Obama's Victory? How Big? How Far?

No. 235 - June 15, 2008

Let no one underestimate it. Barack Obama has won big. He has not only won the Democratic nomination for president. He is going to sweep the elections with a large majority of the Electoral College and a considerable increase in Democratic strength in both houses of the Congress. Before we analyze how far he will go, can go – that is, how much of a change this will actually mean – we must spell out how real is his electoral triumph.

In the long drawn-out contest between him and Hillary Clinton, both the polls and the results showed that each was stronger in certain categories of voters. Obama had greater strength among the younger, the more educated, the African-Americans of course, and the politically further left. But he also seemed more attractive to independent and Republican crossover voters. Clinton had greater strength among the older, the less educated voters, the women of course, the Latinos, and the politically more centrist.

However, the real decision was made by the superdelegates. And they voted on a quite different basis. They seemed convinced that he would be a stronger candidate, and could actually win in some traditionally Republican areas. Or even if he couldn’t win a majority in these states, he could help Democratic candidates for Congress to win. It is quite striking that he drew strong support from superdelegates in precisely these states, many of whom were individually among the more centrist, least left-oriented Democratic leaders. Since these superdelegates were anchored in their local situations, they are telling us something of U.S. political realities of 2008.

I have just done an analysis comparing McCain’s state by state strength in the latest polls and Bush’s proportion of the actual votes in 2004. In 45 of the 50 states, McCain is weaker, often much weaker, than Bush was. And in the other five, he is about the same. Of course, if Bush had won a state by a large margin, McCain will still win it albeit by a smaller one. But in the states that were close in 2004, the tide is in Obama’s favor.

Furthermore, we have to realize that McCain is currently at the top of his strength. The Democratic Party is now reunifying and hungry for winning. Obama will lose almost none of the traditional Democratic percentages among women and Jews. He will increase the national percentage among Latinos and will bring in a very large number of young people and African-Americans who otherwise would not have voted. He will also get the votes of the considerable number of independents and Republicans disillusioned with Bush. The people who will vote against Obama because he is African-American were almost all already going to vote Republican. This issue is behind him, not in front of him.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are still deeply divided and quite morose. The Christian right still doesn’t trust McCain, and so far is dragging its feet. And we forget too easily the defection of the libertarians. Ron Paul is planning on a convention fight. And while he will of course lose it, his supporters are already disgruntled. With Bob Barr running on a Libertarian Party slate, many of Paul’s supporters will vote for him. Barr may be to McCain in 2008 what Nader was to Gore in 2000 – just strong enough to deny him a few states. And in general, McCain’s line on the plunging U.S. economy is going to lose him a lot of the support he counts on obtaining among so-called Reagan Democrats.

If one analyzes the situation in detail, state by state, the only state that voted Democratic in 2004 in which McCain seems to be competitive today is Michigan. The states that Bush won in 2004 in which Obama is competitive are numerous – Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, and maybe Nevada, North Carolina, and Montana. He’s even doing well enough in Mississippi that Republicans will have to invest money and time campaigning there. If Obama won all the competitive states except Michigan, he’d have 310-333 electoral votes. He needs 270.

The picture looks even better in senatorial races, where Democrats might win in some states in which Obama cannot quite make it – for example, Kentucky, where the Republican minority leader in the Senate is in serious trouble in this very Republican state.

Now what will this mean? Obama is not planning some revolutionary turnabout in U.S. politics. He is surrounded by a lot of conventional Democratic politicians and advisors. But he will be swept into power by a wave of enthusiasm for change that the United States has not seen since Kennedy’s election. True, there is only so much he can do on the world scene, despite the fact that he will be cheered on by the entire rest of the world. The global geopolitical anarchy is far beyond the control of any American president today.

But he will be pushed to make important changes within the United States. Of course, the very election of an African-American will represent a remarkable cultural change, and cannot fail to have a great impact. His electors will expect him to launch the equivalent of another New Deal internally – health care coverage, tax restructuring, job creation, salvaging the pensions. How much he can do depends in part on the global recession, which is largely beyond his control, but even so forceful leadership can play an important role up to a point. The example of Roosevelt shows us that.

The biggest unknown is how far he will go to dismantle the quasi-police state structures that the Bush regime has instituted under the umbrella of a war against terrorism. This involves far more than appointing better judges. It means a radical revising of both legislation and executive policies and exposing the ultra-secret rules and practices to the light of day. Much can be done, as we know from what was accomplished in the 1970s, reining in the CIA and the FBI. But the situation is worse now and requires more. History may well judge Obama most of all on what he does in this domain. Up to now, he has been quite silent about this arena.

Obama has won big. His election will mark – mark, not cause – the end of the counterrevolution of the world right of the 1980s. He has rekindled hope, and created space for a more progressive world. But this space is structurally cramped by the constraints of an ever more anarchic world-system. The basic question is not whether he will transform the world and/or restore U.S. leadership in the world-system – he will do neither – but whether he will do as much as it is possible to do in allowing us all to push our way forward. Even if this is less than the world might wish he could do.