Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Obama's two constituencies

At its simplest, Obama's electoral coalition can be expressed as comprising Wall Street dough on the one hand, and most oppressed social groups on the other, including African Americans, Latinos, women, and the poorer working class white voters (those earning less than $50,000 a year). As Socialist Worker put it last week:

Obama won huge support from the African-American population – some 95 percent of black voters backed him.

He also won two thirds of the Latino vote. This was a significant win – the Latino population favoured George Bush in 2004, and during the primaries they rallied behind Hillary Clinton.

One factor was crucial in breaking support for the Republicans among Latinos – the immigrant rights demonstrations of May 2006.

More than two million Latinos and their supporters came onto the streets to protest against a vicious anti-immigrant bill being pushed by the Republicans.

Among white Americans some 43 percent voted for Obama and 55 for John McCain. But these proportions were reversed for white voters under the age of 30.

And the Democrats registered some of their strongest swings in overwhelmingly white, rural and traditional Republican states such as North Dakota, Utah and Montana.

So there is no doubt that Obama’s appeal spanned racial divisions. But the class composition of his vote tells a more complex story.

If you divide Americans up by their income levels, the poorest households were the ones who voted the most heavily for Obama – 73 percent of voters with an annual family income of less than $15,000 backed him.

As you go up the income level, Obama’s vote steadily drops – until you reach the very top bracket, where this trend reverses.

A majority – 52 percent – of households that earned over $200,000 a year opted for the Democratic candidate.


The victorious Republican electoral coalition in 2004 mobilised quite different groups, with a hardcore of white Christian rightists among them. Bush lost every income layer below $50,000 and won every layer above $50,000. Bush won more Hispanic votes than McCain, but still didn't gain a majority. He lost overwhelmingly among African American voters. What Obama did was to win over white women, who voted 55% for Bush in 2004; he gained a larger majority among voters earning under $50,000 than Kerry had; he increased the Democratic support among both African American and Hispanic voters; and he cut away at Bush's 63% support among those earning $200,000 or more. It is also worth noting that Obama benefited from the demoralisation of a substantial sector of the Republican base. While Obama won a higher share of white voters than Kerry did in 2004, 1 million fewer turned out to vote. The increase in turnout was entirely made up of ethnic minorities.

Obama's appointments, the only major policy signals he can make at the moment, thus far reflect his commitment to the Wall Street constituency rather than to those worst off in American society. Thus, we have endless Clinton-era appointments, Senator Clinton offered the position of Secretary of State (which reports say she has accepted), Republicans offered top posts (it looks as if Robert Gates has been begged to stay on as Secretary of Defense) and a right-wing scumbag from the Chicago boss politics scene and the Democratic Leadership Council named Rahm Emmanuel made chief-of-staff. Thus far, organised labour hasn't got a look-in as far as appointments are concerned, but representatives of corporate America saturate the economic advisory board. Selecting Clinton as Secretary of State indicates that Obama intends to run a hawkish foreign policy, and it also demonstrates that he genuinely wasn't all that upset about the Clinton team's endless race-baiting and crazed smears in the primary. The vast majority of Obama's voters will already have cause for grave disappointment.

To the extent that Obama has to offer something to his majority supporters, he tends toward vagueness, and is already under immense pressure to back off from anything specific. Corporate America is getting terribly worked up about the Employee Free Choice Act, a moderate piece of legislation that they are working to ensure will either be bottled up and killed or watered down to near vacuity. Obama's efforts to 'tweak' the borderline criminal TARP plan includes redirecting some funds to help homeowners, while also protecting US auto manufacturers (to the chagrin of Gordon Brown). But so far the only concrete proposal is $25bn for the car companies. It is simply impossible to imagine that any 'bail-out' for working class households that gets passed will be remotely adequate. It will be better than nothing but, at best, like the modestly redistributive measures Obama has proposed, it will sweeten a lousy deal.

The vital question is, what are the majority of Obama's supporters going to do? For example, if those immigrant workers who marched in such vast numbers in 2006 recognise that they have not so much a friend in the White House as a brief window of opportunity opened up by a slightly more humane policy, they may well be the cutting edge of popular movements of the future. Immigrant groups are already protesting the escalation of ICE raids under Bush, and are pressuring Obama to scale them back. Any reforms they can win will enhance their ability to organise, and all indications are that they are the most militant and effective organisers when given the chance. They will drive up wages and conditions for other workers too. Similarly, if the antiwar movement has learned from its huge setback in 2004, when it subordinated its campaigns to help the pro-war Kerry to victory, then it can limit Obama's scope for widening America's brutal engagements in south Asia and Africa, and for any subversion in Latin America. Obama is already hinting through subordinates that he may be 'flexible' on withdrawal from Iraq, which means he may back off his already vague electoral promises. Given that the Sadrists are about to toss out the gradualist 'withdrawal' plan with its 'status of forces agreement', it would be an ideal point for the antiwar movement to apply pressure for rapid withdrawal with no further delays. The momentum that went into securing Obama's victory shouldn't be dropped for a second. Larry Summers, another Clinton-era revamp in the Obama administration (and former Reaganaut), is warning Wall Street backers that the administration won't be able to diminish the government's involvement in healthcare, and therefore any cost reductions will have to come from efficiency savings. The intriguing thing about this is that the emphasis for the corporate audience is miles away from the promise of increased government involvement to support universal healthcare that Obama has been touting. So, again, this is an issue on which organised labour in particular will have to be actively campaigning about right away. This is becoming a critical issue as state and city budgets plummet due to the economic crisis - so, if Obama can support a bail-out for investment banks, he ought to be able to bail out city treasuries to support existing public services, at a minimum. As it stands, threats of cuts to education and health budgets are already current.

The one advantage that the Left has now is that Obama needs his active constituents. He could not have won 'blue-collar' Pennsylvania as well as Jesse Helms' old state of North Carolina without them, and he can't necessarily repeat his success in 2012 without giving them something. So, there is an opportunity now to decisively shape the agenda of the new administration, precisely because their aim is to contain social movements and stabilise American capitalism. Silence and passivity at this point will simply be rewarded with condescending lectures, put-downs, attacks, and the occasional bit of flattery.