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Can America's first Black President change society?

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There will be huge celebrations if Obama wins. And these celebrations will be all the more intense given the oppression black people have endured in North America over hundreds of years.Just think of the long years of slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement and the systematic discrimination against US blacks to this day, and it is obvious why the entry of a black man into the White House will be met with an explosion of joy.

The Democrats are likely to win their largest victory since Roosevelt in 1932. They could end up controlling the Presidency, the House of Representatives, and have an absolute majority in the Senate as well, removing the power of the Republicans to filibuster (talk out) progressive legislation, such as healthcare reform, black rights or trade unions' freedom to organise, which they have done many times. But will the Democrats use this power for such purposes? Past experience teaches they will not.

Economic crisis

Obama will face an immediate test: the most severe US recession in living memory.

September saw layoffs rise to the highest level since 2001. Some of the biggest firms in their sectors such as Chrysler, Goldman Sachs, Xerox, Merck and UPS have announced big cuts in staff. The three Detroit car giants still employ 230,000 workers in the US but have shed 149,000 jobs since 2005, i.e. in the boom. Chrysler and GM are projecting losses of billions of dollars and are likely to merge with inevitable rationalisation and further job losses. The global slowdown has meant falling exports, so that 28 per cent of layoffs announced are in manufacturing.

Layoffs in professional and technical services, and finance also reached record highs as September's banking sector meltdown hit home. While unemployment remained at a 6.1 per cent unemployment this month, due to a fall in full-time employment being offset by a hike in part-time employment, Zach Pandi, economist at Barclay's Capital expects it to hit between seven and eight per cent by early next year.

In these conditions millions of workers and youth, as well as African-Americans, are pinning their hopes on Barack Obama and the Democrats. It is no accident that since the banking crisis hit, Obama has taken a clear and growing lead over the Republican's John McCain. It has risen to 8 per cent, according to an average of 16 polls (Bloomberg 25 Oct).

Obama's supporters claim theirs is more a movement than a normal campaign, bringing out unprecedented levels of voter registration and an outpouring of support and activism from youth and the black community in particular. Four million new voters have been registered in 12 of the key battleground states alone, in a country of 96 million voters. Some are projecting historically high voter turnouts. In order to cope the polls have been opened early with queues already forming three weeks before the official election date of 4 November.

Most Americans, especially the working class and the poor, hope for a total change from the disastrous Bush government. Concretely this means immediate relief from the economic crisis with protection for their threatened homes and jobs. It could also mean, they believe, long awaited social reforms, like a health service covering the 43 million uninsured Americans, like the abolition of racist practices in the justice system for blacks, like an end to the persecution of "illegal" migrants.

Socialists do not believe that Obama and the Democrats  representatives of big business  will fulfil these hopes. Seven of Obama's top fourteen donors were Wall Street banks, including Lehman, Goldman Sachs and other parasites, and there is every reason to believe that he is completely tied to big money. But socialists do understand why millions of people have high hopes for Obama, and we do not just dismiss these hopes. Instead we want to convert passive hopes in Obama into an active campaign fo clear and precise demands for radical change, for measures that do not unload the cost of the crisis on the workers and the poor but onto the rich.Republicans play racist card

As their desperation has increased, the Republicans have turned to outright lies, whipping up a lynch-mob atmosphere at rallies. McCain is a relatively liberal Republican on domestic issues like abortion, immigration  issues that alienated many of the right wing in his party  but he turned to the right-wing evangelical governor of Alaska Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential candidate. This boosted his support for a few days before Palin's unsuitability became apparent and the crisis hit. Desperately, Republican TV adverts and automatic phone calls have blasted the airwaves with the line that Obama is a closet socialist and has "worked with terrorist Bill Ayers" the ex-Weather Underground member turned Democrat.Unofficial Republican blogs keep up the propaganda that he is a secret Muslim. McCain-Palin supporters at their rallies were calling Obama "babykiller" and "Osama [bin laden] without the S." At one Palin rally, the mention of his name led to the crowd baying "terrorist" and even "kill him." Moreover when Obama challenged him on this McCain replied: "I'm proud of the people who come to my rallies."This is the flipside of the outpouring of popular hope that Obama has harnessed, and shows the growing polarisation in US politics.Obama has focused his now immense resources on the "swing" states, all of which went to Bush in 2004. His campaign raised a record $150 million in September alone, while McCain has a maximum of $84 million he can spend in the last two months due to his acceptance of state funds. In the last month, Obama has upped the ante, challenging McCain in traditionally Republican states such as Virginia, Florida and North Carolina, saturating the airwaves with his adverts. The Democrats are outspending the Republicans by four to one in the elections for congress too, aided by the massive voter registration.

The Republicans are fighting back as only they know how, by illegally forcing tens of thousands of eligible voters off the electoral rolls. The New York Times reports that in at least nine states, Republican administrations are blocking them from registering. The aim is to depress the black, young and working class turnout, repeating the swindle of the 2000 stolen election by Bush.

Obama or McCain, workers struggle

While the camp of Obama is filled with people who hope for change and democratic reforms, that of McCain is full of people haunted by racist paranoia and religious bigotry. But is there a big difference in what the two candidates promise or what they would do if they won?In reality Obama's programme was minimal even before the crisis deepened and now he argues that he will not be able to do all he promised.

His promises were small tax cuts for "working families" and retired workers, along with "affordable" not free healthcare. Where the money for this would come from, when he has also promised to balance the budget, remains unanswered.

Health campaigners like Michael Moore claim Obama's health care plan would leave as much as a third of those currently uninsured still lacking coverage. Instead of a single-payer plan, i.e. state funding, he proposes a government-supervised marketplace in which Americans could buy insurance, mostly from private companies.In terms of funding reforms Obama would be hemmed in by the Federal debt that, after Paulson's Plan, will reach 70 per cent of gross domestic product and take the annual budget gap to an all-time high, possibly exceeding $1 trillion next year.Build a movement

The war and occupation of Iraq will be another litmus test. Obama owes a lrge part of his initial popularity to the fact that he voted against it. But since the November 2006 Congressional elections, which gave the Democrats control of both Houses of Congress they have voted for funds to extend the occupation at least three times. Obama has voted for this every time.The peace candidate claim does not stand up to scrutiny. He will keep the "military option" open for an attack on Iran, while engaging in "tough diplomacy" (otherwise known as threats. He will to maintain non-combat troops and bases in Iraq in order to fight "terrorism" And those troops he withdraws from Iraq (within fifteen months) he will send to fight in Afghanistan.

US workers face a disastrous decline in their standard of living if they are not able to mount a successful defence of jobs and homes. The demonstrations against Paulson's $700 billion "big bailout" of the banks show what needs to be done faced with these attacks; get out on the streets and give a focus to the anger.

US workers, African-Americans, Latinos and youth need to organise a mass movement saying we will not pay for the bosses' crisis. They should demand that Obama guarantees all workers unable to pay their mortgages will not be turned out of their homes. They should demand that Obama and the Democrat majority in congress  having taken millions in donations from the AFL-CIO and Change to Win union federations  immediately repeal the 1947 Taft Hartley Act and all federal and state laws standing in the way of mass unionisation of millions of workers. The unions need to launch a mass organising drive, especially in the Southern states.Unions and community organisations should demand a health service for all, free at the point of use and paid for from the profits of the corporations, first among them Big Pharma, and from massive taxation of the super rich.Mumia Abu Jamal should immediately receive a presidential pardon. The 500 detainees remaining in Guantanamo Bay should be released and the Patriot Act should be repealed in its entirety. The death penalty should be abolished and gross racial imbalance of the judiciary, the district attorneys and the jury system should be remedied by the speediest action.American troops should be brought back immediately not only from Iraq but from Afghanistan. Obama should end support for Colombia's death squad regime, the 46-year blockade of Cuba and the role of US embassies in fomenting coups. Not just the banks should be nationalised but all firms declaring redundancies and their workers jobs guaranteed

The Democrats' massive campaign contributions from banks and big business, their ultra-loyal role in the Wall Street bailout, Obama surrounding himself with neoliberal economists and the foreign policy establishment  all this shows that the Democrats are merely the second capitalist party of the US ruling class.

New workers' party

Millions of Obama's supporters will face disillusionment in the months and years ahead as a result of his actions or inaction. But we do not want this to mean their slump into cynicism and hopelessness. Those in the US workers movement and the movements of the racially oppressed who already realise this must urge those who yet do not to become active but for themselves, for solutions that will really solve the problems of inequality, exploitation, racism. This means building a political party of the workers, the racially oppressed. It means breaking the unions, the antiwar and immigrants' movements, away from the Democrats, and into building a new, mass working class party, one that can lead the struggle against the crisis into a struggle to get rid of capitalism altogether. This is the central task of socialists in the US under an Obama presidency.

But such a party must not end up copying the reformist labour, social democrat or socialist parties of Europe that are today implementing cuts and neo-liberal policies. Any US reformist party would soon be cajoled and coerced by Wall Street and big business into attacking the working class and migrants, just as the British Labour Party is doing. What US workers need is a revolutionary party founded upon a transitional programme. The present crisis shows the inability of capitalism to meet the basis needs of the masses in the US and the weakening of US hegemony. This opens up the possibility of just such a development.