The first anniversary of Barack Obama’s inauguration as US president comes on 20 January.
The election of a black president promising a shift away from decades of neoliberalism was a major breakthrough. Obama’s election campaign was exciting because it involved thousands of activists who had previously been utterly alienated by politics.
But in office he has surrounded himself with establishment figures. And rather than pursuing their own interests, Obama’s grassroots activists and campaigners have demobilised themselves.
Such complacency is suicidal. Obama was never a figure pushed up by the movement like Martin Luther King, who was therefore in some way wedded to its demands.
It’s true that he continues to drive the US right into fits of rage with his statements defending science against attack from religion, and supporting lesbian and gay rights.
But while he still talks of change and peace, it has largely been a year of dashed hopes.
The contradictions of his rule were highlighted when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.
Originally seen as an anti-war candidate, Obama has overseen the escalation of the “war on terror” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and now Yemen.
The promised closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp has yet to materialise and “rendition” torture flights continue.
His war policy increasingly resembles George Bush’s, and his surge in Afghanistan has gained praise from US right wingers.
For many people the shambles of the Copenhagen climate summit was the final straw.
Obama claimed a mealy mouthed “accord” between a tiny minority of countries was a breakthrough rather than a setback in the fight against climate change.
Even his flagship policy of health reform has been so watered down that it has ended up as a subsidy to the bloated health insurance companies.
During his election campaign Obama stated, “The more we can enlist the American people to pay attention and be involved, that’s the only way we are going move an agenda forward. That’s how we are going to counteract the special interests.”
The tragedy is that the mass of people who elected him was then demobilised, leaving matters to the president.
The most extreme example of this was the US anti-war movement – United for Peace and Justice effectively closed itself down once “its” president was elected.
Many hope that Obama’s presidency will recreate the radical changes in US society that occurred during Franklin D Roosevelt’s presidency in the 1930s, which introduced the “New Deal”.
What they often forget is that the most significant changes did not come from presidential reforms, but from radical trade unionists, anti-racists and left wing activists pushing from below.
US blogger and sometime Obama campaigner Micah L Sifry commented of Obama’s disappearing movement:
“The people who voted for him weren’t organised in any kind of new or powerful way, and the special interests – banks, energy companies, health interests, car-makers, the military-industrial complex – sat first at the table and wrote the menu. Myth met reality, and came up wanting.”
He continued, “You can’t order volunteers to do anything – you have to motivate them, and Obama’s compromises to almost every powers-that-be are tremendously demotivating.”
In November 2010 Obama’s administration will face mid-term elections. All 435 House of Representative seats will be contested, along with a third of the 100-member Senate and 37 state governorships.
The Democrats are predicted to lose the majority they hold in both houses that theoretically means they could push through radical reforms.
As Guardian columnist Gary Younge has pointed out about Obama: “Being the most progressive American president in more than a generation is not the same as being progressive. It’s all relative.”
The US corridors of power are so full of corporate lobbyists that no party without significant pressure from elsewhere has any likelihood of passing contentious legislation.
But the anger that originally got Obama elected still remains – and the US left needs to avoid the twin dangers of simply abstaining from the movement that elected him and of capitulating to it.