Millions of people are celebrating across the world today after Barack Obama was elected as the first black president of the United States – a momentous achievement in a country with a long history of entrenched and vicious racism.
Not since the 1930s have expectations around a US president been so high. The excitement around Obama’s campaign has shown how desperate people are for a different kind of politics after eight years of George Bush and the neoconservatives.
Obama’s campaign tapped into the demands of millions of ordinary Americans for serious political change in the US. It was marked by huge numbers of people mobilising and engaging with politics, many for the first time.
The crucial factor that sealed his victory was the global economic crisis. And now that Obama has won, people will want him to deliver the “change” that he promised.
Over a million homes in the US are currently in foreclosure, and the figure is rising. People will want this trend reversed and these home repossessions stopped.
They will want their new president to intervene to safeguard car workers at Ford and General Motors who are facing job losses. They will want further challenges to the still high level of racism in the US.
People also expect a change in the “war on terror” – the disastrous occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan that have helped stoke Bush’s record levels of unpopularity.
But we must be aware that there is a clash between these demands from ordinary people and those of Obama’s rich corporate backers.
The Democratic Party is primarily a party of the rich and wealthy. Obama attracted the lion’s share of funding from corporate America. The Democrats are not the same as the Labour Party in Britain, which is far more tightly linked to trade unions and the workers’ movement.
Some 93 percent of political funding from US trade unions goes to the Democrats – but this only makes up 14 percent of the party’s funding. In contrast, the Democrats raise up to 67 percent of their cash from big business amounts.
Obama’s campaign war chest was $650 million. He made much of the idea that these donations came from ordinary people. But only half of this sum came from these grassroots – the rest came in huge donations from big business and other interests.
The reasons why people in the US are so desperate for change are not hard to see. The country has more black men in prison than in higher education.
Almost a quarter of black Americans live below the poverty line. Yet according to Obama the US is the home of “democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope”.
Obama has pledged to pull US troops out of Iraq – but wants to send them into Afghanistan. He happily signed up to the $700 billion bailout plan for Wall Street banks.
Many of the people around Obama were in the previous Democratic administration of Bill Clinton, which was also elected on a wave of hope.
Yet under Clinton, the gap between rich and poor increased. The number of federal prisoners almost doubled. He ended the US’s welfare system and went to war as many times as his four predecessors combined.
Many of the mainstays of Clinton’s administration are now being touted for office under Obama. These include Richard Holbrooke, one of the architects of the Balkans war of the 1990s and Zbigniew Brezinsky, an enthusiast for the “war on terror”.
There will be many battles ahead as the expectations on Obama run into the limitations of the Democratic Party. The central question for the left in the US will be whether they can relate to the enormous hope that Obama’s election has generated among ordinary people.
The left has be part of building grassroots campaigns that can force Obama to deliver, but also build up forces in opposition to the pro-capitalist policies of both major US parties.
Obama’s election has opened up a space for the left, the working class, the anti-war movement, black people and others to push their own agendas. They have to seize this opportunity.