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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

budget is a different matter entirely. Its signature elements involve
tax increases on families earning more than $250,000 (PS175,000), 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.

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.

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.

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