Socialist Worker

Obama must take his share of blame

Barack Obama departs the US presidency amid a cloud of praise and nostalgia.

Issue No. 2537

This is hardly surprising. More people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. And Obama’s elegance and restraint is in marked contrast with the antics of his cunning but thuggish successor.

In a society as permeated by racism as the US, Obama’s occupancy of the White House was remarkable for having taken place at all. And—as his farewell speech in Chicago last week reminded us—he is a great public speaker.

Obama

Barack Obama (Pic: Flickr)

But what about the substance? Martin Wolf devoted a column in the bosses’ Financial Times newspaper to “How Barack Obama rescued the United States economy.”

Much of his case rests on the fact Obama took office in January 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the financial crash the preceding autumn.

Economy

Wolf quotes the final report of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, “It is easy to forget how close the US economy came to an outright depression during the crisis.”

It’s true that this collapse halted in 2009, and that the US economy is now growing faster than the rest of the advanced capitalist world.

Obama deserves some credit for this. But he essentially continued the emergency measures taken by the previous administration of George W Bush. And, as the Marxist blogger Michael Roberts pointed out recently, “The ‘recovery’ after the end of the Great Recession in 2009 has been the weakest in post-war US economic history.

“US investment and consumption have still not recovered to levels relative to GDP seen before the Great Recession.”

Moreover, research by the Economic Policy Institute shows that in 2015 the bottom 95 percent of households still had incomes that were lower than in 2007.

That figure alone is enough to explain why there was a pool of anger for Trump to mobilise against the incumbent Democrats.

Anger helped to bring Obama to office as well. In March 2009 he told the CEOs of the leading banks, “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”

But Obama didn’t use the crisis to at least try to reform the neoliberal version of capitalism that has enriched the bankers and impoverished everyone else. Instead he restored the status quo.

Emergency

Apologists will point to the constraints imposed by the US political system. But early 2009 was a moment of emergency. And Obama had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.

He had no interest in really changing American society. This became clear when the administration took over and rescued General Motors (GM) and Chrysler.

Steven Rattner, who oversaw the resulting reorganisation of the auto industry, quotes the famous saying of the odious Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, “Never let a crisis go to waste.”

Rattner explains, “We used the growing economic catastrophe to achieve changes and sacrifices that would have been impossible in another environment.”

In other words, they used the threat of bankruptcy to force the United Auto Workers union to concede plant closures and cuts in wages and benefits. These restored GM and Chrysler as profitable private sector firms.

Across the board, Obama restored a marginally modified version of the existing system.

He wanted to replace US boots on the ground in the Middle East with a methodically organised system of targeted drone assassinations run from the White House.

Even in its own terms this policy failed. Obama sent US combat troops back to Iraq and to Syria, and broke his promise to pull out of Afghanistan.

Barack Obama’s election was an extraordinary event that provoked extraordinary hopes. From the start he disappointed them.

Very soon, the right wing Tea Party movement were leading the pitchforks against him. If a candidate who speaks their language is now replacing him, Obama must take his share of the blame.


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