In the 2008 US Presidential election Barack Obama is the favourite, and if John McCain gets in it will be the biggest surprise since 1948 when Harry S Truman beat Thomas Dewey. The advantage of installing Obama is that his whole campaign is centred on the idea of ‘change', for America and the world. The illusion of change is one that the ruling class, if it can, often conjures up at election time. ‘You think things are bad? They can get better.' This time round even McCain has tried to make out he's different from Bush, attacking the doubling of the US national debt since 2001 and criticising the mismanagement of the war in Iraq.
The details of the candidates aren't what's essential. Obama's father was from Kenya, and McCain's father and grandfather were both admirals. So what? What's fundamental is that the circus of democracy can be given its latest performance and people are led to believe that something will change.
What goes on behind closed doors
The financial crisis has been a good test for the candidates. When emergency financial measures were being adopted both Obama and McCain voted for the $700 billion rescue bill in Congress and supported the takeovers of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and AIG. These interventions weren't their idea, nor were they Bush's. They happened because the logic of capitalist development has led to a crucial role for the state,
The New York Times (14/10/08) reported how others accepted the inevitable.
"The chief executives of the nine largest banks in the United States trooped into a gilded conference room at the Treasury Department at 3 p.m. Monday. To their astonishment, they were each handed a one-page document that said they agreed to sell shares to the government, then Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. said they must sign it before they left. The chairman of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, was receptive, saying he thought the deal looked pretty good once he ran the numbers through his head. The chairman of Wells Fargo, Richard M. Kovacevich, protested strongly that, unlike his New York rivals, his bank was not in trouble because of investments in exotic mortgages, and did not need a bailout, according to people briefed on the meeting.
But by 6:30, all nine chief executives had signed [...]
Mr. Paulson announced the plan Tuesday, saying ‘we regret having to take these actions.' Pouring billions in public money into the banks, he said, was ‘objectionable,' but unavoidable to restore confidence in the markets and persuade the banks to start lending again." Elsewhere, with similar plans in Britain and other European countries, there had been some consultation "But unlike in Britain, the Treasury secretary presented his plan as an offer the banks could not refuse."
This is state capitalism at work. The democratic charade has no connection with the bourgeoisie's real decision-making process that mostly goes on behind closed doors. The banks know when they have to acquiesce. At no point does the ‘public' get any say in the outlay of ‘public money'.
Policies of war and repression
Obama has promised ‘change', but it's only in the details. He has said that it is necessary to step up the war in Afghanistan. He plans to send an extra 15,000 soldiers as soon as he takes over. He's also promised that if he wants to attack Taliban or al Qaida targets in Pakistan he won't wait for Islamabad's permission. On the home front Obama has supported legislation to extend the powers of bodies like the FBI and National Security Agency for surveillance and wiretapping.
All this has upset left-winger Alexander Cockburn. In an article in the Independent on Sunday (‘Obama, the first rate Republican' 26/10/8) he criticises Obama's plans "to enlarge the armed services by 90,000 ...to escalate the US war in Afghanistan, ... to wage war against terror in a hundred countries, creating a new international intelligence and law enforcement ‘infrastructure'". He thinks that "Obama is far more hawkish than McCain on Iran" and that "Obama has crooked the knee to bankers and Wall Street, to the oil companies, the coal companies, the nuclear lobby, the big agricultural combines."
There's nothing exclusively ‘Republican' about this approach. The Democratic presidents of the 20th century also set an example for Obama to follow. The First World War was fought under Woodrow Wilson, who had been re-elected on the slogan "He kept us out of the war." Roosevelt geared up American imperialism for the Second World War and, during it, ensured the execution of its most ruthless and brutal strategies. Under Truman the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and nearly 6 million Americans were sent to fight in the Korean War. Kennedy and Johnson escalated and sustained the US offensive in the Vietnam War. With Clinton we saw the bombing of Serbia and the devastating sanctions and air attacks on Iraq.
Without even turning to the prospects that the economic crisis offers the American working class under a new president - i.e. a sustained and savage attack on their living standards - it is obvious that Obama is in the mainstream of Democratic politics.
For the world's media each presidential election is presented as a vital moment of decision-making that affects everyone on the planet. The truth is that the factions of the American bourgeoisie make their decisions according to the blows of material reality. The deepening of the economic crisis; the difficulty, as the only remaining superpower, of waging war on a number of fronts; the threat of workers' struggles: these are what confront the ruling class in the US. The new president has only austerity and repression to offer the working class in the US, and further conflicts for the rest of the world.