The remarkable momentum of Barack Obama’s campaign to be the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party is raising the hopes of millions of Americans who have felt marginalised by mainstream politics.
No one who opposes racism and oppression can ignore this reality. But if Obama makes it to the White House, what can we expect from the office of the president?
Even if all the barriers to electoral victory – and there are still many – are overcome by Obama’s team, the 2008 US election will not point to an end to US imperialism, racism and war.
Exit polls from Democratic Party primaries and caucuses across the US indicate Obama’s support is coming largely from poor, young, black, immigrant and/or women voters, many of who have never taken part in electoral politics on this scale.
But the momentum Obama’s candidacy is generating is not matched by the politics he stands for or that of the Democratic Party he seeks to lead. Obama and his campaign organisers are brilliantly adapting to a perceived potential voting base, calling upon every supporter to become actively involved in the presidential race.
More tech-savy than any of his competitors within or beyond the Democrats, Obama has relied on email and YouTube videos to reach a wider, younger audience.
The style is as important as the message – which is almost devoid of content, but is optimistic and captures the mood.
He repeats in clear and passionate language that altering the course of US politics set by George Bush and company is urgent and possible.
Just go to some of the videos on the various websites to get a sense of this.
Obama has claimed the legacy of civil rights leader Martin Luther King. He has been compared to former president John F Kennedy.
He points to his mixed-race and multicultural background as a symbol of a new and different “America” in his speeches and autogiography.
But Barack Obama is not a candidate for peace.
Take the issue of the Iraq war, which Obama opposes. Notably, so has the other Democratic Party presidential candidate contender Hillary Clinton. John Edwards, who has now dropped out of the race, also opposes the war.
This reflects the depth of opposition to the war among the US public, and increasingly, among a section of the US ruling class.
Obama has pointed to the fact that he opposed the initial US-led attack in 2003, unlike Clinton and Edwards.
But Obama is not against the war on the grounds that it is imperialist, racist and illegal. Instead, he sees it as unwinnable.
Once elected to the US senate in 2004, Obama supported Bush’s calls for unconditional funding for the war in Iraq in 2005 and 2006.
He also voted to confirm Condoleezza Rice as US secretary of state, despite evidence that she had presented false testimonies to congress and the fact that she was a central part of the Bush’s team that pushed through the Iraq war.
In June 2006, Obama voted against an amendment demanding a timetable for US withdrawal from Iraq, despite having previously called for such a timetable in the senate.
And during the 2006 Democratic Party congressional primaries Obama backed pro-war candidates such as Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont.
Obama is also in favour of maintaining a US occupation in Iraq. He has directly linked US troop withdrawal from Iraq to redeployment in Afghanistan.
In November 2006, Obama stated, “Drawing down our troops in Iraq will allow us to redeploy additional troops to northern Iraq and elsewhere in the region as an over-the-horizon force.
“Perhaps most importantly, some of these troops could be redeployed to Afghanistan.
“By redeploying from Iraq to Afghanistan, we will answer Nato’s call for more troops and provide a much-needed boost to this critical fight against terrorism.”
It is for all these reasons that Ralph Nader has announced a left wing challenge for the presidential elections.
The Democrats will attack him for splitting the “progressive” vote and attempt to stop him from standing. But socialists back both his right to stand and his criticisms of US corporate power and the two main parties.
The promise of a new, progressive US, domestically and internationally, is something very different from the politics offered by Obama and the Democrats. Historically, the Democrats and the Republicans have had very similar policies. They are both parties of big business.
But today, in the curious structures of the US’s institutional party politics, the social base of a new movement is finding some expression in the hopeful anticipation of a new type of leadership of the Democratic Party.
Reliance on these structures will inevitably prove painfully disappointing. If a better world is indeed possible, it will be mass movements from below that make it a reality.
Abbie Bakan is a professor of political studies at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, in Canada. She is a member of the Canadian International Socialists and author of a number of books including Ideology and Class Conflict in Jamaica