President Obama’s second term is sinking fast. Following a big political defeat on gun control in April, the White House found itself on the defensive for two straight weeks in May, with a string of scandals around Benghazi, the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups, and revelations that AP phone records had been searched by administration officials. “[T]he latest furors,” wrote the NY Times, “could harden an impression of an Obama presidency that has expanded the reach of government further than many Americans would like,” (5/16/2013).
The NY Times wrote this before Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald leaked secret NSA documents in June, detailing one of the most extensive domestic surveillance programs in history. After this, the NY Times editorial page wrote, “The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue,” (6/6/2013).
For millions of workers, women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others, it’s not just scandals and executive power at issue. There were real hopes following Obama’s re-election and the defeat of the Republican billionaire Mitt Romney that a more progressive agenda might be pursued in the second term.
Instead, Obama proposed historic cuts to Social Security. He signed the National Defense Authorization Act, widening the powers of the military on domestic soil. Amid growing hunger strikes, he’s continued to keep Guantanamo open five years after he promised to close it. His administration has continued the program of drone strikes, attempted to stop Plan B from being sold over-the-counter, and furiously pursued the prosecution of Bradley Manning.
To the chagrin of the labor movement and hotel workers, Obama appointed Hyatt hotel magnate Penny Pritzker as Commerce Secretary. With her estimated worth of $1.85 billion, Obama now has the wealthiest presidential cabinet member in history.
While this billionaire hailing from Obama’s hometown of Chicago was rewarded with a cabinet spot, Obama did absolutely nothing to help parents, teachers, and students in Chicago with their struggle to stop Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s drive to close 50 public schools in May. Does this not speak volumes about who Obama’s real friends are?
Obama’s post-election bump has been completely erased in polls, and he’s facing vocal opposition from former supporters. Michelle Obama was heckled at a fundraiser in Washington State by a former campaign supporter and LGBTQ rights activists demanding an executive order ending discrimination in federal hiring. Former Obama adviser Van Jones has sharply criticized Obama on the Keystone XL pipeline, telling CNN they ought to call it the “Obama Tar Sands Pipeline!”
Edward Snowden explained in The Guardian that he leaked the NSA documents because of his own disappointment with Obama. He “watched as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in,” and as a result, “I got hardened,” (6/9/2013).
Anger and Discontent
Beneath this disappointment is massive anger and discontent building up in U.S. society, which is the single most important factor in U.S. politics today. It’s what gave birth to the Occupy movement in Obama’s first term, and it promises more upheavals in the months and years ahead.
At the root of this discontent is the historic problem facing U.S. capitalism, mired in debt and sluggish growth after decades of stagnating living standards. This is feeding a conflict between the expectations of working people in the richest country in history and the “new normal” of unemployment, poverty, low-wages, debt, dysfunctional health care, environmental disaster, and ever-increasing attacks on democratic rights.
There is also deepening anger at both parties and the dysfunctional nature of the government. Polls show around 60% of Americans disapprove of the job done by Democrats in Congress, while more than 67% disapprove of the job done by Republicans (pollingreport.com, 6/6/2013).
This discontent was not as visible on the streets in 2012 and was partially channeled into a highly polarized election, with many progressives seeing the electoral defeat of the right wing as the most important task. But with the elections out of the way, protest is on the rise. A recent article in CounterPunch by Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers showed in detail a growing curve of protest across the U.S., from small direct actions at local state houses to mass protests (“Popular Resistance Percolates Throughout the Land,” 5/17/2013).
The growth of struggle in the streets includes the biggest environmental protest in U.S. history against the Keystone XL pipeline back in February. Following that, we saw a campaign to pressure colleges to divest from fossil fuel corporations spread to over 400 campuses, adding up to the beginnings of a new environmental movement. This has the potential to radicalize a new generation on the environment – and Obama, particularly if he goes ahead with the Keystone XL pipeline.
Fast-food worker protests and workplace actions have spread from New York City, across the Midwest, and to the West Coast. There will likely be more protests by low-wage workers in the coming months, including Walmart workers. And widespread outrage following the horrendous Steubenville events showed the potential for a new women’s movement to develop.
In May, tens of thousands rallied across the U.S. against Monsanto and genetically modified food. In Philadelphia, thousands of students walked out of class against school closures. The Chicago Teachers Union also led a three-day march of thousands against school closures, while Seattle teachers won a victory against standardized testing after they refused to administer Seattle’s MAP test earlier this year.
These struggles are only the early tremors of bigger struggles to come. As Socialist Alternative has explained before, Obama’s second term will inevitably further expose the role of his administration and the Democratic Party as loyal props of the 1%. This does not preclude that under public pressure or a growing crisis, Obama may be driven into adopting more “populist” rhetoric yet again, and even pushing for some reforms.
But there are also potential dangers from the right. In 2010, we saw the disappointment with Obama’s bank-bailout-filled first term provide fuel for the emergence of the Tea Party. If a clear working-class-based alternative is not built in the coming period, then right-wing elements like Rand Paul and others will inevitably benefit from the growing discontent under Obama in 2014, whipping up sexism, racism, attacks on immigrants, and homophobia.
The months and years ahead will see growing numbers of working people turn to protest and struggle, and it will open a historic opportunity for socialists and supporters of independent working-class politics. It is vital we seize this chance to rally support for an alternative to this rotten system.