After Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th US president on Jan. 20, he may soon start wishing he’d never been born. What a mess. Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933 has a new president faced such a shambles. George Bush has left his successor two disastrous wars, a tanking economy, rising unemployment, a financial meltdown and a debt crisis. So what’s Obama to do?
To his credit, Obama is promising to scale back the $3 trillion Iraq war, which has killed up to a million Iraqi civilians and left about 35,000 Americans dead or wounded. On the other hand, he’s promising to step up the fighting in Afghanistan and perhaps Pakistan---trading one costly, unwinnable war for another. He’d be wiser to bring the US military home altogether, and instead invest his energy in seeking diplomatic solutions. Terrorism can be dealt with by international police forces, and regional conflicts should be worked out in negotiations between Afghanistan and its neighbours.
Besides, Obama should face the fact that Americans simply can’t afford these wars. They’re already borrowing money from China and the oil-producing countries to finance them. Now, with a looming recession, the US will have to dive even deeper into debt to pursue its militaristic foreign policies. If Obama wants to avoid being blamed for the misery inflicted by Bush’s recession, he’ll need to shift money from foreign wars to domestic priorities such as social programs and public works projects.
When he took office 75 years ago, FDR inherited a nation in the worst depression it had ever experienced. In his inaugural address, he blamed capitalist greed for the country’s economic chaos and promised to “apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.” FDR expanded relief programs for the unemployed, homeowners and farmers. He also financed public works projects to put Americans back to work. True, the situation for Obama is not nearly as stark. The latest US unemployment figure is 6.1 percent, not even close to the horrendous 25 percent FDR faced. But experts predict unemployment will keep rising. A jobless rate of eight percent adds up to another two to three million out of work. Meanwhile, US manufacturing plants continue to close as jobs move to China and other countries where labour is cheap. The question arises, then: Does Obama have FDR’s political nerve? During his presidential campaign, he kept calling for change, but was it only empty rhetoric?
Let’s hope not. I’d love Obama to be his country’s saviour. Unfortunately though, his record $600 million plus in campaign contributions raises questions about his ties to corporate America. “Obama is a company man,” warns Glen Ford, editor of the Black Agenda Report, a journal of African American political thought. Ford cites some of Obama’s pro-business Senate votes and his corporate campaign contributions. For example, the Associated Press reported in September that Obama’s campaign received $9.9 million from securities and investment firms---the same firms that traded in the kind of predatory mortgage lending that gouged the poor and precipitated Wall Street’s financial meltdown. The Bush administration is hemorrhaging at least $700 billion (yes, billion) to bail out these firms, an action endorsed by Obama.
Critics on the American left have called Obama neo-liberal and an advocate of American empire. Yet Obama clearly inspires people in a way no American politician has in decades; his eloquent call for change resonates with people of modest means. More than $280 million of his campaign contributions came in small donations of under $200. And maybe people are right that once in office, Obama will follow FDR’s example, rise above corporate politics and bring in a new deal for ordinary people. After the victory party though, Obama will face the monsters of George Bush’s criminal regime: costly wars, ballooning debt and a crumbling economy. Obama’s response will determine his success or failure.