Time for Obama's Movement to Get Moving
Last week was a busy one for Barack Obama. On Monday he held a bipartisan fiscal summit where he pledged to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term. On Tuesday he addressed both houses of Congress for the first time, promising the nation: "We will recover, we will rebuild." On Thursday he produced a budget that set out to redistribute wealth, heal the sick and save the planet. On Friday he stopped the war. On Saturday he threw down the gauntlet to special interests and lobbyists. And on the seventh day he rested.
In the course of a regular presidency, any one of these might be seen as a bold project. To tackle them all in one term seems ambitious to the point of foolhardiness. To announce them all in one week lies somewhere between the audacity of hope and the pugnacity of hubris.
But then this is no regular presidency - a function not just of the man but the times. "You never let a serious crisis go to waste," his chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, told reporters after the election. And this crisis is serious. Comparisons with the 1930s are premature, but each release of data has the economy straining for historical comparison.
February was the worst month on the stockmarket for 76 years, and saw the worst contraction of GDP since 1982, while California's unemployment is the highest since 1983. More often than not there is no comparison, because things have not been this bad since records began. Last week's flurry of activity marks an attempt to seize this moment, and in so doing reveals both the potential of the Obama administration at home and its limits abroad.
Domestically he has committed himself to a paradigm-shifting budget that marks a decisive break with more than a generation of neoliberal policies. The notion that taxes can go up as well as down, that the government has the ability and duty to do good, and that tackling inequality has moral values challenge the core assumptions that have dominated political culture in London and Washington for almost three decades. It is an agenda that Labour had a mandate to deliver - and wasted.
Abroad, his plans not so much break the mould as reset the one George Bush has damaged. His promise to bring all "combat troops" home from Iraq by August next year marks the end of a six year murderous folly that bitterly divided and alienated America.
Those who point to the troop surge and recent elections in Iraq as evidence that the invasion was a success are trying to put lipstick on a pig that has been slaughtered, gutted and turned into chops. The war has killed more than 1 million Iraqis and caused 4 million to flee their homes - half displaced internally and half externally. It has strengthened Iran in the region and created a generation of Islamic fundamentalists worldwide. On every front, by its own tawdry standards, it has been an unmitigated disaster. Its failure is not just humiliating for America's neocons, militarists and Republicans but for the useful idiots who gave them cover, including the British government.
There is barely a country in the world, including the US, that does not support its end. But welcome as it is, this step really marks a correction in American militaristic pretensions rather than an end to them. Bush certainly broadened and sharpened disdain for US foreign policy and mobilised huge numbers against it. But he did not invent American imperialism, he just revealed its limits. Those who claim he tarnished America's great reputation abroad were apparently unaware that in vast swaths of Central and South America, the Middle East (with the exception of Israel), the Arab world, and parts of Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, it was already pretty grubby. Obama's decision to extend the Iraqi occupation until 2011 with up to 50,000 troops, escalate the war in Afghanistan, bomb Pakistan and continue imprisoning "enemy combatants" in Afghanistan without trial returns us to the kind of American foreign policy we were used to before 9/11. These are small mercies. But given the last eight years, they are also significant.
Paradoxically, given the contentious manner in which it was prosecuted, the war's end attracted limited fanfare or ferocity. By the time it came to make the declaration, the American polity had long reconciled itself to defeat.
Obama's budget is a different matter entirely. Its signature elements involve tax increases on families earning more than $250,000 (£175,000), the introduction of a universal healthcare system, an economy-wide carbon-trading system, and grants for low-income students. In short, it intends to address the growing inequalities in American society.
It is already clear this will unleash a political battle that will test the strength and scope of the president's support. Lobbyists in the financial, health and oil industries, not to mention Republicans, have promised to do everything they can to neuter or nix the budget as it makes its way through Congress. If Obama really did create a movement during his campaign, as his supporters claim, then now would be the time for it to get moving. This battle started and will end in Washington. But it won't be won there. Having built an electoral coalition to win power, he now needs to cohere a political one to defend it.
This will be tough. We saw how effective and vicious the lobby industry could be when Hillary Clinton tried to reform healthcare in the early 1990s. But there are two reasons to believe that this time might be different.
First, conservatives are in ideological retreat and organisational disarray. The system they cherish - capitalism - is collapsing around their ears and taking their mantras with it. This was patently clear last week when Louisiana's governor, Bobby Jindal, delivered his ill-received response to Obama's congressional address. The problem wasn't just the delivery, but the goods. At a time when one in five home owners believes they are in negative equity, and fear of unemployment is rising in every region and class, people don't want to hear about the perils of big government and the joys of low taxes. Particularly from a party fresh from bloating the deficit.
Second, the left is better organised than it has been since the 1960s. It has a popular president, controls both houses of Congress, has a grassroots presence and - thanks to eight years of Bush - fire in its belly. A group of leftwing bloggers, unions and other activists have just teamed up to form a leftwing pressure group within the Democratic party. The blogosphere has done for the left what talk radio did for the right in the 1990s - provided the base with a platform and organising potential to put pressure on its leadership.
"The battle had been lost by the time the progressive community and its allies began rallying around the Clinton bill," Ralph Neas, the chief executive of the National Coalition on Health Care, told the New York Times. "Now, people are prepared."
During his weekly address, Obama made it clear he knows what's at stake. The lobbyists and special interests "are gearing up for a fight as we speak", the president said. "My message to them is this: so am I."
This week was busy - the weeks to come may also get nasty.
© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited 2009