We Have Hope, But Real Change in America Represents an Immense Task

Already in the press there have been stories of plans to dampen the public’s expectations of Obama. The expectations are undoubtedly beyond being satisfied by any human being.

Obama’s bright face, a keen intelligence at work in every expression, represents the greatest hope for change in America since Franklin Roosevelt. Even Kennedy, with all his gifts, did not come close. After all, Kennedy was a harsh Cold Warrior, a wild risk-taker, and he was connected to some of the most unsavory subcultures in America.

But Obama is the inheritor of one of the bleakest legacies ever in a modern state: the meltdown of Wall Street and its severe international consequences, two costly unresolved wars, war crimes against other countries, and waves of ill-will towards America for its international torture gulag.

All these, plus the problems that have bedeviled the United States for decades, matters like poor health care, the dismal state of public schools, or the immense and pervading corruption of America’s politics, something to which the Bush people made their own contributions, including vote fraud and severe abuse of power, especially by the Vice President.

Bush gave Americans oppressive laws, unprecedented war profiteering, and a tax system now twisted and warped by giveaways to the wealthy. That is not a left-wing view: going back to Jefferson , it was understood that excessive accumulation and inheritance of wealth were dangerous to a republic. The United States has moved towards a society of inherited influence and entitlement, its establishment coming to resemble increasingly the ancien régime of 18th century France.

The Bush excesses largely do not upset the establishment since they were aimed at protecting that very establishment. John McCain, establishment by blood and marriage, dropped his boyish outsider stage act during the campaign, revealing himself unimaginative and unresponsive – indeed a tired, unappetizing serving of Bush leftovers.

And that was deadly to McCain’s hopes. Despite the establishment’s influence, ordinary Americans do once in a while manage to vote against it. Without eight years of Bush incompetence and abuse pushing ordinary Americans to anger and embarrassment, Obama’s victory would not have been possible.

Any effort to correct these problems is against the great weight of America ’s establishment, further strengthened by eight years of abusive benefits, always the beneficiaries and keepers of America ’s unacknowledged imperialism. Winning a national election is one thing, but turning that victory into a long series of Congressional votes is quite another. All those Congressmen and Senators, in both parties, need constant injections of cash to operate, and they do not get it through the populist mechanisms of Obama’s election campaign. The Congressmen will all face re-election in just two years.

And then there is a political party, Obama’s own, that has almost no genuine purpose left other than opposing Republicans for power, prestige, and patronage. It stands for nothing anymore, and some of its members could easily be interchanged with Republicans. Its voice was not heard against illegal war, against torture, against abuse, or indeed anything important in the last eight years.

Many, perhaps most, modern American presidents achieve little in altering American society, although they may do considerable damage abroad. Bush was an exception in that he did serious damage both at home and abroad, but the circumstances permitting him were unique: blind, insane fear over 9/11. The entire period since that event represents nightmarish over-reaction to a relatively minor threat.

Presidents generally achieve little domestic change because America ’s Constitution was deliberately designed to make the office of the president a weak one. An American president with an opposition-filled Congress is a political eunuch, getting neither his appointments nor legislation nor treaties approved. Only in matters concerning disturbances in the empire will he invariably enjoy Congressional support.

Obama’s party will have a majority in the House and the Senate, but he will not have an overwhelming majority. Progress in the Senate can always be stopped by filibuster, and you can only stop filabusters with 60 of the 100 seats, something Obama will not have. Also some of his party’s senators, Lieberman for example, might as well be Republicans, and they will not support a truly progressive agenda.

Modern presidents are able to do damage abroad because the Founding Fathers made the president commander-in-chief of the armed forces. They thought they had effectively divided power and weakened the possibilities for adventures abroad by giving Congress the sole power to declare war, but we’ve seen over the last sixty years America ’s wars are no longer declared.

The Founders also never expected the Frankenstein-monster military America maintains today because they did not expect America to become a global imperial power. But most of what the more thoughtful Founders said and wrote has been vitiated by the actual history of the United States, and today we even find a Vice President accepting the view that the President’s powers in such matters are unlimited.

I believe that a man of Obama’s particular intelligence and sensibilities deeply understands the nature of America ’s great problems. They are just not subjects you can discuss in an election campaign, especially in the near-imbecile campaigns America seems cursed to fall into, with candidates barking about flag pins or accusations of “buddying up to terrorists” or suitability for military command or, indeed, “the Reds are coming.”

America’s great underlying problem is an overwhelming case of living beyond its means. It reflects the deliberate, corrupting praise of greed (in a grotesque American parody of Adam Smith) coupled with the fantasy that you can have it all and have it now plus the establishment’s arrogance that it is entitled to order the affairs of the planet for its benefit. This is all jumbled together in the advertising slogan, “the American dream.”

The slogan is rooted in America ’s unique post-World War II position when no other great industrial power was left standing. America ’s comparatively light damage (e.g., suffering roughly? of one percent of the world’s deaths and no civilian damage) and its being geared-up for immense arms manufacture allowed it to become the supplier of everything to a war-crippled world, providing economic opportunity to ordinary Americans as no country had done before.

An unskilled American worker could, for a few decades, earn a house, a car, perhaps a boat, and generous vacations. When I worked one summer in the early 1960s as a student in the Chicago steel mills, earning what seemed fabulous amounts, it was because employees with twenty years’ service received thirteen-week vacations. Those days are gone, and things have moved from bad to worse. Real wages have dropped for decades, and competition from abroad defeats industry after industry.

At the same time, American politics avoids the harsh truths of the world’s historic transition towards a place with many competitors, other centers of power, and with reduced opportunity for what Benjamin Franklin called the middling people in America. Talk about re-negotiating NAFTA is as close as we get, but much of that talk is little more than coded language for anti-Mexican racism.

America has been living in recent decades as though its dream slogan were as meaningful as it was in 1955, but much of the prosperity in the last couple of decades was purchased by borrowing to consume beyond the nation’s ability to pay.

Administration after administration has kept the economy “pumped” with borrowing, with easy credit, with unwarranted deregulation, and with doing everything possible to encourage mindless consumption. America ’s balance of payments deficit just swells, decade after decade, generating massive total debt that erodes the real economy, a disease generated solely by an insatiable demand for things America cannot afford.

Wars of the kind America has generated for half a century may be seen as just another form of consumption, the most wasteful conceivable, running assembly lines flat out and printing money and enlisting young people to destroy things on a gigantic scale, generally making little meaningful change in world affairs.

So, imagine being the first black man elected president, a young man without family wealth and influence, but a man who understands problems of which a Bush is not even aware. You are faced with needed fundamental change in America, being elected out of years of sheer despair over Bush, enjoying the rare blessing of a Congress not controlled by opposition. You nevertheless are opposed by an extremely powerful establishment, hostile to most change. You are also opposed by the limited understanding of many ordinary Americans. Do you really try to do what you may have a unique opportunity to attempt?

If you do try, can you survive the assaults of America ’s establishment, as dark and ruthless as the fabled Borgias of Renaissance Italy? They can make you look terrible, as they did Clinton, and they can even make you disappear, as they did Kennedy. Change is dangerous stuff in a country like America.

John Chuckman lives in Canada and is former chief economist for a large Canadian oil company. Copyright © by John Chuckman. Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 6th, 2008 at 11:52am #

    an excellent piece.
    a prez against real controllers. as johnson, nixon, carter were. jonsohn lost stomach to run again. nixon deposed for trivial reasons. bush selected/elected for his lack of knowledge.
    but the cult of presidential powers and the person as a prez, carefully nurtured, is still w. us.
    now the ruling class, to show bush in bad light, selected mccain for a loss as an atonement for choosing bush in the first place.

  2. Ramsefall said on November 6th, 2008 at 11:58am #


    as you say, Obama’s success hinges on his ability to overcome an extremely powerful establishment that is resilient to change with its tentacles on various levers of control throughout the system. The probability of this occurring without an organized movement behind him is impossible. I just made the JFK analogy in an argument yesterday; A president who isn’t willing to concede to the game plan isn’t a president for long.

    Best to you.

  3. Antone said on November 6th, 2008 at 4:24pm #

    An interesting article by John Chuckman. But as Ramsefall also commented above, to overcome the obstacles of change we need to establish a broad progressive organization. We have to start right now. Those votes have to be translated to political power, otherwise those ballots will burst into the thin air as did $ 700 billion like a bubble. Hundreds of celebrities like Nader, Kucinich, Gravel, Moore, Shihan and others have to come together and make this happen. Two years ago I read this article which still is applicable:

  4. JN said on November 7th, 2008 at 2:47am #

    On what basis do you conclude that Obama is progressive? If he is significantly different from his opponents, he hides it well. All the evidence, including his own statements, indicates that he has neither the will or any particular desire to change anything in any meaningful way. The empire has a new figurehead; that’s as far as it goes.
    & what does “progressive” actually mean? If the term covers the likes of JFK, then not a whole hell of a lot.

    Seriously, when are people gonna wake up & realise that the ‘liberals’ are as much a part of the problem as the ‘conservatives.’ In terms of foreign policy & economics, there is virtually no difference at all. US foreign policy has always been remarkably consistent, & disastrous economic policies have been embraced by every government for at least the last 35 years.

    The Clinton government didn’t just “look terrible;” it was terrible. Remember the sanctions against Iraq, estimated to have caused the deaths of over a million people, which even UN officials described as “genocidal?” Or the bombing of Serbia, which far from preventing ethnic cleansing actually precipitated a massive escalation, as had previously been predicted? Or the maneuverings against the Lavallas movement in Haiti? Or the refusal to recognise the Rwandan genocide for what it so blatantly was? The list is endless.

    Similarly, Kennedy began the massive escalation of the pointless, genocidal war against the people of Vietnam (& later Laos & Cambodia) which is estimated to have killed 3 million people (give or take a million. The US military doesn’t trouble itself to count its victims), and which continues to cause great suffering & death TODAY. Kennedy’s government also began attempts to overthrow the Cuban government, began the blockade of the island & threatened nuclear war over the siting of missiles that were very similar to those the US/NATO had in Turkey pointing at Moscow & Leningrad. Again, the list is endless.

    If you think Obama has any intention of instigating “fundamental change” you are deluding yourselves. Obama will not “overcome the establishment.” He IS the establishment. How much evidence of that do you need?

    Real change will only happen when people ORGANISE & ACT to make it happen. Of course, the “chief economist for a large oil company” (Canadian or otherwise) can hardly be expected to understand that.

    Fuck Obama! Trust not in the princes of this world!
    Build strong, committed movements to END THE WARS & END CAPITALISM, the insane, evil system that produced them! ACT!

  5. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 7th, 2008 at 5:45am #

    yes, US needs a second party. it shld be as apolitical as possible. politics is part of reality; thus, will always be a factor in all we do or say.
    but we can keep it to a minimum.
    the new party wld be concerned ab wmd, warfare; threats of warfare, blockades, sanctions; wld oppose warfare on a necessary/desirable principle that no nation has the right to attack another land under no known circumstance.
    and if no warfare, then no collective punishment for actual or aledged crimes of a few or even many individuals.
    only those who commit crime, do the time; not civ’s, peasants, villagers.
    at this time, and for many reasons, 90-99% of amers have approbated criminal behavior.
    but amers r not an exception to such behavior. romans, greeks, russians, chinese, persians, brits, germans, et al have behaved just like amers have over the last 2 cent’s. thnx

  6. Max Shields said on November 7th, 2008 at 7:04am #

    While I agree that Obama doesn’t have the will to do what needs to be done – dismantle the warmachine – it’s understandable. He is a neoliberal president in waiting.

    He will do exactly what he told us he’d do. He’s vague, equivocates, and he’s been known to back down when in it’s in his political interest (e.g., public campaign financing) but I’ve yet to catch him in an outright lie.

    The question is: is the system worth the energy to “fight it”; that is to try to push it or Obama? I think energies are best spent creating a world building a national and global outreach based on principles like those laid out in the Earth Charter. We have other threads to take. Power yields to people who know what their doing; particularly when what their doing is ignoring the power and creating alternatives.

    I think there is something very ominous about the precipitous drop in oil and gasoline prices. Tsunamis start first by receding and then unleash a fury of tidal waves. There are no new oil finds, no new oil refineries, geologist say we’ve hit peak oil and yet, dispite this, we go from 140 USD to 60 USD?

    President come and go. Some times they last for 4 years, sometimes less sometimes more; but these conditions go deep and cannot be sustained much longer. The gov’t shovels dollars into the bottomless US Ship. A president is powerless to do anything but what the system allows.

    So, let’s take Civil Rights. MLK fought for more than CR; he fought for human rights and against the war machine. He was assassinated. There are more African American in US prisons then ever before; more under the so-called “poverty line” than when Bobby Kennedy patted the cheeks of little black children in the rural South. There have been a significant number of African American Mayors. The cities they’ve governed have not, for the most part, faired particularly well, certainly no better for the minorities that put them in power than any governed by white mayors.

    These are not problems the system can solve – perhaps it has no desire to solve them. The system has built into it “release valves” which allow us to spend energies in protest, petition, and the like; but real change comes from outside the system – not as an enemy of the system, but as a clear and deep and undeniable alternative to it.

    (The system of Monarchies was displaced when they could no longer manage the nation-state and it’s empires.)