfunctional financial system, half a million jobs being lost every month. Ten trillion dollars have evaporated in the greatest stock market crash since the 1930s. Twenty million Americans face negative equity, thirty million Americans are in poverty, forty million have no health insurance. The numbers just keep piling up.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the entire world is expecting Obama to solve their problems too by launching some miraculous public works programme to get the planet back to work- the economic equivalent of loaves and fishes. But it ain’t gonna happen. Barack Obama does not walk on water, and as President his ability to alter the disastrous trajectory of his country and he world is limited. The US bet the house on a system of speculation and derivative trading that has exploded in its face, leaving the country with massive debts. America and the world faces a deep and long recession while the bad loans are cleaned out of the system and all the folly and fraud is exposed. There really isn’t much a new President can do about that, except feel his nation’s pain.
And so, pretty soon, we will all probably start to complain that Obama is a man of straw, a media creation, a triumph of style over substance; more a celebrity than a politician – a “polebrity” to use the latest ugly neologism. The President-elect hasn’t exactly shunned the image-makers, and seems to be proud of his 15 appearances on the front page of Time magazine, those paparazzi pics of his pecks, the $2,000 suits. His wife, Michelle, is being groomed as a black Jackie Onassis. His daughters, we learn, will be making their own beds and getting by on a dollar a week pocket money while, er, attending schools costing $25,000 a year.
Obama has been trying to get his disillusion in first. He has antagonised the Left by surrounding himself with establishment figures like Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who supported the war in Iraq and wants to bomb Iran. His choice of Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel – a fiercely pro-Israeli son of a Zionist partisan – should disabuse those hoping Obama will hold Israel accountable for war crimes in Gaza. His economic advisers include the billionaire Warren Buffett and the ultra-conservative former head of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker. He’s even antagonised gays by inviting a homophobic pastor, Reverend Rick Warren, to deliver the invocation at tomorrow’s inaugural address.
Liberal America has got the message. Indeed, it is remarkable that there is still so much optimism about the Obama presidency from radicals like Senator Jesse Jackson who seem to believe that Obama is going to declare a war on poverty, save the planet and apologise to the world for America’s illegal war-making. But Obama’s tax increases are minimal, applying only to those earning over $200,000 a year – and he seems to have no stomach for the kind of redistribution of wealth that FDR promoted in the 1930s. He has dropped strong hints that he favours protectionism to halt the ‘export of American jobs’, which could be disastrous for world trade, not least in developing countries. The President-elect has also given notice that he intends to save the big three car manufacturers, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, by spending billions of public money subsidising the sale of their abominable gas-guzzlers. Yes, Obama has promised to create four million new jobs and a greening of the American economy. But in a profound economic recession, the likelihood is that job creation will take priority over saving the planet.
Obama is now talking about “phased withdrawal” form Iraq leaving American soldiers there for an indefinite period. He is promising to send tens of thousands more young Americans into Afghanistan to fight another unwinnable war. And of course he famously said he would be prepared to invade Pakistan to root out al Qaeda. There is no indication that America is likely to abandon nuclear weapons or breathe life into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
So, where is the change we can believe in? Is Obama just a suit with a brown face, a latter day Uncle Tom, another careerist politician on the make? Well, no, I don’t think so. Call me naive, but I think Obama will make a difference. As the son of a Muslim he will alter the dynamics of international relations and will speak directly to pariah states like Iran. He won’t launch any more illegal wars. The President-elect is an intellectual who will raise the quality of debate in America ove rissues like climate change, and will bring America into the environmental consensus. Neoliberal economics will be abandoned along with free-market fetishism, as will neoconservative foreign policy and brain-dead “America First” rhetoric. America will become a marginally more equal society, under President Obama, and there will be some progress on health care – though don’t expect the new President to introduce a national health service in the depths of an economic depression.
Perhaps the best guarantee of change is the extent to which Obama has emphasised continuity. He is making a point of including Republicans in his administration, of celebrating his defeated rival, John McCain, the man who accused him of being soft on terrorism. Obama has been hard at work ramping down expectations, qualifying his own radical image and disowning black fundamentalists like his former Pastor, Jeremiah Wright. I see this as ideological capital being placed in the bank, for when Obama does make a radical move, which I believe he will.
Just read his book, Dreams of my Father – the best political autobiography I have ever read – and you will see that this is a very different politician from any we have seen before at this level. He is a humane radical whose experience as a community activist in the Chicago ghetto framed his politics. His destiny is to make a difference for tomorrow a black man will enter the White House and that will be change enough for now.