Barack Obama – another Martin Luther King?

– Don Franks

The son of murdered black civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. has often been asked: did you think you’d ever live to see a black US president?

“People are surprised when I say yes”, says Martin Luther King III. “But I’m sure my father would have said the same if he was alive today. Without that faith and that sense of possibility he would have had no reason to fight in the first place.”

A spirit of faith and hope has accompanied Obama’s election campaign. A Gallup poll on announcement of Obama’s victory shows that a massive 70% of Americans believe they will be better off by the time the new president finishes his term in four years time.

Seldom has the election of a capitalist politician aroused such euphoric public celebration. Obama’s inaugural speech drew a record crowd of close on two million. In the afterglow of the inauguration ceremonies floods of Obama memorabilia continue to be snapped up at three times the volume of the previous record setter Bill Clinton.

Beneath the hype there are real reasons for celebration. Not only were all the forty three previous US presidents white, twelve of them kept black slaves while in office. As Los Angeles Times journalist Faye Fiore noted:
“While in the White House, President Andrew Jackson kept 150 house and field slaves on his Tennessee farm. It was under his nose one night in 1835, at 6th and Pennsylvania, that a white mob ransacked the Epicurean Eating House and tried to lynch its black owner, a man named Beverly Snow.
“As Barrack Obama takes his triumphant ride along Pennsylvania Avennue today, he retraces the path of Ku Klux Klan marches and roles past the ghosts of hotels and movie theatres that used to turn away people like him.”

Obama and jobs

Obama is not only a symbol of hope to Afro Americans. His mantra of “change you can believe in” struck a powerful chord with workers of all colours who wanted to be rid of the Bush administration and the poverty it inflicted on them. Some 2.6 million Americans were thrown out of work in 2008 – the highest number of job losses in one year since 1945. This unemployment growth is accelerating. In December alone half a million Americans lost their jobs.

Against this background Barack Obama is launching his $775 billion “stimulus plan” for the US economy – which he claims will create up to four million jobs by the end of 2010.

Many working class Americans, who are carrying the weight of the economic crisis, have responded positively to these plans. They are hoping the intervention is about saving and creating jobs rather than just propping up rich bankers.

Obama is putting forward two ways to create jobs – government spending on “public works” and tax cuts. The claim is that tax cuts for businesses will encourage them to invest – and so create jobs.

However, capitalists business will only invest in order to make profits. Obama’s plan may well end up giving more money and tax breaks to the rich – with little benefit for workers. Job creation funds could even come at a further expense to workers. The US budget deficit is already expected to soar to a record $1.2 trillion this year. There is pressure to reduce this debt – and this could mean cuts in services or tax rises.

Obama and war

Thousands of American voters were attracted by Obama’s seemingly sincere anti war stance. His promise to withdraw troops from Iraq was undoubtedly a central reason for Obama’s election victory.
But away from the popular podium, Obama keeps strange company for a peacenik.

The New York Times reports that Obama has regularly consulted his defeated opponent, Republican Senator John McCain, letting the virulently pro-war senator vet his nominees for top national security posts. The Times notes that, according to South Carolina senator and McCain associate Lindsey Graham, McCain has told colleagues “that many of these appointments he would have made himself.” Of all people, John McCain was Obama’s guest of honor at his pre-inaugural dinner Monday night.

Obama’s anti war image is rather like the anti war image of previous New Zealand prime minister. Helen Clark was able to maintain an image of peace by declining to send troops in numbers to Iraq. That served to blind some people to the fact of her deployment of SAS troops to Afghanistan.

In a similar way, Obama’s rhetoric about Iraq is, at the moment, sufficient to counterbalance his declared intention to send more soldiers to Afghanistan, a continuation and escalation of Bush’s ‘war on terror’.

Obama’s powerful backers

As Barry Grey reminded readers of World Socialist Website, Obama’s election is:

“the coming to power of the man who will preside over the most reactionary state in the world, under conditions of an unprecedented crisis of American and world capitalism. The policies of the Obama administration will be determined not by media image-making or hollow rhetoric, but by the imperatives of the crisis and the social interests which Obama represents.”

Describing some of those social interests, business journalist Claire Obusan wrote:

“Ever since he ran for the Senate in 2004, Barack Obama has had a wealth of 10-figure tycoons advising–and funding–him. As President-elect Barack Obama has had a slew of billionaire backers with him on his journey to the White House
Warren Buffett, America’s second-richest man as of the Forbes 400 in September, supported Obama during his presidential campaign, a fact Obama often mentioned in speeches and during debates to increase his economic policy clout.
Obama has promised big business will not have a prominent place at the table. But with so many billionaires chipping in, can he not help but include them in policy decisions?”

Realising the dream

At the moment Obama’s uncountable supporters are deaf to any such quibbles. They are high on hope. While insufficient by itself to deliver victory, hope is an indispensible thing. Workers’ struggle for a better life requires a raising of their expectations. As Martin Luther King’s son rightly pointed out, without a “sense of possibility” there is no reason to fight.
Throughout Obama’s campaign he and his supporters have constantly invoked the memory of Dr King. Poet Maya Angelou summed up the mood of many by waxing: “I mean, we all know he’s going to, in front of our very eyes, metamorphose into Martin Luther King … He has, I think, pretty much the same dream”.

But hope can’t be realised on the back of a lie. Obama’s record and politics are dead opposite to King in most respects. Preacher and activist Martin Luther King was an anti imperialist whose radicalism grew stronger as he aged. In his final year of life King travelled the country organising “a multiracial army of the poor” to march on Washington and engage in civil disobedience in pursuit of a bill of rights for poor Americans. King denounced the Vietnam war, argued that “something is wrong with capitalism” and recognised that from Vietnam to South America the US is “on the wrong side of a world revolution”. King’s final visit to Memphis, where he was assassinated, was to support a garbage workers’ strike. A genuine return to that tradition is needed for US workers dreams to be truly realised.


  1. I am prepared to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. He is the closest the US has come to having a social democrat in living memory. He has comitted to closing down Gitmo. The next thing he should order is the handing back of Gitmo to Cuba, lifting the embargo and normalising relations. That might be too much to ask however. How much he can achieve depends on how obstructive congress is.

    The left need to be vigilant, and critical where necessary, but I see no value in making him enemy number one to start with. He will disappoint and ultimately, just like the rest of US politics he will be held up by the short and curlies by american big business. You just hope that some of his backers have a bit more social conscience than a curr on a croquet lawn.

  2. I honestly don’t know much about Obama I am only getting a superficial glance at the man.

    What has he said about the Gaza incedent? furthermore what is our politicians positions on this issue?

    The silence is deafening!!!

  3. Noam Chomsky: Obama’s Stance on Gaza Crisis “Approximately the Bush Position”

    In a visit to the State Department Thursday, President Obama made his
    first substantive comments on the Middle East conflict since Israel’s
    attack on Gaza. Obama first mentioned his commitment to Israel’s security,
    without affirming his commitment to Palestinian security. He condemned
    Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israeli towns, but didn’t criticize
    the US-backed Israeli bombings of densely populated Gaza. But in a
    departure from the Bush administration, Obama acknowledged Palestinian
    suffering and said Gaza’s borders should be opened to aid. We speak with
    MIT professor, Noam Chomsky.


  4. Philip Ferguson says:

    Adam says that Obama “is the closest the US has come to having a social democrat in living memory”. I’m not sure how old Adam is, so maybe Lyndon Baines Johnson is before his time. However, in 1964 Johnson ran as the anti-war candidate against a particularly right-wing Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater. Johnson not only promised to avoid war in Indochina, but also to create the ‘Great Society’ in the USA with a series of, by American standards, quite far-reaching social reform measures in the fields of health care, education, the environment, civil rights and the abolition of poverty.

    In terms of socio-economic policy, Johnson’s platform was in most areas well to the left of Obama’s.

    Johnson, while beginning the ‘Great Society’ reforms, also massively escalated US involvement in Vietnam, including the use of carpet-bombing of civilian areas, dropping tens of millions of cluster bombs, and using napalm and defoliants on both vegetation and humans. The cost of pursuing imperialist war abroad soon put paid to the ‘war on poverty’ at home.

    Obama is absolutely committed to maintaining American economic and military dominance globally and the interests of capital domestically. His foreign military aggression alone will ensure that, even if he was a social democrat (which I don’t believe is the case), there will be no improvement in the living standards of American workers on his watch. In fact, given the continuing parlous state of the US economy, coupled with his plans for more war, American workers will be told to tighten their belts and give up more union and job rights and conditions.


  5. There’s no doubting Obama’s projected integrity, but isn’t this global hype perhaps a bit too strong?

  6. Tim If I remember Richard Nixon also promised to end the war in Vietnam then bombed Cambodia on the advice of Henry 666 Kisinger; am I corract?

    America is still very much an imperialist system and I don’t trust either the Republican or the Democratic politicians.

    Still cautiously skeptical about Obama.


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