The following is an editorial piece that appeared at SocialistWorker.org in the US.
Barack Obama has won re-election, thanks to a strong turnout by the Democratic Party’s core supporters in every place the president needed to win.
Obama was only barely ahead of Mitt Romney in the national popular vote as this article was being written, with more ballots still to be counted.
But in the state-by-state races to win a majority in the Electoral College, the Democrats prevailed in nearly every place categorised as a “battleground”.
That means Obama got the support of specific groups of core Democratic voters that were critical in each particular state – in spite of real and widespread disappointment with Obama’s record in office.
Union members played the central role in Obama’s win in the all-important battleground state of Ohio, as well as Wisconsin and Iowa. For a second election, Obama broke the Republicans’ solid South with a victory in Virginia (and possibly Florida, which was too close to call early Wednesday morning) – that wouldn’t have been possible without an enthusiastic turnout by African Americans and Latinos. The Latino vote grew to 10 percent of the electorate nationwide, according to preliminary estimates – it made the difference for Obama out West in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
Nationwide, young voters aged 18 to 29 grew slightly as a percentage of the electorate compared to 2008 – a remarkable fact considering that youth turnout shattered all records in Obama’s landslide last time.
The mainstream media will lionise the Obama campaign machine for its skill in identifying these groups of voters, reaching them and getting them to vote. But the other way to look at it is that Barack Obama and the Democrats owe their next four years in the White House to the votes and the organising work of core constituencies of the party that have very little to show for the last four years.
Today, millions of people will feel satisfaction that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan were kept out of the White House. Likewise with the defeat of the women-hating Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana – their trouncing helped the Democrats defy the odds of having to defend twice as many seats as Republicans and actually add to their Senate majority.
There’s also pride that the first African American president of a country founded on slavery will return to the White House, despite the racist abuse he endured from the beginning.
Nevertheless, the first question in the aftermath of Election 2012 should be: How can we make sure that four more years aren’t four more-of-the-same years?
Barack Obama has already said what he’s planning for his next term as president – and we should take him at his word.
During the campaign, Obama was interviewed by the Des Moines Reigster and he spoke more candidly than usual because he thought his words wouldn’t be published verbatim. They were, and so we now know the president’s top priority for the first six months of his new term.
Is it a government jobs program? Raising the minimum wage? Re-establishing union rights for public-sector workers? How about challenging racism or reining in the violence of the US Border Patrol?
Nope. Obama says his top goal for the start of a second term is to strike a “grand bargain” to reduce the federal deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years, mainly through spending cuts, including in the government’s most popular programs, Social Security and Medicare.
It’s safe to say this wasn’t what the hundreds of thousands of core Democrats whose votes made the difference for Obama on Election Day had in mind when they cast their ballots.
When Obama first proposed a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction, he offered more than $1 trillion in cuts over 20 years in the government’s Medicare health program for the elderly, a $360 billion reduction in the Medicaid health program for the poor over the same period and big reductions in Social Security benefits – all in the name of balancing the federal government’s budget.
This was austerity on a vast scale – and far more than the Republicans ever contemplated getting away with. That’s a crucial lesson: In this case, the “lesser evil” was more capable than the “greater evil” of actually accomplishing evil.
Or they would have been more capable if the Republicans hadn’t walked away from Obama’s proposal – because it called for tax increases on a level well short of the cutbacks. That’s further evidence, if more was needed, of how fanatical and short-sighted the first party of big business has become.
Which raises the question of why Obama thinks the Republicans will agree to a “grand bargain” this time around. He told the Register that he thought the House Republican majority would be more open to a deal early on, but there’s no reason to believe the Republicans will use their defeat in Election 2012 to re-examine their obstructionist behaviour.
The Republican Right has been incredibly successful in dragging their unpopular, crackpot, extremist agenda to the middle of mainstream politics by opposing everything Obama does – there’s no reason to think they’ll stop now.
But there’s a broader point to be made: During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama posed as a defender of Social Security and Medicare against the Republican onslaught – all the more so when Paul Ryan, the Republican most closely associated with Social Security privatisation and turning Medicare into a voucher system, became the vice presidential candidate.
Yet Obama has promised – on the record – that he will carry out the most substantial overhaul of Social Security and Medicare in the history of these popular programs.
In other words, the lesser evil is still evil.
Obama has used the enthusiasm of the Democratic base before – to sweep to victory in 2008. But once in office, he accomplished almost nothing of what he promised to that base.
Consider the list, compiled by left-wing writer Matt Stoller, of progressive planks in the Democrats’ 2008 platform where the Obama administration accomplished nothing – in most cases because it didn’t even try: The Employee Free Choice Act to make it easier to join unions; a ban on permanent replacement of striking workers; seven paid sick days guaranteed for all workers; expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit; an increase in the minimum wage; allowing bankruptcy judges to write down mortgage debt; end warrantless wiretapping of US citizens; end federal targeting of activist groups; re-establish the right of habeas corpus.
As Stoller wrote in conclusion: “These aren’t just broken promises, these are all broken promises that have to do with the economic and political rights of the relatively powerless. Privacy, union rights, debtor’s rights, activist rights, etc. – they were promised tangible stuff, and didn’t get it.”
By contrast, Obama and his administration have accomplished a great deal…in the service of big business, the bankers and US imperialism. Like the Wall Street bailout that committed trillions of taxpayer dollars to safeguarding the biggest banks. Or the continuing US war in Afghanistan and the expansion of American military operations to Libya, Pakistan, Yemen and more. Or even the Obama health care law, whose popular new regulations on insurance companies like the ban on “pre-existing conditions” are overshadowed by provisions that will force millions of people to buy the defective products of for-profit insurers.
This two-faced behaviour – say one thing during campaigns to win votes and do another once in office – is in the nature of the Democratic Party, as one of the two mainstream parties in a capitalist political system. Without pressure from below in the form of working-class resistance, the Democrats are moulded by the continual pressure from above – from big business and the rich.
One example to remember here is the fate of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) – proposed legislation to make it easier for unorganised workers to join unions. This was organised labour’s top legislative priority as Obama took office in January 2009.
But even before the inauguration, Corporate America organised a slander campaign against EFCA – and the Democrats gave ground. Rather than take action while they had an overwhelming majority in both houses of Congress, the Democrats delayed – while lobbyists and lawmakers met behind closed doors to whittle away at the legislation.
Ultimately, Democratic senators agreed to a new version of EFCA that eliminated the centrepiece of the bill – a “card check” provision that would have allowed workers to form a union by a simple majority signing union cards.
That part of the story is bad enough – but what’s worse is that the top leaders of organised labour accepted the Democrats’ retreats, and even justified them.
The AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations had networks of field organisers in place after the 2008 election that were originally going to start building pressure on lawmakers to pass EFCA. Meetings for union activists found an intense interest among workers who wanted to build a public campaign to defend the law from the corporate slanderers and push for its passage.
Yet union leaders changed course – according to one media report, because they wanted “to give Obama time to get his bearings”. Ultimately, officials like SEIU’s Andy Stern and then-AFL-CIO President John Sweeney even justified the neutered EFCA without card check, on the grounds that it was more realistic to pass legislation in this form. But by then, the fight was lost. EFCA died without ever even coming to a vote.
The story of EFCA underlines the importance of a point made by the great historian Howard Zinn: “What matters most is not who’s sitting in the White House but who’s sitting in.”
This isn’t just a lesson from the dusty pages of history. It applies to today.
Back in 2008, one sour note on Election Night was the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which banned same-sex marriage. Rather than wait on a response from political leaders – like Obama, who insisted at the time that he was personally opposed to same-sex marriage – angry supporters of marriage equality organised protests, starting on Election Night. They spread across California and then the whole country, becoming a new national movement – which ultimately forced Obama to respond on this issue, albeit haltingly and inconsistently.
A few months after the 2010 Republican election victory, the uprising in Wisconsin erupted – against newly elected Gov. Scott Walker and his law designed to scapegoat the poor and strip collective-bargaining rights from public-sector workers. The Wisconsin rebellion did a hundred times more to take the labour movement forward than all the Democrats’ retreats and surrenders.
Last fall, the Occupy Wall Street movement – which began with a several-hundred-strong demonstration in New York City and spread around the country – redefined the way people look at class inequality with its famous “1 percent versus the 99 percent” slogan. Occupy drew many people new to activism into political activity, and it won sympathy far beyond its ranks.
And this past fall, the Chicago teachers’ strike provided an example of a different way for labour to organise – confident in the use of the strike weapon, linking its struggles to a social justice agenda and building ties of solidarity with the broader working class.
The left has had all of this to celebrate during Obama’s four years in office – and not one of them had anything to do with the initiative of the Democratic Party. On the contrary, several of these struggles were explicitly against some of the most powerful individuals in the Democratic Party – like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The challenges ahead are still great. The Wisconsin uprising got channelled into a failed electoral campaign to recall Walker and other Republicans. Occupy didn’t leave behind ongoing organisation. The Chicago teachers, while they held the line against many concessionary demands, accepted some compromises – and they and their community allies face a difficult struggle against school closings.
But these struggles show us how we can respond to Barack Obama’s election.
We’ve gone through a period of some months when political expectations have been ratcheted down by the elections, along with the level of mainstream political discussion. We have to look back on the inspiring struggles of the last few years – and of the more distant past – and grasp the important lesson: Our side needs to organise and fight, as unionists, students, community members and political activists, no matter who’s sitting in the White House.