The presidential election of Barack Obama is a milestone in American history, deeply significant for two reasons; firstly, he not only represents the non-white population of the US, but also the poor and oppressed in a way that no candidate has promised since Roosevelt. Secondly, his campaign was driven by a mass mobilisation of grassroots, popular support that is unprecedented in US politics. The most crucial question that remains, however, is more dependent on the actions of US citizenry than the policy decisions of Obama's administration in the months and years ahead. Will the American public be further mobilised to influence the necessary and momentous turnaround in global priorities that must inevitably be led by the United States?
Sixty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was first enshrined, the current global economic system has decisively undermined the United Nation's goals through ever-worsening conditions for the majority world and an unprecedented gap between rich and poor. Nowhere is this more evident than in America, home to the highest number of world billionaires alongside increasing levels of food insecurity - with child hunger rising by 50 percent in 2007 even before the economic recession. According to the latest data from the Internal Revenue Service, the richest 1 percent of Americans have garnered the highest share of the nation's adjusted gross income for two decades, possibly the highest since 1929.
Reports on US inequality are now so commonplace that the term ‘a second gilded age' is considered a cliché. The American Dream of upward social mobility has "emigrated from its birthplace in the US to northern Europe", reported the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on the growth of economic equality over the past 20 years; growing inequality in US cities could lead to widespread social unrest and increased mortality, says a recent study by UN-Habitat; and over 12 percent of Americans (36.2 million adults and children) did not have enough food to maintain active and healthy lives in 2007, according to the US Department of Agriculture. As financial turmoil redoubles the number of home repossessions and factory closures, with nearly 2 million US jobs already lost this year, such statistics urge a fundamental reassessment of America's position on the world stage.
A crisis of historic proportions
Millions of poor Americans went to vote during the presidential elections, many "for the first time - and many for the first time in a long time" as the Barack Obama website declares, because they believed in the blanket rhetoric of hope and change. The Obama campaign emphasised his awareness of the injustice inherent in the gap between rich and poor, alongside the need to "jumpstart the economy" and prevent a further 1 million Americans from losing their jobs. Citing an economic crisis of "historic proportions" during his third press conference after being elected, he stressed how urgent action must be taken to stop a further unraveling of the US economy.
Despite injecting an extra $500 billion into the banking system and promising mass expenditure on public works and green technologies, the fact remains that a salvaging of the US economy is no longer possible without long-term reforms of the global financial architecture. In the meantime, the people of America are predicted to experience a recession more severe and protracted than any since the Great Depression of the 1930s. A million more job lay-offs are expected by next spring, and the collapse of the auto industry alone could wipe out Obama's economic plan of "saving or creating" 2.5 million jobs in 2009/10.
In the midst of widespread social disruption and suffering, one sector of the economy will remain unscathed - the arms manufacturing corporations. The US spends more than 20 percent of its annual budget on defense, with some 700 military naval and air bases in over 100 countries. Without a significant cut-back in military expenditure, which means closing a large proportion of foreign military bases, it will be impossible for Obama to fulfill his campaign promises of job creation, new social housing and the funding of renewable energy research and development. There is no clear indication that Obama is thinking along these lines. Even if so, no president can dismantle the military industrial complex, considering its entrenched hold over the US Congress, without a huge groundswell of support from the American people.
Deconstructing the War on Terror
It is significant that anti-war protestors initially sought Obama's help, inviting him to speak at a rally in October 2002 when he proclaimed the invasion of Iraq as a "dumb" and "rash" war based "not on reason but on passion". Now that six years have passed, Obama's words will be firmly put to the test. Ending an era of imperial warfare in Iraq may be a top priority for the President-elect, but the test extends to the military operations in Afghanistan. As many pundits have argued, Obama will have to rethink and deconstruct the whole War on Terror, which is a challenge that his rhetoric has far from acknowledged. He has called Afghanistan the "central front in the War on Terror" and argued for the redeployment of US troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, while threatening to bomb Pakistan if the country harbours any Afghan warlords. America has already sent drones into Waziristan (North West Pakistan) to attack Al Qaeda leaders, frequently killing innocent families. With no clear indication of Obama's intentions, the prevention of an escalating global conflict in the Middle East could rest upon a massive wave of public protest to pressure an immediate US withdrawal from the region.
The signs concerning America's future role in the Israel/Palestine conflict are similarly foreboding. On the day of the US elections, while the entire world's attention was turned on Obama, a report from Jerusalem stated that "Israeli forces were tearing up the homes of Palestinian families to build new settlements, furthering their control of occupied East Jerusalem and pre-empting final status negotiations." A direct role played by the US in arming and fomenting civil war in Gaza was revealed by Vanity Fair magazine in March 2008, starkly contradicting the official intention of the White House to broker a deal that would create a viable Palestinian state and bring peace to the Holy Land.
Now that Obama has put a fiercely pro-Israel man in charge of the White House, the chances of a US turnaround in its backing of Israel's militarism in the Middle East are less than remote. The World Bank recently made no secret of the fact that Israeli restrictions are largely to blame for the wretched condition of the Palestinian economy, with poverty rates in the Gaza Strip soaring to almost 80 percent. Humanitarian assistance from the US, which is desperately needed in the creation of a sustainable development program to overhaul the economies of the West Bank and Gaza, risks being continually subjugated to Israeli politics. Again, hope for the Middle East is dependent on pressure from the American public to force Barrack Obama to break away from the Bush era strategy of a distinctly laissez-faire attitude towards Israel's dominance over the Palestinian territories.
Much of the optimism for ‘change' placed in the new presidency comes not only from the United States, but also from Barack Obama's ethnic origins in the continent of Africa. In Kenya, the home country of Obama's father, a public holiday was declared following the election results, with African leaders from South Africa to Somalia sending their congratulations to the US president-elect. When Obama takes office in January, his difficulty will lie in matching the passionate expectations. Certain sections of African society may have praised President Bush's financial contributions in the fight against HIV/Aids, but still half the population of sub-Saharan Africa lives in extreme poverty, a figure that hasn't changes for over 25 years. According to the World Bank's latest figures, the number of poor people in the region nearly doubled over the period of economic globalisation, from 200 million in 1981 to 380 million in 2005. The exhaustive studies of World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies in Africa, demonstrating in detail how structural adjustment policies led by the US have caused increased hunger and deprivation for millions of Africans, are all the evidence of an enormous burden of responsibility that rests on Obama's shoulders.
A number of tough decisions must be faced by the new administration in relation to the Bretton Woods institutions. It is obvious to state that the management of these bodies is dominated by the US, a small number of European countries and Japan. China, one of the most important economic powers after America, is dwarfed in influence by Britain and France, while most other non-EU countries (most of all Africans) have a negligible say in the international trade system. At the recent meeting of the G20, world leaders admitted that "the Bretton Woods institutions must be comprehensively reformed", but the reforms intended are to give the IMF more power and resources and the poorer nations merely "a greater voice and representation."
The real challenge facing Obama, beyond acknowledging the ill-designed policies and the failure of the World Bank and IMF's basic mandates, is between two distinct options: to reshape the two institutions towards their original conception in the 1950/60s as the true guardians of economic development and international monetary stability; or to embark upon the dismantling of existing Bretton Woods organisations and the creation of a new international trade architecture. The people of Africa have already decided that Obama is genuine in wanting to help their cause; the world now awaits the support of the American public in pressuring the White House to adopt new strategies abroad. The alternative, meaning the continuation of a free trade model based upon a relentless economic battle between unequal nations and an intensifying conflict over natural resources, is almost unthinkable.
Robin Hood in the White House?
Many commentators have accused Obama of being a socialist or modern-day Robin Hood in the White House, as if any form of ‘taxing the rich' or wealth redistribution is antithetical to progress and economic development. In the discussion following Obama's infamous "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody" comment during a campaign rally in Ohio, he was vehemently questioned on the potentially ‘socialistic' nature of his tax plans, or even for being a clandestine Marxist. For other critics, especially those in countries like the UK where socialist ideals (the state pension, National Health Service) have been tried with great success, such accusations were generally viewed as ludicrous. Obama's current tax proposals, even if 95 percent of working families do receive a tax cut of $1,000 in 2009, are hardly analogous to the Communist Manifesto. The continued economic slump and the will of the US Congress could still reshape the design of any tax changes, and whether the proposals are robust enough to end the decades-long ‘flood-up' of wealth to the very highest rung of the income ladder is yet to be seen.
Of more international significance is The Global Poverty Act, a bill sponsored by Obama in late 2007 that declares it "official US policy" to promote the reduction of global poverty, and hence recommits the US to spending 0.7 percent of gross national product on foreign aid (adding $65 billion a year to what the US already spends). A genuine dedication from the White House to support the Millennium Development Goal of cutting extreme poverty in half by 2015, despite even this target remaining woefully insufficient, is the surest sign that the US government could reawaken to its responsibility for an equitable form of overseas aid and development.
The term that most expresses the real hope for the Obama administration is not ‘socialism', but the principle of sharing. As the world's agenda-setter, the US holds a unique power in being able to prioritise the elimination of hunger and poverty through a redistribution of resources on a global scale. That the Global Poverty Act would make levels of US foreign aid spending subservient to the dictates of the United Nations is not a negative position, as various critics have suggested, but one of its greatest hopes. A re-empowerment of the UN framework in poverty reduction and international development is a prerequisite to the United States accepting a less dominant and self-interested role in foreign affairs. A fairer sharing of world resources, which necessitates a completing reordering or priorities in favour of the poorest countries and the marginalised sections of society, is an essential measure of President Obama's progress both at home and abroad.
The call for sharing
One American who has embraced the principle of sharing is Dennis Kucinich, currently representing Ohio as a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives. Kucinich is singularly unafraid to demand that America lead the way in multilateral disarmament by cutting back on defense spending, instead using the money to provide free health care, social security and quality education for all. His campaign proposals (based on the restoration of rural farms and communities, international cooperation abroad, and the immediate withdrawal from the WTO, NAFTA and the war in Iraq) may have heeded only modest support in the 2004 and 2008 elections, but more Americans need to follow Kucinich's example in demanding both the dismantlement of the military industrial complex and a renewed system of international trade. The US pioneered the creation of the current failed economic system; as the world economy continues to deteriorate, it is up to the American public to become politically engaged and light the way for other countries in how to live a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle.
Mass public mobilisation in the US election campaign was a wonderful demonstration of popular idealism and devotion to democracy, but it should not be limited to this symbolic Martin Luther King phase. When King said "I have a dream", he was speaking not only for the oppressed black minority, but for every American who in the end must decide the fate of their country. All Americans share a similar dream: to see their children grow up in peace and freedom, to play their part in making sure that every citizen of the US, and of the world, enjoys an adequate standard of living as long defined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Through the grassroots financing and immense support of the Obama campaign, the US has indicated what a true form of political participation can achieve. Now the American people must show the world, on a scale never seen before, how public opinion can influence the creation of a new social order from the ashes of a failed, unjust and obsolete economic system.