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Why Barack Obama’s nomination for the US presidency is historic

By Malik Miah

``America, this is our moment’’, stated Barack Obama on June 3 after winning enough delegates to become the presumed presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. Obama becomes the first African American in the history of the country to be nominated by one of the ruling parties. It happened on the evening of June 3 as the final two primaries occurred in Montana and South Dakota, where he and his main opponent New York Senator Hillary Clinton won one state each.

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Obama’s has won 2154 delegates as of June 4. It includes delegates won in direct-vote primaries, state caucuses and the pledges of ``super delegates’’. It put him over the 2118 delegates needed to capture the nomination.

Obama will not officially win the nomination until the delegates vote in August at the Democratic Party convention in Denver, Colorado. The presidential election is in November, where the winner is elected by an electoral college of delegates based on popular votes in each state, not the country as a whole. (Al Gore in 2000 won the national popular vote but lost to Republican George Bush with fewer electoral votes.)

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton, US senator from New York and former first lady, conceded to Obama on June 7. She doesn’t have the delegates to win but still argues that she is the best choice to win the White House in November. Her supporters are pushing Obama to pick her as his running mate for vice-president. Clinton’s run was historic too, as the first female candidate in serious contention for the presidency. She won nearly as many popular votes and delegates as Obama.

Many of Clinton’s most fervent backers were older women who grew up in the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. They hoped she would be the first female president in US history. Women first won the right to vote in the United States in 1920.

Obama and Clinton tapped the deep anger of the US people against the rightist presidency of George Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney, who have reshaped much of US domestic and foreign policy during their eights years in power.

The invasion of Iraq was part of the neoconservatives’ plan to bring about a modern-day version of colonial rule in the Middle East — with Israel as the Western outpost and with permanent US military bases in Iraq and other Arab countries to protect their oil interests and put down nationalist rebellions. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attack gave them the opening to topple a hated dictator, impose their rule and launch their plans.

John McCain, the likely Republican nominee for president, supports that goal (which so far is a near complete disaster) and pledges a long-term presence in Iraq. McCain is a strong supporter of imperial ``democracy’’ — a neocolonialism policy not only for the Middle East but the entire world.

Why historic?

Obama, while backing US world domination, sees the invasion and occupation of Iraq as provoking more nationalist resistance and thus undermining the overall strategic objective of US imperialism. He also rejects the extremist US domestic policies that have primarily benefited the wealthy 1 per cent. He supports an expanded economic safety net and abortion rights. Bush and McCain don’t.

McCain’s attacks on Obama must be seen in that context. He says Obama is too inexperienced to be president, pointing to Obama’s refusal to support the US invasion of Iraq and its current occupation.

The significance of Obama’s electoral victory has little to do with his political positions or the reality that he will be the candidate of one of the two major ruling capitalist parties. The Democratic Party, like the Republican Party, stands behind the mission of US imperialist domination of the world.

The differences between Obama and Clinton were narrow, with the exception of the Iraq war. Obama in 2002, then a state politician in Illinois, opposed the war; Senator Clinton voted for it, and refused to repudiate that vote after it became known the war was based on the lies of the Bush administration.

The differences between the Democratic and Republican parties are more about tactics to keep the US as the only world power with military basses, and plans to expand NATO and other Cold War alliances, around the world. The real concerns are not just Islamic fundamentalists, Iran and Syria, but a resurgent Russia and China. Obama and McCain agree on the containment of Russia and China, and the objective of imperial ``democratic’’ rule and modern-day neocolonial domination of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The tactical differences, however, are wide. Obama recognises that for the US to keep its superpower status and support it must return to the bipartisan US foreign policy that existed for decades — one based on traditional diplomacy and a more balanced policy toward friends and foes.

The Bush-Cheney policies have isolated the US from many countries in the Middle East and other Third World countries. The al Qaeda Islamic fundamentalist network is stronger today than after the September 11 terrorist attack. The resistance to foreign occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to the pro-US government in Pakistan, is growing stronger.

The influence of anti-US Islamic groups and nationalist forces in many countries is expanding. The aggressive US hostility toward Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, and total uncritical support of Washington’s gendarme Israel has weakened US policy in the region. The gains won by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza are indications of declining US influence.

Even Israel sees the failures of current US policy. After Bush recently spoke to its parliament (the Knesset) about those appeasing the enemy (an indirect attack on Obama’s support for diplomacy without conditions), Israel decided to open talks with its arch-enemy Syria.

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Obama’s expected nomination is historic clearly not because of the pro-imperialist policies of the two major parties. It is historic because only white men have ever served as president. Obama, as a representative of an oppressed racial group that was forged out of the slave trade, slavery and legal racism, and whose father is from Kenya, resonates widely.

Segregation is still in the memory of millions of southern Blacks. It took until 1967 before the US Supreme Court allowed Blacks and whites to legally marry. It took a massive civil rights movement in the 1960s to adopt turning-point civil rights (1964) and voting rights (1965) laws. What excites the vast majority of African Americans is that one of their own could be elected president.

The reality of past racism and unimaginable success is why Barack Obama’s nomination is historic and significant.

What it doesn’t mean

Obama’s success has its limitations in terms of what it means for African Americans’ future, and for all working people.

The end of legal racism in the 1960s did not end racial discrimination. The vast majority of African Americans and other oppressed minorities still suffer from that institutional discrimination. It is why unemployment, education rights and home ownership are significantly lower for African Americans than for whites. Many gains such as affirmative action programs and school integration have been rolled back. Net wealth for African Americans and others who suffered such historic discrimination is also much smaller than for white working people.

At the same time, a new Black upper and middle class have formed since the 1970s. That middle class — families like Barack and Michelle Obama's — do attend the best universities, live in the better neighbourhoods and believe it is possible to be a CEO or president.

After recognising the historic meaning of his nomination — that a Black man can know get the spot and possibly become president of the most powerful country in the world — sharpens the political discussion and debates along class lines. It is no longer just about race.

Obama‘s program is pro-big business. He backs the neocolonial foreign policy of his party, which may be ``milder’’ than Bush-Cheney’s in tone but is nevertheless a neo-colonial policy toward enemies of the US. Obama will not deviate from the ruling-class strategy or policy. He will make some cosmetic and symbolic changes to the openly religion-driven neoconservative policies of Bush-Cheney. But in the final analysis, Obama cannot make the fundamental changes necessary to improve the lives of the average African American, Latino American, Asian American and white American citizens. (Immigrants and undocumented workers don’t exist for either major party candidate.)

For African Americans it is pure pride to have the opportunity to vote for a Black person for president. Many older Blacks still remember when legal segregation was the law of the land in most southern states. It doesn’t matter to them if Obama’s polices befit few in the Black community.

At the same time, the relative social progress that made an Obama candidacy possible is the fact that most young people, of all ethnic groups and races, don’t see it as odd that a Black, woman or non-white can be elected president. They ask, ``Why not?’’.

Minor parties’ role – McKinney and Nader

The minor progressive and left political parties, in that context, can play an important role in the debates over the next five months. While millions of young people and African Americans have been galvanised by Obama’s candidacy — tens of thousands attend his rallies — the left and progressive forces who oppose his basically neocolonial and neoliberal policies should identify with the concerns for change and embrace those supporters’ hopes, while explaining why a break with the two major parties is necessary for working people to elect a government that genuinely represents their interests.

The Obama phenomenon as it's been called is significant because it taps real anger and hopes. It should be embraced in a constructive and critical manner. It is the only way to win support from those who become disillusioned in the future to consider alternative views when and if Obama wins the presidency.

The aim is to engage and embrace; it is to help move those activists towards independent politics.

The Green Party's likely presidential nominee Cynthia McKinney (a former Democratic congress member from the state of Georgia) and independent candidacy of Ralph Nader are important. It allows those who reject the two major parties on progressive grounds to discuss and offer radical solutions. Both campaigns speak in support of social movements and why the issues of war and peace will not be possible under an Obama or McCain presidency.

What is lacking today are militant social movements that can push the government to adopt reforms that benefit the economic and social interests of the working class. There is no activist labour movement in the US. Today the trade unions are in retreat, suffering setbacks and defeats especially in the manufacturing sectors (auto) and transportation (airlines).

There are weak campaigns in defence of civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmental issues and to protect other social gains. Even the anti-war movement against the occupation of Iraq and the possible US war against Iran are relatively small even though a majority of people in the Unied States now oppose the reasons given to invade Iraq.

Obama’s next step

What happens next in the Democratic and Republican party races for president is of interest to people around the world because the US is the only superpower. It has military forces stationed in scores of countries. It threatens its enemies with more wars, including the use of nuclear weapons.

Now that Obama has the nomination he will be judged not simply as the first African American candidate but on his political positions, vision and objectives to turn around the economy and end the wars overseas.

No matter what he doses or says, it will not change how Blacks will probably vote. The nationalist sentiment is strong. It’s why 90 per cent plus of all African Americans voted for Obama during the Democratic Party primaries (an unprecedented figure) and will do so again, including the few African American Republicans.

The white backlash

Obama does face a unique challenge. To win he must overcome the nearly 20 per cent of white voters who say they will never vote for an African American for president (down from 80 per cent a generation ago).

Polls have failed in many elections to show this negative racial factor. It is clear that Hillary Clinton’s supporters used it to win many southern states where lower-paid whites tended to support her over Obama. She and most pundits called these white bigots ``blue-collar Americans’’ (blue-collar workers who are Black, Asian or Latino were simply not mentioned).

Overall, however, Obama did win a majority of white working people in many other states outside of the old Jim Crow segregated South. While race matters, it isn’t like it used to be.

Latino and Asian Americans were more divided on Obama’s campaign, reflecting historical contradictions used by the ruling power structures to divide minorities against each other. But again, Obama won many younger Asians, Latinos and other ethnic groups to his campaign as a candidate representing change.

The contradictions of US politics remain. There isn’t a ``colorblind or non-racial society’’ that conservatives pretend exists as a way not to support special programs for oppressed minorities. It also applies to gender; many men and women say they would never vote for a woman as president.

Historic change

June 3 was an historic date. It should be acknowledged as it reflects genuine positive changes in US civil society. The problems of economic recession and wars don’t diminish its significance. The change, while primarily symbolic and not fundamental, does show how the capitalist system is able to continuously adapt and incorporate new social groups into its leadership (previously all-white male) structure, without undermining its ability to rule.

[Malik Miah is an editor of Against The Current magazine and a San Francisco supporter of the socialist group Solidarity.]


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