US president Barack Obama was elected in 2008 on a wave of hope. There was justified exhilaration that a black man had won the most powerful elected office in the world, in a country so marked by racism.
Millions hoped for policies that would benefit the poor, women and those at the cutting-edge of the recession. Obama had made massive concessions to business during his election campaign to attract finance and the support of crucial parts of the Democratic Party establishment.
But once he was elected, millions of voters believed Obama could use his popular base to move away from Wall Street, the wealthy and the power-brokers of the cracked establishment machine.
Their hopes have been disappointed. When Obama was elected, black unemployment (measured in the narrowest way) stood at 11 percent. Now it is 16 percent.
The overall measure of underemployment for all workers, which includes those forced to work part‑time, is over 18 percent—similar to when Obama came to office.
As one economist noted, “Almost all the job growth during Obama’s time in office has come from those who have reached retirement age continuing to work or going back to work. The unemployment rate for young people ages 16-19 is 26 percent. The unemployment rate for black youth is an appalling 49 percent.”
US voters were going to the polls as Socialist Worker went to press. The indications, cheered on by a viciously right wing media, were that Obama’s Democratic Party would suffer heavy losses.
Young people and black people were crucial to Obama’s presidential election. You can see why they might not have turned out in such numbers now.
Obama’s only hope was that the loathing and hatred for the Republican policies of tax cuts for the rich and a firestorm against the poor would motivate a vote for the Democrats, however inadequate they have been.
At a town hall meeting on 20 September, Velma Hart, a black mother, told the man she voted for in 2008, “I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I’m an American veteran and I’m one of your middle-class Americans. And, quite frankly, I’m exhausted, exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for and I’m deeply disappointed with where we are right now.
“Mr President, I need you to answer honestly, is this my new reality?”
The Financial Times analyst Clive Crook blames “the whining utopian left” for the problems Obama faces. But the fundamental point is that Obama failed because he did not go far enough, not because he went too far.
A recent poll found that 40 percent of people felt that Obama’s healthcare legislation did not go far enough—compared to just 20 percent who thought it went too far.
And it’s not just the economy. He claims to have delivered on the promise to remove US combat troops from Iraq. But that ignores the 50,000 soldiers left as “advisers” and “trainers”.
Obama has also sent a further 50,000 troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total number of US soldiers there to over 100,000.
Despite polls that show, for example, just 18 percent of US voters believing the situation in Afghanistan will improve in the next six months, Obama has done what the generals demanded.
None of this was inevitable.
As the socialist author Tariq Ali said recently, “I remember saying to lots of activists in the US during the Obama election campaign, ‘Fine. You’re campaigning for Obama. You want him elected. OK, good. Let’s hope he delivers what you hope he’s going to deliver. But he’s not going to deliver even that if you just elect him and go back home.’
“And I remember arguing for a massive anti-war gathering for the inauguration, which would put pressure right from day one on the new administration. Without that, politicians don’t do anything. So, that is the lesson, I’m afraid.”
Whatever the election result, the key task in the US will be to foster and build the struggles over jobs, poverty, racism and against imperialist war.