Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The 44th President: new emperor, old empire

The massive crowds at Barack Obama's inauguration, one year ago today, feel like a long time ago. The euphoria of election night the previous November seems even more distant. While Obama's election remains a historically significant moment, especially in relation to the politics of race, it won't be too controversial if I point out the general sense of anti-climax.

Racism has, inevitably, continued. It is inevitable because racism is structural: it is part of modern American society, with a material base, not simply a problem of outmoded attitudes that just won't go away. Racism still matters in the realities of American life and it is still relevant to understanding attitudes and ideas, for example the dubious portrayal of the people of Haiti in American news media. A black President is symbolically important and a source of optimism, but the inequalities of both race and class have stubbornly remained (and, without more radical social change than Obama might ever countenance, will continue).

Obama never promised much of substance, but there are problems even with the little he did promise: most glaringly, his administration has failed to meet its own deadline for closing Guantanamo Bay, symbolic of the preceding Bush regime and everything that made it detested. There has been no wider rethink of what 'security' really means or how it can be attained, with the continuation of authoritarianism combined with aggressive pursuit of US foreign policy interests. Afghanistan is the key issue here: many people, giving Obama the benefit of the doubt, overlooked the new President's hawkish stance last January, but that is no longer possible. With mounting US, UK and Afghan casualties, the quagmire of Afghanistan can't be blamed on the previous President.

Domestically, Obama's priority has unsurprisingly been to save capitalism from itself. This has meant a few measures that dissent from the neoliberal tradition, but without genuinely challenging anyone's wealth or power. It is merely crisis management, within carefully monitored constraints, unaccompanied by any redistribution of wealth. In this profoundly unequal society, health care has become a major focus. Obama's plans are too modest in the first place and progress is slow, but the hysterical reaction to 'socialised healthcare' from the American Right is a reminder of the political Establishment's hostility to anything faintly progressive.

The Timeline video above was made shortly after Obama became President. The other programmes in the series available via YouTube are on Afghanistan, Palestine and the Iraq Inquiry. On a lighter, more satirical, note see The Onion's interpretation of Obama's shift from rhetoric to reality.

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