Will Obama really bring the "Change" we "Hope" for? Part II

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Written by Andrew Garvie

There has been tons of speculation in the press about whether or not Obama can really accomplish "change". Unfortunately the majority of this discussion only skims the surface and does not ask what this "change" consists of in terms of actual policy. From the standpoint of an outside observer it might look like Obama voters have not really articulated what they want and that they just voted against the status quo.

On inauguration day when I was in DC I saw a very different picture and was happily surprised at the real evidence of a mass movement in progress. Many people held signs with what they thought Obama's rhetoric should translate to in terms of policy and result. Some thoughtful organizers had supporters write out what "hope" meant to them. Hundreds participated and it gave me an interesting look inside the mind of the Obama political base. A real agenda was promoted, things like "peace", "jobs" and "health care". I couldn't help but wonder what Bush supporters (the few that bothered to show up to his last inauguration) would have written four years before. Maybe "get 'er done: Osama dead or alive", "save us from the evils of gay-marriage" or "privatize social security". Definitely a different mood. In this sense I really believe that the political base of the man in the White House shifted on inauguration day and it is this new demographic of voters that has the actual capability to put pressure on the President to enact progressive reform.

In a way Obama himself reflects the historical precedent on how change actually takes place. Placing an African American in the White House was not the work of one Presidential campaign but was the culmination of years of struggle. This happened in a country where the KKK had a million members who operated with the complicit support of the legal system, murdering and terrorizing. Less than half a century ago Black civil rights leaders were assassinated and the fight for desegregation was won only throw the broadest mass movement. Even last year Hillary Clinton was saying that Obama would not be able to appeal to the white working-class in a cynical move to use embedded racism in her favor, and of course the struggle against racism is not ended by having a Black family in the White House. Although it is certainly a victory on the long road of struggle, it is not the end of the road. We are still talking about a country where a black male is more likely to end up in prison than in college.

A speech I read this week by Noam Chomsky confirmed what I had seen in DC. "Changes and progress very rarely are gifts from above. They come out of struggles from below," Chomsky said soon after the election in November. He goes on to talk about the massive mobilization that eventually put Obama in the White House. This was described as "Obama's Army" in the press around election time. This "army" is comprised of young and Black voters. Both demographics have consistently been sidelined by the traditional American political machine and there were tons of first time voters out on Nov 4th. The fact that much of Obama's people power (if not financial backing) comes from this social base means that the Obama administration is infinitely more susceptible to public pressure than previous governments. Obama has a clear mandate to enact progressive reform in America, but that does not mean there will not be resistance from the old, entrenched power structure. If "Obama's Army" can do more than receive orders from above and can mobilize to send specific demands to "their man" in the White House, there is hope for change. If there is uncritical support for whatever Obama does then there's a good chance that his base will slowly loose faith and become silent players on the political scene once again.

Fortunately I saw evidence of the former scenario in Washington. Anti-war demonstrators dropped massive banners saying "Yes We Can End War!" and people held banners that said "put hope in people, not in Presidents". These people weren't there to poop on anyone's inauguration party. They had voted for Obama and were celebrating a victory that day, but they also understood that change cannot just be hoped for, it needs to be fought for.

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