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Change We Can Believe In?

by Gary Olson

November 29, 2009
Originally published in This Can't Be Happening

In the 2009 film "The Messenger," we follow two officers from the Casualty Notification Office from Fort Dix, New Jersey as they knock on doors to inform relatives of loved ones recently killed in action in Iraq. These scenes are almost unbearable to watch as we witness the reactions to this heartbreaking news. It struck me that these emotionally affecting scenes on screen are as as close as most of us get to the grim reality of war.

With Obama’s massive troop escalation (can the Nobel Peace Prize be rescinded?) he’s made Afghanistan his war, reminiscent of President Johnson’s Vietnam War escalation. At the current death rate of 500 soldiers per year, the events depicted in the film will soon become a shattering reality for many more Americans. And next year Obama will spend some $65 billion on Afghanistan, more than for the Iraq war.

Afghanistan, the “Graveyard of Empires,” is this administration’s most egregious failing and is now fated to define Obama’s legacy. Beyond Afghanistian, maintaining permanent military bases and large garrisons in Iraq, allowing Israel to evade a just two-state peace with the Palestinians, clandestine Blackwater (now Xe services) assassins roaming around Pakistan, the killing of hundreds of Pakistani civilians by CIA Predator drone attacks authorized by Obama early in his tenure, and a continuing U.S. military build-up in Colombia under the guise of a phony “war on drugs” are also on the list.

A one-year litany of domestic disappointments could be captured by a bumper sticker reading "the audacity of hopelessness." After handing over almost $3 trillion to bankers, we have a jobless "economic recovery," an official 10.2 percent unemployment rate which is actually 16.5 percent, the number of home foreclosures continues to rise and a country in which one in four children only manage to keep hunger pangs at bay because of food stamps and soup kitchens.

In the face of this situation, Obama’s first stimulus package was pitifully small, and while it did “save” some jobs it wasn’t nearly enough for serious job creation. Obama’s professed support for helping workers to unionize evaporated shortly after his inauguration. And under Obama’s watch, as noted by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, “Even as tens of millions of working Americans are struggling to hang onto their jobs and keep a roof over their families’ heads, the wise guys of Wall Street are licking their fat-cat chops over yet another round of obscene multibillion dollar bonuses—this time thanks to the bailout billions that were sent their way by Uncle Sam..." (10/20/09). The nine largest banks are distributing $32.6 billion in bonuses. But given the jobs crisis and depression-like situation confronting tens of millions of our fellow citizens, Obama found a record-breaking $664 billion for the Pentagon for fiscal 2010.

Finally, Obama and many Democrats quickly abandoned government single payer national health insurance—the only plausible solution to our healthcare crisis—caving to the predatory for-profit private health insurance lobbyists. (Note: These lobbyists gave $1.8 million to 18 key members of Congress).

For those who worked and voted for Obama, especially younger folks, all of this must be a bitter pill to swallow, a giant step backward toward disillusionment and cynicism. I prefer to interpret it as a necessary and valuable lesson in electoral illusions for those truly serious about making this a better country: Obama, a brilliant and charismatic politician, was always a conservative corporate Democrat, a self-described believer in “the free market,” and an enthusiastic accommodator to the rich and powerful. In the words of one pundit, Obama is Clinton without the sleaze.

He would never have been given a favorable vetting by the financial elites who chose our presidential candidates if he represented the slightest threat to their domestic interests and global empire. By the way, the latter includes 800 military bases in 130 countries.

According to historian and political analyst Paul Street, the Obama campaign set new corporate fundraising efforts, including nearly $1 million from Goldman Sachs. Street has been uncannily prescient about Obama from the start and I recommend his book, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008). In short, aside from some crafty rhetoric, Obama was never a social justice populist, and viewing him that way always contained a massive dose of wishful thinking. In that narrow sense, Obama has been entirely consistent and didn’t really betray anyone.

More and more Americans are wise to the fact that because Democrats and Republicans are virtually indistinguishable on the issues that matter most, the “change we can believe in” will not be forthcoming from these two business parties. Short term, we need a mobilized and vocal movement from below that dramatically increases the political costs for those resisting needed reforms. Longer term, we need systemic change, change in the class structure of capitalism.

Until and unless workers who produce all the goods and services in our society participate in making the major economic policy decisions—to run the economy democratically—we will only be tinkering with a system that primarily serves those who own it. We need a new broad-based political party that actually responds to the genuine grievances and aspirations of ordinary working people and youth.