Every presidential candidate who challenges an incumbent or incumbent system necessarily campaigns on the promise of “change”; otherwise there is no reason to seek office. And the more vaguely optimistic the promise of “change” that pledges to “improve society,” the more the candidate is likely to succeed in securing votes. Such success is predicated on the candidate appearing as a quintessential “outsider” and “the people’s candidate” while essentially enjoying the establishment’s backing. US presidents have always been symbolic figureheads serving the entrenched establishment, or at least a segment of the establishment.
Obama has not taken office and he must be given a fair chance–the usual first 100 days–before his administration can be assessed. However he has made top cabinet appointments that point to more of the same amid an ongoing costly war and mini-depression, both of which require bold policy changes to the match campaign rhetoric that swept Obama to office. When the President-Elect recently met with Defense Secretary Gates, it was decided that US troops will stay in Iraq until 2011–a year before Obama goes on the campaign trail in 2012. The troops will not be withdrawn in 16 months as the candidate promised voters–not even the two-thirds reduction he claimed must return home. Moreover, the war against “Muslim terrorism”–the ultimate specter and trap haunting US foreign policy–will be expanded in Afghanistan, especially now that India was hit and will be more receptive to cooperation with the US.
Putting aside Obama’s Clintonite administration that is bound to be an improvement over the Bush-Cheney team in many areas from stem cell research and a more rational environmental policy to shutting down Guantanamo and improving US image in the world, it is worth asking in what domains we are unlikely to see policy changes as promised. Will there be change in:
*Privatization of public services at all levels?
*Government decentralization that has been ongoing since the early 1980s?
*Fiscal policy to reflect the public sector’s dominant role in the private sector?
*Strengthening trade unions or continuing the same course of weakening them?
*Practical or ideological foreign policy?
*A multilateral foreign policy and stronger UN?
*Palestinian state at long last and rapprochement between Israel and its Arab neighbors?
*Rapprochement between US and Iran and Latin American countries with populist left-leaning regimes, especially Venezuela and Bolivia?
Change means different things to disparate supporters backing Obama; after all he was elected on the Democratic ticket with all that entails. Does “change” mean the same thing to an autoworker as it does to wealthy Obama campaign donors? Will there ever be a change from the neo-corporatist model rooted in the American folkish philosophical assumption that “we are all in the same boat but capital is the captain, so why shouldn’t workers, small farmers, and middle classes get behind the captain” to make the boat go in the right direction? Like religious followers, millions of people in the US and billions around the world wanted to believe that Obama meant hope beyond the average Democratic politician, a real change from the Bush-Cheney era of incompetence, deception and destruction, from an administration running the country with the naive ideological confidence of an intoxicated ship captain whose ship is about to capsize but he remains oblivious to the ocean waves.
Based on cabinet appointments, and on what Obama has said regarding policy direction, the evidence so far is overwhelming that we can only expect some substantive changes from his administration, but mostly staying the course. Regrettably the neo-corporatist model that keeps America steadfastly and institutionally unchanged seems alive and well under the future president. As much as progressives must always and without hesitation come to Obama’s defense especially when he is a target of an assortment of racists and right-wing fanatics domestically and around the world, progressive critics would be remiss not to point out that behind the mask of stylistic changes remains the permanence of American neo-corporatism.