Black president in the White House: Not the `same old white supremacy' but …

Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address after being sworn in as president of the United States. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images.

By Mike Ely

For literally millions of people, for many of a new generation, the awakening to politics starts in these moments. This is the world, the arguments, the summations, the claims, the promises that they hear and that they will see unfold in the days ahead. We need to understand this moment, we need to also inhabit this world that they are seeing — in order to craft from among them a revolutionary force that can actually connect with and represent their highest hopes.

This essay was first presented at a Kasama Project forum held in Chicago before the two political conventions in August 2008. Six months later, after Obama's election and inauguration, the question is even more sharply posed: what is the change that this represents. What does it mean (to the United States, to its forms of white supremacy, to its norms and assumptions) that a Black man inhabits the White House. What does it mean to the people, to their view of this country and its system? (What about the rise of a new Black patriotism and “pride in America”?)

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I want to talk about what the Obama candidacy represents domestically and I’d like to talk about it in this sense: Some major critiques that I run across of the Obama presidential campaign come from a certain tired 1960s Black nationalism. I don’t know if you all follow Burning Spear (officially known as African People’s Socialist Party, APSP). But I think its analysis is a good example of what I’m talking about. It argues that Obama should not be supported — but views this moment through a set of decidedly 20th century goggles. Burning Spear’s chairperson Omali Yeshitela gave a series of talks called “Barack Obama — White Power in Black Face” — which is worth listening to in this light.

And I think we have to include in this category political prisioner Mumia Abu-Jamal’s analysis (posted on Kasama).

Basically their analysis is: Look, a President Obama would just be a black face on the same old white supremacy.

And I’ve even run across some communists running a version of this line, saying, for example, that Barack Obama is not “really” Black or African American, and that is why he is acceptable and promotable within the “white power structure”.

And right from the beginning, we would have to say that there is a profound element of truth in what both Yeshitila, Mumia and other radical Black nationalists are saying: that the oppression of Black people will not be alleviated through some national election.

Yes, a President Obama will preside over the continued oppression of Black people.

That part is profoundly true and that is something we have to explain to people without sounding fatalistic. Something will uproot this oppression, but it’s just not Obama.

But it’s a mistake to say it’s the same old white supremacy if it is run by a Black president because first of all it isn’t. Black people widely have some sense of that.

Multiculturalism and its meanings

We should peel back what Obama’s “post-racialism” would mean and what is actually being contested in this country, because I think it will explain some of the facts that we have to think through. This is somewhat simplistic, we can always get deeper, but it’s very clear in a generation the majority of the people in the United States will be minorities. This is a huge demographic shift. It’s happening much more rapidly than they thought, and it’s a historic shift.

All previous waves of immigration came from Europe. Now the waves of immigration come from oppressed countries, including especially countries oppressed by the US. So if you bring in large numbers of people that have been oppressed by the US directly or indirectly –- from Mexico, Colombia, Guatamala, Puerto Rico, South Korea, and a dozen other countries –- it has a large effect on the politics and the culture of your country. So those running the US have to deal with it. And there is a sharp contention among the people who are responsible for the long-range operations of this empire about how to handle it.

We all are pretty much aware of the sort of right-wing arsehole approach — which is one pole within that contention: That’s the wall-at-the-border, run-the-Latinos-out, make-everyone-speak-English clampdown –- this is the call to enforce a traditional white Christian, male-dominated country, that’s-what-made-us-great-so-shut-the-fuck-up. I think we’ll see it in a virulent tone.

Opposed to that is another discussion that revolutionaries have not grappled with profoundly, for reasons we can discuss. And that pole is the Clintonian-sort of multiculturalism.

Rather than describe that pole perceptually, let me just say something about the history of this country: Black people have always been black African-descended people — they were forced into castelike conditions of slave, sharecropper and impoverished worker using the confines of a colour line.

But white people have not always been white people. When I was a kid, people talked about WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) running this country. And then suddenly, as the 1950s passed on, the talk is about “white people.” Jews and Italians became honorary members of the dominant natonality, after they had long been excluded under this banner of WASPs. A WASP, if you look at it, is Anglo-Saxon which means Brits and Germans (it allowed Germans in).

And even that WASP concept had a historic beginning. I wrote a piece on St. Louis and the German workers of the Civil War. One thing that stands out is that German immigrants used to be an oppressed nationality in this country. so were the Irish. At that time, the dominant nationality was Anglo-Americans. Then the Irish became white. (There’s a valuable book called How the Irish Became White that’s really worth reading.)

The author of that book, Noel Ignatiev is part of a radical break from traditional communist theory about the national question — creating a school of analysis sometimes called the “race-traitor” school that writes about the “invention of the white race”. And there are things worth understanding about what this school of thinking has dug up: That in the US the system has, over time, flexibly adjusted who was considered part of the dominant nationality — part of the social compact that helped keep African American people, Chicanos, Native Americans, and the latest immigrants pinned at the bottom of the class structure.

One of the things revealed is that the dominant structure of this country has sought to accommodate while continuing to oppress. Without going into all the depth of this: capitalism needs an oppressed class. But historically, in the US, the system had trouble maintaining a historically stable, hereditary oppressed class — there was a labour shortage, there was an opening for escape onto the frontier, there were pressures pushing up wages.

The United States has always had a labour shortage because it killed the Indians, because its economic growth was dizzyingly rapid and because European immigrants could seek “free land” (made “free” by killing their original inhabitants). So it was hard to keep white people working in fields and domestic service. (It was tried through a system of indentured servitude.)

The bringing in of Black people and making them do forced unpaid labour was a way to have a labour force at the bottom. And holding Black people in caste-like conditions at the bottom of the working class was a way of keeping a proletariat in this country.

This was not the experience of other nationalities: For example in the ’50s when the Jewish population went from being overwhelmingly proletarian to almost no members of the working class in twenty years. It’s one of fastest demographic transformation in history and it’s part of what conservatised Jewish people in this country. But through such changes affecting European immigrants, Black people have historically been held in caste-like conditions using the colour line.

Change in the structure of nationality and race in the United States

And now, we can see that there is consideration of a modification to that historic approach to Black people. And I think the possible modification goes along the following lines:

Capitalism in the US still needs an oppressed proletariat — more than ever because of the competition within global manufacturing. And certainly the capitalists themselves see the health of their domestic industries require the existance of significant sections of workers living and working at Third World levels. Over the last decades, they have brought in immigrants and they are keeping many millions of them illegal, which is a way of super-exploiting people -- keeping them below prevailing wage levels.

And this system has worked to re-exploit Black people. That was, for example, a capitalist calculation that animated the Clintonian approach to welfare: What’s the use, it was said, of having a proletariat if it’s not desperate for work, if it’s not willing to work for nothing? If Black youth are not interested in working for the minimum wage, then pressure needs to be brought to bear.

And so the existing structure of social services were changed — to pressure poor people to re-enter the workforce, at the bottom — to increasingly re-exploit, re-proletarianise them.

And at the same time, there has been a consideration of expanding the circle of those who are accepted into assimilation. Interestingly enough, the model of this kind of assimilation has been the supposedly “anti-racist” innovations of the post-Vietnam US military.

There are places in this society where there have been efforts to transform how these things work. The military is both extremely reactionary, and because of its need for humanpower, has done some accommodation on how Black people are brought into the structure.

There are also places in civil society in which, as a result of the 1960s, certain sections of Black people are allowed assimilation.

And there’s a link between the conditional assimilation of some sections of the upper class of the Black nation, and the continuing criminalisation and demonisation of those at the bottom, since desegregation.

There’s been an intensification of the class contradictions within the Black nationality so that, for example, Chicago’s South Side used to have Black doctors and lawyers — but then you desegregate some suburbs and loosen the rigidity of that colour line, and professional Black people can move out, then the people left stranded in the inner-city communities are the poorest part of Black people, leaving these communities much less economically diverse than they were before desegregation.

So, there is a debate, a struggle, within the ruling class over how to handle the coming state of minority/majority; and a profound and oppressive necessity to keep whole sections of non-white communities in caste-like oppression as proletarians fuelling the “competitiveness (profitability) of US domestic production.

A look from the killing floor

It became really clear to me when I investigated pork processing in North Carolina.

In manufacturing, if the capitalists can export the factory, they move the factory to low-wage areas across the border. But in some industries the capitalists just can’t shift the site of production: if it’s transport, subways, trucking, meatpacking, restaurant work …. You can’t move meatpacking plants to Guatemala because the meat can’t be profitably refrigerated and transported that far. So instead, the capitalists import the workers from the low-wage areas.

Either they ship the factory to the Third World or they ship the Third World people here.

One of the advantages that US capitalism has over many rivals (like Germany, Japan and other imperialist countries) is that the US has a long border with a populous Third World country, and it can exploit that desperate labour in cruel but innovative ways.

The US ruling class wants to continue and refine that, and yet debate ways of developing a more stable and broader arrangement within the nationality structure that defines the US.

Here’s what I’m arguing: That it’s just not the same old shit and, first of all, Black people know this in some ways.

There’s certain kinds of white superiority/Black inferiority that came out around this last election and some white people said, “Well I just could never vote for a Black guy” -– meaning: how could he be competent? And meaning: “I don’t trust a black man not to seek payback from those of us who took part in white racism.”

There’s a certain crude white racism that the Obama candidacy was an affront to; and we should be prepared to take it on, and not tolerate it for a fucking second... We should not be stand-offish… ``Oh it’s all the fucking same''. This is not tolerable and we should call it out and expose it whenever it appears.

Many people supporting Obama suspect that they may be able to knock those kinds of kinds of raw, old-time white racism out of the culture. A lot of it’s on the defensive already — raw white supremacy is no longer premissible in polite company. It is not considered acceptable. It has to be leaked out undercover, in whispers. This shift in social norms comes out when some folks complain bitterly that there’s just too much political correctness. What they’re saying is: How come I can’t speak real thoughts publicly in civil society? It’s because that kind of racism is already on the defensive.

What underlies this is that there are differences between what Obama and McCain represented in regard to the status of Black people. And we need a living critique of the multicultural proposal that Obama’s candidacy implicitly embodied. We have to show how this change in the superstructure and its assumptions cannot really emancipate the masses of Black people, or the oppressed of other nationalities at the bottom of US class society.

We need to dissect what Obama’s victory will actually mean? And which sections of Black people might see improvements because of the changes that a black president represents.

Obama’s rise: Proof that people cause their own poverty?

There’s another thing to take into this discussion: Some changes that an Obama presidency will bring domestically are not progressive. You can see already two different narratives being promoted in regard to Obama’s rise.

On one hand, there are people who say, “This finally proves that Black people are equally competent and there is no justification for closing any sphere of society to Black people.”

On the other hand, there are those who say, “The rise of an Obama proves that there really is no more racism in America, and that the continuing impoverishment and social problems of Black communities cannot be blamed on the system.”

This is, of course, the familiar way that highly reactionary forces in this country use the winning of civil rights laws. They say, ``Look you got legal equality in 1965; if you’re still poor two generations later, there’s something wrong with you.''

They say (or imply) that there’s some special pathology among Black people: because once you got equality it was just up to you; so there’s just something wrong with you and your culture, so you should abandon your culture and take more personal responsibility.

It's popular among Republican Party racists. But also embodied in the Bill Cosby line — and it is promoted by Obama himself with his highly conscious talk of personal responsibility and Black fatherhood.

Structural racism

When people say, our problem’s not the Klan anymore, it’s now us killing each other, it denies the existence of structural racism. It denies the ways in which a people are kept oppressed. It treats slavery as an event in the past, not a legacy that defines everything around us.

There is a whole push to not talk about the past — you see it in the reactionary right, but also in Obama (and his upholding of founding fathers and pioneers!).

When we bring up slavery, we’re explaining how this place looks now. Why is the South so reactionary? You think it’s not because of the blood of the African people and what went on there? Why do white people want guns in their houses? What’s the history of it? What are the events and dynamics that this still arises from?

You can get a glimmer of what an Obama victory can mean when you see how any mention of the oppression of Black people in the campaign was called ``playing the race card''. Here in the electoral campaign of a black person, there was almost zero discussion of the conditions of Black people and how they should be changed.

Obama’s campaign has not meant that the condition of Black people is finally centre stage — his campaign pushed those conditions off the stage.

This is not “our time has come”. This is, “I’m running and I’m not discussing you.”

And the moment Obama even mentions, “Look, I don’t look like the white guys on the dollar bill”, the whole political establishment shouts back, ``Whoa, let’s not be talking about race now.''

In other words, the price (the result) of having a Black presidential candidate is the suppression of any discussion of the oppression of Black people.

And I supsect this will not be a temporary phenomenon. It is part of what will come out of this election. That will become a generalised phenomenon.

This is justified (among Black people and among Democrats) in the name of, “He has to be president of all the people and if you just see him as a Black candidate you’ll never win” and all of that.

But really, there’s a whole other thing going on and we actually have to help people articulate that because there’s negative consequences of the system making this adjustment, and it includes perpetuating the demonisation of Black people and the argument that there aren’t structural reasons why Black people suffer the way they do in this hellhole. So I think that’s something worth peeling back, if you know what I’m saying.

To sum this up: When the Black nationalists say, ``He’s just a black face on the same old white supremacy”, I really think it’s mechanical and ahistorical. I think most people know better. It’s not the case. It is a Black face on the same society — on US capitalist-imperialist society — but it also represents some sea changes in how that society treats, portrays and oppresses Black people. And it may involve a certain acceptance of the assimilation of some strata of Black people, while intensifying the demonisation and hammering of those at the bottom.

The condition of Black people has been horrific in this country from its founding, heaping atrocities on African-descended people.

But there has never been anything we could call “the same old white supremacy”. There’s something very tired about this exactly because it doesn’t understand the dynamism of this society.

And this has been, always, a very dynamic and changing system. Conditions have always changed in leaps over this history. From several different forms of slavery at the beginning, to sharecropping, to working-class conditions to permanent unemployment. The oppression of African American people took the form of chains, then of segregation backed by lynching, now urban containment by police.

Similarly, the ideological justifications for it have changed a dozen times over 200 years. And they’re changing it again, you see. And to just say, as the Black nationalists do, “Well, it’s just the same old thing”, doesn’t correspond with reality, and for that reason won’t get any serious hearing. After all, these same Black nationalists said the same thing about Black mayors: ``These are just Black men who front for the white power structure.” It really does not understand the dynamics.

We need a revolutionary movement that does not see the events of today through the paradigms of the 1960s, that actually doesn’t just cling to old verdicts, and that doesn’t mechanically assume that this system is clinging to its own old verdicts.

Obama a pacifier?

So, I think objectively, if you look at it this, the rise of Obama is a very important phenomenon. It represents a major struggle within the ruling class over how to deal with both major international and major coming internal problems. It is not mainly pacifying the resistance of the people — which is why he gives so little lip service to the struggle and demands of the most oppressed people. Unfortunately, such resistance is not a permanent part of the political landscape; unfortunately the oppressors don’t always need to speak to radical challenges.

I would love to have a situation where the rulers need to produce a candidate to pacify the people (like they did with McGovern in 1972). But I don’t think that’s what’s going on right now.

And, looking at this question of Obama the “pacifier” from another side, I don’t think that the outcome of this campaign is simply and inevitably the pacification of people. It depends on how it turns out.

The US ruling class is very rough in its internal struggles. It may rough Obama up badly. I’ve followed these campaigns closely, and you can get so far and it looks like this and this is going, and then they just slap some dude down and he’s done. They may slap him down and Black people with him. And then it’s in your face. Sometimes political figures in this society are simply negated and removed from the scene — as George Wallace was in 1972 when he was getting in the way of Richard Nixon.

And such abrupt developments can really create an opening for a far more radical turn in things.

It’s not simply, Obama is going to pacify people and we just have to (somehow) get people to not pay attention to these events.

We actually want people to look and see what’s coming. To learn from what is coming now. As Mao said: “To go through it and come out the other side.”

[Mike Ely is a participant of the Kasama Project, which is seeking to reconceive and regroup a revolutionary movement within the United States. This essay is based on remarks made by Mike Ely at a Kasama forum held in Chicago before the two US political conventions in August 2008. It has been slightly abridged. It is published by Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Mike Ely's permission. It was originally Part 3 of a series called “Obama vs. the Revolution”, available at Mike Ely can be reached at kasamasite (at)]



For large numbers of people, Barack Obama's election is a reason to believe that change is possible--and that what they did mattered in making it.

MILLIONS OF people jammed into Washington, D.C., to see history being made yesterday, and to celebrate the official beginning of a new era in American politics.

A sea of people packed into the vast mall area in front of the Capitol building. Around the country, there were gatherings in schools, in auditoriums and theaters, in front of jumbo-trons set out in city streets. Across the world, too, millions watched the first African American president take office.

These images couldn't be more of a contrast to eight years ago, when George W. Bush scurried into the White House, thanks to a 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court not to count every vote in the 2000 election. Bush's inauguration was a meager gathering of political insiders, conservative cranks and corporate lobbyists, with angry protesters lining the inaugural parade route.

The end of the Bush regime was bound to be a cause for celebration for the millions of people who hated what the administration stood for--the "war on terror," contempt for the poor and working people, a bigoted right-wing agenda. There was no more satisfying sight than Bush climbing the stairs to his helicopter and flying away.

But the inauguration of Barack Obama meant much more than the end of Bush. Standing outside a Capitol built by slave labor, Obama took the oath to assume the presidency, an office held mostly by slaveowners for the first seven decades of America's existence. No wonder so many thought they would never see the day that an African American would be elected to the White House.

That achievement--the inauguration of a man who wouldn't have been served a cup of coffee in Washington a few generations ago, and who couldn't have hoped to win the presidency not that many years ago--dominated every moment of the proceedings.

It couldn't be otherwise with the countless Black faces throughout the vast crowd in Washington--and with the sense of pride, extending beyond African Americans alone, that some of the cruel sins of America's past were finally being overcome.

Among those who figured out a way to get to Washington, and waited for hours for a spot on the Mall or along the parade route, there was a sense of pride, too, in their contribution to this day--that the achievement was not Obama's alone. His oft-repeated slogan "We are the change we have been waiting for" speaks for many people who see in his election a reason to believe that change is possible--and what they did mattered in making it.

The reverent tone among this huge audience was at odds with the fake pomp on the Capitol steps itself--a ceremony stage-managed according to 18th-century protocol and presided over by political leaders with a history of resisting everything those in the crowd want to accomplish.

The low point was an opening prayer by Rick Warren, the anti-gay, anti-abortion pastor of the Saddleback mega-church. Warren's pious rhetoric about "treating our fellow human beings with respect" was so much hollow cant coming from a man who compares same-sex marriage to incest and pedophilia.

Obama's own team managed to add a further bitter note to this episode. At a Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial, Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, was invited to give the opening prayer, in what supporters of LGBT rights were encouraged to see as a concession to their anger about Warren. But the Presidential Inaugural Committee instructed HBO not to include Robinson's politically charged invocation in the two-hour television broadcast of the concert.

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THIS CONFLICT between the hopes inspired by Obama's promise of change and the compromises on the basic principles held by those who worked to put him in office ran through the inaugural speech.

The address was full of historical references to those who built America--people who "toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth." But Obama used those images to propose that working people must shoulder the burden of dealing with the economic crisis. "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility," he said.

In describing the crisis, Obama said, "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."

The millions of people suffering the brunt of the crisis didn't "fail" to make a "hard choice" about the rampant greed and speculation on Wall Street that pushed the financial system off a cliff. They weren't given any choice at all, and now they're being asked to pay for a disaster they had no part in causing.

But spreading the blame for the crisis is the prelude to spreading the sacrifice--shared sacrifice, when the prosperity that came before wasn't shared at all, but was enjoyed entirely by the rich.

Millions of people in this country would be prepared to accept personal sacrifice in order to achieve social goals--a genuine national health care program, for example, or improved public schools. And many among those people may heed Obama's call to public service to help make such changes.

But in recent weeks, Obama's emphasis has been on sacrifice and patience, rather than the radical change the country urgently needs. Thus, in the days ahead, Obama and Congress are expected to approve spending on the second half of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout that saves the banks, but offers nothing to millions of people in danger of losing their homes.

Obama's comments on foreign policy were similarly double-edged. He struck a different tone than Bush, offering to the Muslim world "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

Yet over the past month, Obama was silent during Israel's slaughter of more than 1,300 Palestinians in Gaza--a war on a defenseless people, carried out with U.S.-built F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters, and following a U.S.-backed blockade that cut off food and medicine to one of the most densely populated areas on Earth.

In another rhetorical shift from Bush administration policy, Obama said he would "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals"--a pointed criticism of the shredding of civil liberties under Bush. Yet he also claimed that "[o]ur nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred"--a line that could have come from Bush's speechwriters.

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OBAMA'S CALL for all Americans to unite and work together to overcome adversity--to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America"--is a time-honored cliché for American political leaders.

But there's one thing about this message when it comes from Obama that is important to note. To millions of people, it is a call to do something. And what people do in the coming months and years will be key in determining what change comes to U.S. society.

The Obama campaign has had a profound impact. After a generation of the conservative agenda dominating in Washington, when the White House and Congress seemed wholly insulated from any influence by ordinary people, Obama's victory convinced large numbers of people of some basic sentiments at the heart of the great struggles of the past--that something different is possible, and that what we do matters.

But there's another lesson to be drawn from the experience of the civil rights movement, the fight for women's suffrage and the struggle for unions: Their strength rested on the willingness to remain independent and mobilize for justice, no matter what president was sitting in the White House.

Obama himself gave voice to these lessons about how social change is made in an answer to a question about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a Democratic candidates' debate during the early primaries. His words were extraordinary coming from a politician who would end up in the Oval Office a year later:

I believe change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up. Dr. King understood that.

It was those women who were willing to walk instead of ride the bus, union workers who are willing to take on violence and intimidation to get the right to organize. It was women who decided, "I'm as smart as my husband. I'd better get the right to vote." Them arguing, mobilizing, agitating, and ultimately forcing elected officials to be accountable. I think that's the key...

That's how we're going to bring about change. That's why I want to be president of the United States, to respect the power of the American people to bring about change.

Now that he occupies the top political office of the most powerful capitalist society on earth, Obama and his administration will have their own ideas about what change should look like, and what it shouldn't--and those ideas won't be the same as the millions of people who worked to get him elected.

But the most fundamental changes in society do happen from the bottom up. And it's up to the people who want to see that change to use all the opportunities presented to us in this new era of Barack Obama--to argue, to mobilize and to agitate.


BARACK OBAMA is in the White House, and he says that means the beginning of a brand-new era in Washington--of "post-partisan" politics.

"On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises," Obama declared in his inauguration speech, "the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that, for far too long, have strangled our politics."

Actually, Obama's talk about "bipartisanship" isn't brand new at all--it's one of the oldest political clichés in the book.

The argument for bipartisanship is that the right and the left have to work together because the public is sick of the gridlock in Washington. What Americans want is action, the argument goes, not more argument and debate.

This does reflect something real about popular opinion. But it's not that people don't care about real political differences. It's that they can't stand empty bickering and grandstanding when no one can understand what's at stake.

In fact, the real problem isn't that the two major parties disagree on too many issues, but on too few--and when they do disagree, the debate isn't about the substance of issues, but appearances and trivia.

The fact of the matter is that there are many issues that are too important to bargain about--the right of same-sex couples to marry, like anyone else; or help for workers who are having their homes snatched from them in the sub-prime loan debacle; or an end to U.S. support for Israel's war on the Palestinians.

Put simply, there are two sides to these arguments, one is the right side--and "reaching across the aisle" to "find consensus" only means concessions on politically important questions.

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OBAMA HAS no need to concede on anything at the center of the program he proposed during the election. He won on the basis of overwhelming support for a change from the status quo.

That sentiment only grew as Inauguration Day approached. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll released before the inauguration, 79 percent of the population was optimistic about the next four years under Obama, the most favorable rating among all of the last five presidents. Fifty-eight percent of McCain voters said they were optimistic about the incoming administration.

As the Los Angeles Times pointed out:

Obama takes office with big advantages, such as a Democratic majority in Congress, a grassroots network and e-mail list of 13 million people, and high approval ratings...

Even Republicans, who are searching for new leadership and a new identity, will be wary of challenging Obama, at least right away. "Nobody wants to be painted as the guy that wouldn't give Barack Obama the chance to get his program started," said Dick Armey, a former House Republican leader who is now a conservative activist. "No one wants to be seen as the skunk at the garden party."

Four years ago, a puffed-up George Bush bragged that he was going to spend his "political capital" from winning reelection--and his presidency promptly plunged toward disaster.

If anyone does have "political capital" to spend on the promises that won him such overwhelming support, it's Barack Obama. But instead, he's playing up his supposed ability to reach out to conservatives.

In the days leading up to the inauguration, he reportedly sat down for dinner at George Will's house with conservative pundits William Kristol, David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer. And at the inauguration itself, Obama asked right-wing, anti-gay minister Rick Warren to deliver the invocation, giving him a platform unlike any he's ever had.

The truth is that when Washington politicians preach moderation and "centrism," and call for the left and right to come together in the middle, it almost never means the right moving to the left. Instead, it's a cover for the political debate to be pulled to the right.

As Thomas Frank wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

[T]he real-world function of Beltway centrism has not been to wage high-minded war against "both extremes," but to fight specifically against the economic and foreign policies of liberalism. Centrism's institutional triumphs have been won mainly if not entirely within the Democratic Party. Its greatest exponent, President Bill Clinton, persistently used his own movement as a foil in his great game of triangulation.

And centrism's achievements? Well, there's NAFTA, which proved Democrats could stand up to labor. There's the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. There's the Iraq war resolution, approved by numerous Democrats in brave defiance of their party's left. Triumphs all...

Frank concludes, "Centrism is a chump's game. Democrats have massive majorities these days not because they waffle hither and yon, but because their historic principles have been vindicated by events. This is their moment. Let the other side do the triangulating."

The Democrats are in power after eight long years of Republican rule, and the expectation is that they will enact significant changes. There have already been some. As one of his first acts, Obama signed an executive order to close down the Guantánamo Bay prison camp.

But it's important to remember that while they might differ on the hows of the "war on terror," the Democrats typically agree with the Republicans on whats and whys.

As the executive of the world's leading military and economic superpower, the Obama administration has inherited the same central project as all the administrations--of both parties--that came before it. Its priority is projecting U.S. imperial power abroad and maintaining corporate interests at home. The Obama administration might do it without Guantánamo, but it will do all it can to serve this agenda.

There's good reason to believe that change is possible, but it won't be the kind we want unless we take a side and fight for it.


The following is a Press TV interview with respected American author, political analyst and world-renowned linguist, Professor Noam Chomsky. See

By Press TV

January 24, 2009 -- -Press TV: Professor Chomsky, we better start with Pakistan. The White House not commenting on the killings of people [in cross-border drone attacks from Afghanistan into Pakistan]. Richard Holbrooke, someone whom you've written about in the context of Yugoslavia, is the man [President Barack] Obama has chosen to solve the situation.

Chomsky: Well, it was pretty clear that Obama would accept the Bush doctrine that the United States can bomb Pakistan freely, and there have been many case which are quite serious.

There has been for example a great deal of chaos and fighting in Bajaur province, which is a adjacent to Afghanistan and tribal leaders- others there- have traced it to the bombing of a madrassa school which killed 80 to 95 people, which I don't think was even reported in the United states, it was reported in the Pakistani press of course.

The author of the article reporting it, a well-known nuclear physicist, Pervez Hoodbhoy pointed out at the time that this kind of massacre will of course engender terror and reactions, which will even threaten the state of Pakistan. And that has been what is happening. We are now seeing more of it.

The first message of the Pakistani government to General [David] Petraeus, the American General when he took command of the region was that they did not want any more bombings in Pakistan.

Actually, the first message to the new Obama administration by President [Hamid] Karzai of Afghanistan was the same, that he wanted no more bombings. He also said that he wants a timetable for the withdrawal of the foreign troops, US and other troops, from Afghanistan. That was of course just ignored.

Press TV: And these three foreign envoys, well the third one has not been announced yet perhaps, but some people are expressing optimism about George Mitchell's position as Middle East envoy.

Richard Holbrooke, which have looked at. We have talked to the former Bosnian foreign minister here, who seemed to imply that he may even have had a role in the say so for the Srebrenica massacre, and of course, Dennis Ross is being talked about as an envoy for Iran.

Chomsky: well Holbrooke has a pretty awful record, not so much Yugoslavia, but earlier. For example, In the Indonesian atrocities in eastern Timor, where he was the official in charge, and evaded to stop the US support for them, and all together it's a very spotty record.

George Mitchell is, of the various appointments that have been made, he is the most decent let's say. He has a pretty decent record. He achieved something in Northern Ireland, but of course, in that case there was an objective.

The objective was that the British would put an end to the resort to violence in response to IRA terror and would attend to the legitimate grievances that were the source of the terror. He did manage that, Britain did pay attention to the grievances, and the terror stopped- so that was successful.

But there is no such outcome sketched in the Middle East, specially the Israel-Palestine problem. I mean, there is a solution, a straightforward solution very similar to the British one. Israel could stop its US-backed crimes in the occupied territories and then presumably the reaction to them would stop. But that's not on the agenda.

In fact, President Obama just had a press conference, which was quite interesting in that respect. He praised the parabolic peace initiative, the Saudi initiative endorsed by the Arab League, and said it had constructive elements. It called for the normalization of relation with Israel, and he called on the Arab states to proceed with those "constructive elements," namely the normalization of relations.

But that is a gross falsification of the Arab League initiative. The Arab League initiative called for accepting a two-state settlement on the international border, which has been a long-standing international consensus and said if that can be achieved then Arab states can normalize relations with Israel.

Well, Obama skipped the first part, the crucial part, the core of the resolution, because that imposes an obligation on the United States. The United States has stood alone for over thirty years in blocking this international consensus, by now it has totally isolated the US and Israel.

Europe and now a lot of other countries have accepted it. Hamas has accepted it for years, the Palestinian Authority of course, the Arab League now for many years [have accepted it]. The US and Israel block it, not just in words, but they are blocking it in actions constantly, (this is) happening every day in the occupied territories and also in the siege of Gaza and other atrocities.

So when he skips that it is purposeful. That entails that the US is not going to join the world in seeking to implement a diplomatic settlement, and if that is the case, Mitchell's mission is vacuous.

Press TV: Is there a contradiction in that George Mitchell of course did speak to members of the Sinn Féin, their military wing of course of the IRA.

At the same time, well on this channel [Press TV] we have been covering the Gaza conflict, its headquarters were bombed, and now we are being told that Israeli soldiers will not give their names, and the names of people are not being released for fear of prosecution.

And yet, some were saying that Obama did say that the border should be opened. Should we see any change in policy there?

Chomsky: He did say that, but he did not mention the fact that it was in the context of a lot other demands. And Israel will also say, sure the borders should be opened but he still refuses to speak to the elected government (i.e. Hamas), quite different from Mitchell in Northern Ireland.

It means Palestinians will have to be punished for voting in a free election, the way the US did not want them to, and he endorsed the Condoleezza Rice-Tzipi Livni agreement to close the Egyptian-Gaza order, which is quite an act of imperial arrogance.

It is not their border, and in fact, Egypt strongly objected to that. But Obama continued. He says we have to make sure that no arms are smuggled through the tunnels into the Gaza Strip. But he said nothing about the vast dispatch of far more lethal arms to Israel.

In fact, right in the middle of the Gaza attack, December 31, the Pentagon announced that it was commissioning a German ship to send 3,000 tons of war material to Israel. That did not work out, because the government of Greece prevented it but it was supposed to go through Greece but it could all go through somewhere else. This is right in the middle of the attack on Gaza.

Actually there were very little reporting, very few inquiries. The Pentagon responded in an interesting way. They said, well this material won't be used for the attack on Gaza, in fact they knew that Israel had plans to stop the attack right before the inauguration, so that Obama would not have to say anything about it.

But the Pentagon said that this material is being used for pre-positioning for US forces. In other words, this has been going for a long time, but this is extending and reinforcing the role of Israel as a US military base on the edge of the major oil producing regions of the world. If they are ever asked why they are doing it, they will say for defense or stability, but it is just a base for further aggressive action.

Press TV: Robert Gates and Admiral [Mike] Mullen have been talking about the 16-month timeline for withdrawal from Iraq is just one of the options, a slight difference from what Obama has been saying in the campaign. And, Hillary Clinton famously said she was prepared to obliterate all of Iran and kill 70 million citizens. On Iraq and Iran what do you see as changes?

Chomsky: What happened in Iraq is extremely interesting and important. The few correspondents with real experience any whom know something have understood it. Patrick Cockburn, Jonathan Steele and one or two others.

What has happened is that there was a remarkable campaign of non-violent resistance in Iraq, which compelled the United States, step-by-step, to back away from its programs and its goals. They compelled the US occupying forces to allow an election, which the US did not want and tried to evade in all sorts of ways.

Then they went on from there to force the United States to accept at least formally a status of forces agreement, which if the Obama administration lives up to it, will abandon most of the US war aims. It will eliminate the huge permanent military bases that the US has built in Iraq. It will mean the US will not control decisions over how the oil resources will be accessed and used. And in fact just every war aim is gone.

Of course there is a question of whether the US will live up to it and what you are reporting is among the serious indications that they are trying to evade living up to it. But what happened there is really significant, and a real credit to the people of Iraq, who have suffered miserably. I mean, the country has been absolutely destroyed, but they did manage to get the US to back away formally from its major war aims.

In the case of Iran, Obama's statements have not been as inflammatory as Clinton's, but they amount to pretty much the same thing. He said all options are open. Well, what does all options mean? Presumably that includes nuclear war, you know, that is an option.

There is no indication that he is willing to take the steps, say, that the American population wants. An overwhelming majority of the American population for years has been in favor, has agreed with the Non-Aligned Movement, that Iran should have the rights granted to the signers of the non-proliferation treaty, in fact to develop nuclear energy.

It should not have the right to develop nuclear weapons, and more interestingly about the same percentages, about 75 to 80%, call for the establishment of a nuclear weapons free zone in the region, which would include Iran, Israel, and any US forces deployment there, within all kinds of verifications and so on.

That could eliminate probably one of the major sources of the conflict. There is no indication that the Obama administration has any thought of doing anything about this.

Press TV: Just finally Professor Chomsky, the US economy, of course where you are -that is dominating the news and the lives all Americans and arguably the people around the world- and this 825 billion dollar package. How do you think the Obama people are going to handle this?

Chomsky: Nobody really knows. I mean, what is happening with the economy is not well understood. It is based on extremely opaque financial manipulations, which are quite hard to decode. I mean, the general process is understood, but whether the $800 billion, or probably larger government stimulus, will overcome this crisis, is not known.

The first $350 billion have already been spent- that is the so-called part bailout but that went into the pockets of banks. They were supposed to start lending freely, but they just decided not to do it. They would rather enrich themselves, restore their own capital, and take over other banks- mergers and acquisition and so on.

Whether the next stimulus will have an effect depends very much on how it is handled, whether it is monitored, so that it is used for constructive purposes. [It relies] also on factors that are just not known, like how deep this crisis is going to be.

It is a worldwide crisis and it is very serious. It is suddenly striking that the ways that Western countries are approaching the crisis is exactly the same as the model that they enforce on the Third World when there is a crisis.

So when Indonesia has a crisis, Argentina and everyone else, they are supposed to raise interest rates very high and privatize the economy, and cut down on public spending, measures like that. In the West, it is the exact opposite: lower interest rates to zero, move towards nationalization if necessary, pour money into the economy, have huge debts.

That is exactly the opposite of how the Third World is supposed to pay off its debts, and that this seems to pass without comment is remarkable. These measures for the West are ones that might get the economy moving again, while it has been a disaster for others.