Change We Can Believe In?

Even before Barack Obama takes office, it looks as if America is in for more of the same

One of focal points of Barack Obama's run for the presidency, both during the primaries and the presidential election, is his emphasis on the need for change. By this he meant getting rid of the same old practices in Washington which had led to stale politics in America for over a decade. This not only was a reference to his predecessor George W. Bush and the Republicans, but also his Democrat rival Hillary Clinton. He promised a complete break with the past and that he would chart a new course which would deliver peace and prosperity to the US.

Yet as Obama begins to gradually assemble his "dream team" with which he intends to govern for the next four years, it is becoming increasingly obvious that what the US -- and the rest of the world for that matter -- will be in for the next few years is simply more of the same. To put it another way, the more things seem to change in the US, the more they look set to stay the same.

For some, the Obama cabinet is starting to look a little like the third Clinton administration. Many of those who have been appointed are of the same old guard from 8 years ago. The appointment of Hillary Clinton as Foreign Secretary is merely icing on the cake.

The problem for Obama is not only that these appointments run in the face of his campaign for change and his promise to break with "old" Washington. Many of these nominees have a distinct record of support for the corporate-friendly NAFTA trade pact (which Obama had promised during the primaries to renegotiate), gutting public assistance programs under the guise of welfare "reform," and pushing various deregulatory policies in the financial sector. All this is contrary to what most Americans expect to come out of the new president's administration.

Some would argue, however, that Obama is merely being practical. The appointment of Clinton, for instance, is seen as a gesture to her supporters in order to bring the party together after a lengthy and bitter primary campaign. Indeed, some have suggested that Hillary's appointment was already planned well in advance as a precondition when she decided to admit defeat. Although toward the end of the primary campaign it was nearly impossible for her to win, many within the party were afraid that she could nevertheless do some nasty damage. For her part, by taking on the position of Foreign Secretary she is already strategically positioning herself for the next presidential race in 2012.

Outside the cloak and dagger realm of political backroom wheeling and dealing, others see Obama’s appointments as an attempt to recreate the "boom" years of the Clinton presidency. During the 1990s when Clinton was in power, people remember when oil was $10 a barrel, the stock market climbed skyward, and most everyone had a job. Indeed, Bill Clinton ended is presidency with a budget surplus, which stands in stark contrast to the budget deficit that George W. Bush will hand over to Barack Obama.

The nostalgia for the Clinton years is a little misplaced, however. It shouldn't be forgotten that the first two years was a disaster for Bill Clinton, as exemplified by the massive beating suffered by the Democrats during the mid-term elections. Also, at the end of his presidency it was already evident that the US economy was heading into a possible recession. In fact, the bursting of the dot-com bubble -- which was a precursor of things to come -- happened while Bill Clinton was still president.

Puppet of the Clinonites?

Compared to the present, it's understandable why many nevertheless have positive memories of the Clinton years, and that by bringing in the same players from that era Obama is delivering on his promise to bring the good times back to America. Yet the basis upon which the present financial crisis is built, although nurtured and expanded by the Bush administration, had its roots in the Clinton administration. In fact, the notion of neo-liberalism first made its appearance at this time; the trick of the Clinton presidency was to sell corporate capitalism to people with a smiling face, that is, under the guise of so-called “liberalism”. This was done through a comprehensive program of liberalisation and deregulation.

Not only this, but the apparent economic "boom" of the Clinton years coincided with the disintegration of the Soviet Empire and the economic plunder which subsequently ensued. Similarly, the "Internet revolution" and its spin-off dot-com bubble created an atmosphere that was unmatched since the 1920s (it should come as no surprise that the present financial crisis is now reminiscent of the 1930s). Therefore, how much of the “good times” of the 1990s was actually due to White House policy is still questionable.

The same goes for foreign policy. Although the Bush doctrine of preventive war and its brazen contempt of friend and foe are viewed as an abhorrent form of diplomacy by most, the Clinton doctrine was in some ways even worse. Clinton's doctrine officially was that the US has the right to use force to protect access to markets and resources, a position just as extreme as that of the Bush doctrine. The difference, however, is that the Clinton administration presented it politely and quietly, and not in a way that would alienate others -- especially America's allies.

Europeans leaders were well aware of what this foreign policy really meant, and many even approved of it. For instance, Clinton's notion of "humanitarian warfare" (as was used in the Balkans) was more acceptable than the arrogance, brazenness, extremism, and ultra-nationalism of the Bush administration's "war on terrorism". In other words, as with economic policy, there is little difference between the objectives pursued by different administrations; instead, as Clinton clearly understood, there's a more polite way of following the same policy.

All this doesn't bode well for the future of the Obama presidency. This is especially so if he will be unable to keep the "Clintonites" around him line or, even worse, he becomes their puppet. Indeed, with a Clinton personally in charge of foreign affairs, it's hard to see how much of a change can come out of the new administration.

As a further worrying sign of what is to come is how the corporate media in the US has taken to all of this. The corporate media in the US is an extremely powerful beast, and it usually betrays the way in which the aristocrats of American democracy think and feel. Hence, even as the primary season got under way during the American electoral season, it was apparent to US king makers that some sort of cosmetic change was required in order to compensate for the negative fallout from the Bush years. Therefore, Obama was thrust into the media spotlight almost from the very beginning, which ultimately led to his success in the presidential election.

The US is a business-run society with strict doctrinal requirement

Now, as president-elect Obama puts together his administration, corporate media are largely cheering Barack Obama's early appointments of Clinton-era “centrists”. As the spin would have it, Obama is putting together a team of experts and pragmatists who are essentially "ideology-free". The American media watchdog FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) takes issue with this. In its latest media advisory entitled Media Cheer for "Non-Ideological" Centrists, FAIR maintains that the notion that these appointees are non-ideological is about as ridiculous as saying that the corporate media in the US is itself also non-ideological.

Noam Chomsky once pointed out that in America there is no such thing as a left-wing party or a right-wing party, only a business party: the Democrats representing the business left, and the Republicans representing the business right. Although the US is a free country -- one of the most free in terms of freedom of speech at least -- it's also a much managed society with a very rigid ideology; it's a business-run society with strict doctrinal requirements in where no deviation is tolerated.

Along these lines, it’s easy to understand the success of Barack Obama. Obama is essentially a “blank slate” and a lot of people are writing on it their hopes for progressive change. As Chomsky noted before the election, “in the Obama campaign the words are hope, change, and unity - totally vacuous slogans said by a nice person, who looks good and talks nicely - what commentators call "soaring rhetoric" - and you can write anything you like on that blank slate.”

Thus, many who voted for Barrack Obama were hoping for concrete change and therefore placed their vote in what they believed would not be a mouthpiece for a business agenda. Yet financial institutions and major corporations, which are Obama’s major contributors, also think he's fine which suggests that fundamental change won’t be forthcoming. Hence, as his early appointments reveal, those who voted for a change they can believe in may be in for a nasty surprise. (John Horvath)