This article was originally published in International Courier Magazine, Issue 16 (Jan, 2017), dedicated entirely to the analysis of the economic, political and social situation in the U.S. after the two terms of Obama and the Democratic Party and the election of Donald Trump as president, as much in Trump’s policies in all matters, including oppressions and policies against minorities.
By Alejandro Iturbe
Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 elections generated a major impact around the globe: for the first time in history, the United Stated would have a Black president. The wide margin of his triumph was tied to the high expectations of change that the U.S. workers and masses placed in him. Eight years later, those expectations have been frustrated.
Back then U.S. imperialism was facing a very difficult situation. At the international level, the defeat of Bush’s aggressive policies in Iraq and Afghanistan left the imperialist power in a defensive position. The U.S. government ended up with an unfavorable relationship of forces with the masses, and with many limitations regarding its possibilities of military intervention (the so-called “Iraq syndrome”). Furthermore, in the U.S. the impact of the deep economic crisis opened in 2007-2008 was being felt.
In this context, the most “intelligent” sectors of U.S. imperialism considered that in order to defend their interests it was necessary to accomplish a sharp shift in their political tactics, a shift to be accompanied by a presidential figure adequate to such a task. This is why two important leaders of the Democratic Party –the now deceased senator Edward Kennedy and one of the ideologist of the “democratic reaction” policy during the ‘70s, Zbigniew Brzezinski- encouraged a young Black senator, Barack Obama, to run in the Democratic Primaries against Hillary Clinton. What must be clear is that Obama never was a “Black activist” co-opted by the Democrats but, on the contrary, a man from the core of Party who was encouraged by part of its leadership.
Despite his imperialist bourgeois nature some left-wing public figures supported Obama, like Fidel Castro and Chavez, just as a sector of worldwide reformism did. Obama was then pretty useful for the U.S. bourgeoisie. However, he was not useful to the workers in the U.S. and throughout the world, neither for Black people in the U.S.
Therefore, in front of the difficult challenges he faced as the representative of imperialism we must ask: what did Obama achieved (and what he did not) during his 8 years in the government?
The Economic Recovery
From a bourgeois point of view, one of Obama’s achievements was to overcome the worst moment of the economic crisis. The main policies carried for that were the major money injections to the financial sector (many billions), together with very low interested rates ensured by the Fed (U.S. Federal Reserve System). This policy allowed to avoid the collapse of the financial-banking sector (which covered holes and was recapitalized through this “help”) and boosted a recovery that lasted several years, and decreased the level of unemployment that had been on the rise the previous years.
Yet, at the same time, this had two very deep consequences. The first and immediate one is that it limited the recovery, which is calculated to be of an average of 1,4% annual growth. These are much better figures than the ones in Europe and Japan, but it is a “low-cost” recovery (based on finances and services), which stalls every time the economy’s attempts to accelerate. The second consequence is that Obama’s recovery policies increase the financial-parasitical profile of the U.S. economy to the detriment of the industrial-productive sector, for there is a rising number of importations of industrial consumer goods made in China and other countries.
Regarding the industrial sector, the case of General Motors (GM), one of the giants, was symbolic. The company was bankrupt, and when it was actually nationalized in 2009 to implement a restructuring plan with federal funds, 20,000 jobs were eliminated (closing several minor plants), and the wages of many workers were reduced from US$4,800 to US$2,400 monthly, and cuts in benefits, like health care retirement, were made.
The plan implemented in GM was used as a model for many other industrial companies. These companies moved to harshly attack the wages, working conditions and bargaining rights of their workers with the consent of most part of the union bureaucracy.
The result of this process is that even if it is true that the economic recovery created new jobs, and reduced the unemployment by several points, these new jobs (mostly in the service industry) had much lower wages and worst labor conditions than before.
In many cases, those wages are below the “poverty line”, evidenced by the fact that in the richest country of Earth there are 46,7 million poor – about 15% of the population. This number is much higher than the percentage of unemployment, calculated under 5% by the beginning of 2016. The poverty numbers increase considerably among Black and Latino minorities, as well as among the youth.
As a conclusion: Obama helped to save the big companies and banks from the crisis at the expense of the workers’ and masses’ increased hardships.
The Direct And Indirect Repression
The Obama administration kept, and in some cases even deepened, the direct and indirect mechanisms of repression against the population and specifically against Blacks and Latinos.
A tool of indirect repression is the so-called “Three Strikes Law”, approved during Bill Clinton’s term (1994), that states that every person that commits a “serious” third offense is automatically sentenced to life imprisonment. This criterion is aggravated by the fact that the U.S. police-judiciary system many times forces the poorest, the ones that cannot afford a private lawyer (and must make use of the overworked public defenders), to make agreements without trial, confessing crimes they did not commit to avoid a higher sentence.
As a result of this law and the justice system as a whole, the U.S. have today the largest prison population of the world: almost 2,300,000 people (the largest one in absolute terms). The U.S. have 23% of all the prisoners in the world being a country that has a little more than 4% of the world population. Further, if we look at the incarcerated rate of the population, the number of prisoners in the U.S. surpasses 5 to 10 times that of the European imperialist countries and Canada. And more importantly, this rate has multiplied 4,5 times since the 1970s.
But this indirect repressive tool does not affect the whole population equally. It is pointed to specifically target racial minorities: 40% of the prisoners are Black, and over 25% are Latinos (numbers higher than the actual Black and Latino percentage of the total population, which is 13% and 14% respectively). This means a Black person has 6 times more chances of going to jail than a white one, and a Latino more than 4 times.
The U.S. repressive apparatus is based on a systematic police violence and repression against these racial minorities that in many cases ends with police murders of innocent people (just because they are considered “suspect”). This is especially serious against Black people and youth, as evidenced recently by the murder of the Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson (2014), and many other cases before and after that.
In all of these cases, the U.S. police actually has “permission to kill”, as they will be declared “innocent” afterwards, or, best case scenario, receive a very light punishment. According a study published by the independent news agency ProPublica on shootings by police “Blacks have 21 times more possibilities of being shot than whites”.
The Immigrant-Expelling “Machine”
If in any aspect Obama took off his “kind-mask” and showed his real imperialist face was in dealing with immigrants. In the U.S. there are around 42,000,000 immigrants, 12,000,000 of which are “illegal” – meaning that they have no U.S. citizenship or residence permit (the famous green card).
Most of them are Latin Americans (specially Mexicans) who must emigrate from their countries, forced by poverty and misery imposed by imperialist exploitation, looking for alternatives for survival. In order to immigrate to the U.S., they have to face the biggest dangers trying to enter the country and living an almost completely clandestine life.
Over the last decades, the U.S. has always had a repressive and persecutory policy towards illegal immigrants. But the existing legislation was applied more or less rigidly according the needs of the labor market: in periods of economic boom, the implementation of laws was flexible for those immigrants who came to occupy the lower positions in the labor and wage structure; in times of crisis and increase of exploitation, law enforcement got harsher. Thus the two terms of George H. W. Bush (2001-2009) doubled the number of deportations carried by the Clinton administration (1993- 2001).
In this regard, Obama’s terms were even harsher than Bush’s. Let’s see the data and numbers. In 2004, Bush centralized several agencies to carry this repression: the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (known as “migra”), the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Customs and Border Protection.
With Bush, this unity had 28,000 agents and a budget of US$4,900 millions. Obama increased the number of agents to 48,000 and its budget to US$18,000 millions. A growth that was expressed in the amount of people deported, that went from 2,116,690 during Bush’s period to 2,768,357 during Obama’s. A historic record for a president! This is why some left-wing media talk about the “deportation machine that Obama build for Trump”.
It is not by chance, then, that in response to all these forms of repression several initial processes of mobilization emerged over the last years to confront these policies and their consequences. In a short review, we must highlight the Occupy Movement (expressing the youth of big cities); the struggle for the US$15 minimum wage (expressing the most exploited sectors of the working class) and the combative demonstrations against police violence and murders against the Black population. We should also name the struggles in defense of public education.
Sailing Through Troubled Waters around the World
The other stormy front the Obama’s government had to face was the international situation. As we pointed out already, the military defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thus the debacle of Bush’s project of a “New American Century” through the “war on terror”, left U.S. imperialism in a weak position with little popular base of support.
In this new period, its capacity to intervene militarily outside the country had become limited. It is the so-called “Iraq syndrome” discussed in other article of this magazine. On top of this, the revolutionary processes of the Arab world aggravated the U.S. defensive position even more.
Given this new reality, the U.S. ruling powers led by Obama recurred to a tactic we called “democratic reaction”. One of the central features of this policy is to stall the revolutionary processes and struggles around the world through a foreign policy which focuses on agreements and negotiations (with military actions limited to serve this central tactic). Another aspect of it is the use of the electoral-parliamentary system as a trap to channel and co-opt social unrest –as long as the concrete situation of a country allows that- instead of military coups.
Unlike the hated George Bush, Obama (with his charisma and being a young Black man) was the perfect figure for this imperialist policy because of the expectations and friendliness he generated among the masses. Let’s recall, for example, that his first trip as president was to Black African countries where he was received by great mass demonstrations of support.
The policy of “democratic reaction” driven by Obama allowed him to achieve several successes, some of them really important. For example: he took the U.S. troops out of the occupation war in Iraq avoiding for the image of the U.S. defeat to be as clear cut as it was in Vietnam. He also tried to leave Afghanistan, where he keeps a semi-war that serves as support to the puppet government of Kabul, while it entertains backstage negotiations with the rebel forces led by the Taliban.
In the Muslim-Arab region of the world, he moved forward and deepened the policy of agreement with the Iranian regime of the Ayatollahs. The Iranian regime went from being one of the members of Bush’s “Axis of Evil” to be one of the major regional mediators for the U.S. imperialist plan to prevent the region from catching on fire entirely- which would have allowed the revolutionary processes to advance.
It is clear that the revolutionary processes in the region (from Tunisia to Syria) did not go forward and are stagnating for a combination of factors: on the one hand there is the crisis of revolutionary leadership of those movements; on the other the intervention of counter-revolutionary forces (imperialist powers, Russia and other forces). Some even are today at a tough crossroads, like Syria.
But at the same time we need to say the successes of Obama’s government were only partial, as he did not manage to revert the relationship of forces in the world, nor did he appease the strategic region of the Muslim-Arab world failing to impose an “imperialist order”. Iraq as much as Syria have actually split into several countries, configuring an explosive puzzle. Israel is wearing down as tool of repression in the Arab world. Turkey and Pakistan are living situations of major instability. We can qualify the regional situation in many different ways according to various criteria, but under no circumstances we can say it “calmed down”.
An Important Success of U.S. Imperialism: Cuba
In the framework of this definition (partial achievements that did not revert the global relationship of forces), one of the most important achievements of Obama’s foreign policy was the resuming of diplomatic and commercial relations with the Cuban Castroist regime. This changed materialized with Obama’s visit to Cuba in 2016 and his meeting with Raúl Castro. A policy previously prepared and set by Pope Francis (in tune with Obama, of course).
These relations were forbidden by U.S. laws voted at the beginning of the1960s, when the Cuban Workers’ State and Castro himself were considered the main U.S. enemies in Latin America.
The base for this approximation was the restoration of capitalism led by the Castroist bureaucracy during the second half of the 90s. This restoration was fully exploited by European imperialism powers (specially Spain) and Canada, while the U.S. bourgeoisie was unable to take advantage of the process.
A major debate opened within the U.S. imperialism. On one side, there was the parasitical anti-Castro bourgeoisie of Miami, with strong connections and much influence on the Republican Party, imposing harsh conditions to reinstate relationships with Cuba (and free trade and investments): the fall of the Castroist regime and the guarantee of recovering the properties expropriated by the revolution.
On the other side, sectors mostly linked to the Democrats but also to a sector of the Republicans were watching how excellent business opportunities were missed in a country geographically so close, in key investment areas such as tourism, finances, agricultural production, exports of industrial goods, etc. In fact, some of them “cheated” the U.S. legislation and made investments “camouflaged” through Canadian companies.
Obama’s government closed this debate: he resumed diplomatic relationships and boosted the path to free investments and trade. And he won for this policy some of the heavy weights of the anti-Castroist bourgeoisie, like Marco Rubio, the Republican Senator in Florida, who is a Cuban-American and participated of the delegation that went to Cuba, and who explained that “the agreement includes the normalization of banking and commercial relations between both countries”.
During his speech in Cuba, Obama explained clearly the pillars of his policy. On the one hand, he said: “We want to be partners” (we all know what this means, coming from the imperialism); on the other, “Cuba’s destiny must be decided by Cubans”, and “we accept the existence of two different systems”. In other words, ‘as long as you guarantee us the hand-over of Cuba, we will not question the Castro’s dictatorship’.
This way Obama achieved two combined successes: to open up major “business opportunities” for the U.S. imperialist bourgeoisie just a few kilometers away from Miami’s coast; and to make the Castroist regime as a no longer an “unsettling enemy”, incorporating it (now fully and officially) as a subordinated part of the imperialist world order.
Trump shouted and screamed against Obama’s policy for Cuba, but it seems really difficult for him to try to revert it today (and if he tries, to achieve it), for it responds to very deep economic and political interests of the U.S. imperialist bourgeoisie.
We have said that the high expectations of the U.S. masses in Obama were frustrated, and we also tried to explain the reasons of such frustration. In fact, such wearing of his figure is one of the basis that allowed Trump to win the election, for it led to the collapse of part of the Democratic electoral base.
Yet, it is necessary to properly dimension this definition. Obama does not end his presidency being hated by the masses or “burned out”, as did Richard Nixon in 1974, or Bush in 2008. It is even possible that, if the U.S. legislation would have allowed it, Obama could have defeated Trump in case of running again, although with a much shorter difference that his victories in past elections.
It is possible, then, that in the face of Trump and the contradictions his election opened, Obama continues to be an important player in U.S. politics (same as Bill Clinton was). First, to try to palliate and revert the crisis opened in the Democratic Party. Second, as someone who can still take action serving the “democratic reaction” policy in the international arena.
 2015 U.S. census according to http://oglobo.globo.com/economia/nos-estados-unidos-recuperacao-da-economia-nao-alivia-pobreza-18110311
 For further reference on this matter, check: http://litci.org/en/obamas-visit-to-cuba-another-step-toward-recolonization/ and http://litci.org/en/revolution-and-counterrevolution-in-cuba/
Translation: Sofia Ballack.