The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Obama’s First 100 Days:
The “Change” behind the Slogan

Apr 21, 2009

Working people, distressed and angered by the situation, clearly expressed their desire last November to see an end to those policies most directly associated with the Bush administration. They wanted, in the word of Obama’s main campaign slogan, “Change.” The election showed it, but so did the eagerness with which a great many people awaited inauguration day.

Obama certainly filled his “first 100 days” with a steady stream of announcements brimming over with promises of change. What else could you think when you read headlines such as: “Obama Reverses Rules on U.S. Abortion Aid.” “Obama Closes Guantanamo and Ends Torture.” “Obama Promises Health Care Reform.” “Obama Outraged by AIG Bonuses.” “Obama to End War in Iraq.” “White House Housing Plan Could Aid up to 9 Million People.” “Obama Tells Unions Card Check Will Pass.”

But the details lurking behind the headlines describe a vastly different reality.

How Obama Ended Bush’s Wars: By Turning Them into His Own

Obama may have announced in late February that all troops would be out of Iraq – nearly three years from now! – but his advisers laced even that far-off deadline with this great big loophole: “if conditions on the ground warrant.” He also claimed that the main duty of the troops left behind in Iraq will be to train and advise the Iraqis – shades of the Viet Nam War. They won’t carry out combat operations, he said – except when necessary. Bush had used similar evasions when he signed the 2008 “Status of Forces Agreement” with the Iraqi government for removing U.S. troops from Iraq. It’s hardly a coincidence that Obama set the same date for removing all troops – December 31, 2011 – that had already been enshrined in Bush’s agreement with Iraq. Obama’s military advisers, however, told NBC that they expected to have U.S. troops in Iraq for the next 15 to 20 years, that the “Status of Forces Agreement” could be renegotiated when the time came!

The fact is, the U.S. – with its tens of thousands of troops, its monstrous new embassy in Baghdad and dozens of very large bases – intends to stay in Iraq long into the foreseeable future. Nothing Obama has done or said changes that.

Obama had aligned not only his policies, but even his words so closely with those of Bush that the comedian Jon Stewart got some bitter laughs by alternating video clips from Bush’s 2007 speech on the Iraq war with clips from Obama’s 2009 speech. In response to the explanation that the troops would no longer carry out combat, that they were to be “reclassified” as trainers, Stewart commented if the U.S. “reclassified them as trees” they could stay in Iraq forever.

Obama had already expressed vaguely his intentions to step up the war in Afghanistan during the election campaign. But a few days after his inauguration he ordered wider U.S. missile attacks on Pakistan’s tribal regions. Less than a month later, he ordered another 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. Then came orders to extend missile strikes beyond the tribal regions into other provinces of Pakistan itself, and the administration let it be known that Special Forces were operating in Pakistan. In March came Obama’s statement, “The New U.S. Strategy for Afghanistan,” which envisioned the possibility of adding many more troops, with 4,000 to go immediately. Obama concluded with one of Bush’s favorite evasions: “The road will be long. There will be difficult days. But we will seek lasting partnerships with Afghanistan and Pakistan that serve the promise of a new day for their people.” Bush’s Afghanistan war has been widened into Obama’s Afghanistan/Pakistan war.

No, Obama is not getting the U.S. out of the war business. Nor is he getting out of the business of using terrorism as a bogeyman to justify U.S. wars. Explaining the expansion of the Afghanistan war into Pakistan, Obama blamed: “al Qaeda and its allies – the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks are in Pakistan and Afghanistan....al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the U.S. homeland from its safe-haven in Pakistan. And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban – or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged – that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many people as they possibly can.”

Obama has Bush’s scaremongering about terrorism down pat. And, like Bush, he couldn’t resist the empty boast: “To the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you.”

How Obama Ended Bush’s Policies on Torture

Obama announced early in January that he had ordered the closing of Guantanamo and of the CIA’s secret prisons, the halting of military commission trials and the restriction of CIA interrogators to Army Field Manual techniques.

All of this was taken to mean the end of torture. Incorrectly, as it turned out. In subsequent testimony to Congress, Obama’s solicitor general and his CIA director both quietly explained that the U.S. would continue to use “extraordinary rendition,” that is, the U.S. would hand over prisoners, including U.S. citizens, to those countries where military regimes regularly employ torture. Prisoners would continue to be held “indefinitely” without any charges in this country or in overseas U.S. bases, meaning they had no right to contest their imprisonment, no right to be heard, no right to demand the government prove they had broken any law. Furthermore, according to CIA director Leon Panetta, if the approved army interrogation techniques were “not sufficient,” then “other methods” could be authorized.

In mid-February, the Wall Street Journal, noting what the Obama administration had been saying off camera, concluded: “It seems the Bush administration’s antiterror architecture is gaining new legitimacy.”

Legitimacy AND protection. In April, the Obama administration, faced with “Freedom of Information Act” requests from the American Civil Liberties Union, released Bush administration memos that explicitly described tortures used by the CIA: for example, water-boarding detainees, or throwing them against walls, depriving them of sleep for weeks on end, subjecting them to extreme heat or cold, infesting their surroundings with insects. The memos explicitly showed that Bush administration lawyers had authorized the CIA to employ all these methods, and more. Obama indignantly condemned the memos, calling the use of torture “a dark and painful chapter in our history” – but then declined to prosecute anyone, saying “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”

Just three days after releasing the memos, Obama hurried over to CIA headquarters to address and reassure CIA employees that the White House would not “impede” their work. The next day, facing a strong reaction from civil liberties advocates, he announced that perhaps there could be charges – he would set up a commission to look into the matter! In other words, bury it!

Giving Still More Trillions to the Thieves Who Created the Crisis

Bush’s departure from and Obama’s entrance into the White House marked no change in policy toward the biggest banks and other parts of the financial system. Symbolic of the continuity was Obama’s appointment of Timothy Geithner to be his treasury secretary. Geithner was one of the triumvirate that had directed and organized the bailouts under Bush. He also happened to be the man who, as head of the New York Federal Reserve, had earlier overseen the development of the vast speculative bubble.

Just over half the 700 billion TARP money had been extended or promised in the last 106 days of the Bush administration. The remaining near half was almost all gone after 90 days of the new Obama administration.

And then Obama offered 900 billion dollars more to the banks, without requiring any guarantees from them. Geithner crafted the so-called “public-private investment fund, under which “investors” – banks or private equity companies – could buy up “toxic securities” from other banks, putting up only 8% of the purchase price, using loans backed by the government to cover the remaining 92%. If profits are made, the “investors” share equally with the government, despite the fact they put up only 8%. If losses are incurred, the “investors” don’t have to pay back what they “borrowed.” The government will absorb the full 100% loss.

Under Bush and Obama together, the federal government has loaned so much that, for all practical purposes, it owns the biggest banks and financial firms, the titans of Wall Street. But it owns them without exercising any control over them. It doesn’t use its ownership stake to make the economy run again, to protect the population. It doesn’t use its ownership stake to take back even a part of the wealth the banks and the richest people in the country have been draining out of the productive economy for years. It doesn’t control the banks and other companies to prevent them from buying up each other, cannibalizing the economy – just the opposite, it loans more money so the biggest banks can buy up other banks.

The government has thrown so much money into this financial wasteland that some of the biggest banks, led by Goldman Sachs, are announcing profits, pushing up their share prices. And new rounds of speculation have begun – perhaps in the stock market, and in mergers and acquisitions among big industrial companies backed up by the biggest banks. On a different level, the small time speculators have been gobbling up some of the houses lost to foreclosures at fire sale prices.

Even all those programs that supposedly were designed to “rescue” the population were only another way to direct still more money to the banks. Take, for example, the bailout of homeowners, which is supposed to allow them to refinance their mortgages. In most cases, monthly payments will be lowered – but usually only by extending the term of the mortgage. Now, the administration has offered ten billion dollars to six big banks, including Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase, to cover the banks’ “expenses” in rewriting the mortgages. Moreover, banks holding mortgages will be able to dump many of them onto Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two federal mortgage companies which will absorb the losses.

No such luck for the home-owners lured into “sub-prime mortgages.” Obama denounced them – and not the banks that came up with these crooked schemes – saying that his plan “will not reward folks who bought homes they knew from the beginning they would never be able to afford.”

It should come as no surprise that the Obama administration continues Bush’s policies, opening the treasury, speeding up the Fed’s presses printing money and taking on trillions in debt for the biggest banks. Most of the men leading Obama’s economic policies came from the same big Wall Street banks as Bush’s economic advisers did – and first of all Goldman Sachs. Obama’s transition adviser on appointments for the new administration was Robert Rubin, Citigroup CEO and long-time Goldman Sachs executive! When Geithner took over the treasury, he appointed a Goldman Sachs lobbyist as his chief of staff. And Obama appointed a Goldman Sachs executive who traded in derivatives to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission – which oversees derivatives trading!

The first bailout of AIG was organized by Geithner and Henry Paulson, Bush’s treasury secretary and a former Goldman Sachs CEO – with a current executive from Goldman Sachs sitting in to “offer advice.” It didn’t surprise the banking world when AIG was given money – to send on to the big banks, with Goldman one of the first to get it.

Would it come as a surprise that Goldman contributed over a million dollars to Obama’s election campaign? Others in Wall Street were not far behind.

The relationship between government and the biggest banks is incestuous! It was under presidents who came before, including Bush. It remains so under Obama.

Stimulating Profits under the Guise of Stimulating the Economy

Not only have the banks been bailed out, but Obama’s famous “stimulus” plan was designed to pump money into the other corporations, as well as some additional to the banks. The largest share of that plan came in the form of tax breaks – very small ones to the working population – and a wide number to various companies, under the pretext that if they got the money they would create jobs. Now, they’ve got the money. But we haven’t seen even a sign of the jobs!

The stimulus contains a vast range of projects to be funded – energy production, information technology, rail and mass transit, smart electricity grid, etc. – and almost all of it to be funneled through private contractors and businesses, who take a big slice off the top before any of it is put to work.

There was also money going to the states and the cities – but only as a short term fix. Almost all of it – instead of going toward improving education, public services and social services – is going to make up for part of the deficits state and local governments run up. The very small amounts targeted for services for the population don’t begin to touch the magnitude of what would be required.

Then there were all the tricks written into this stimulus. For example, a “waiver” was given to states like Michigan where high levels of unemployment have run state unemployment funds into deficit, requiring an automatic tax increase on employers with high rates of job cuts. They are allowed to tap the stimulus money directed toward the unemployed to prevent the business tax increase.

When some Democrats attempted to put in a few benefits for working people, Obama often pressured them to drop them. For example, House Democrats were forced to drop a provision that would have increased Medicaid funding for birth control services. And, in conference committee, the Democrats scaled back the individual tax credit from $500 to $400.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about this whole stimulus plan was the fairy tale the Obama administration told to explain why they had put so many tax breaks for business into the stimulus bill, while cutting or eliminating so many of the items that would have provided aid to the population. Obama said the problems of the economy needed to be addressed in bi-partisan fashion, so he had to put in those tax breaks to attract Republican votes. He got only three Republican votes – but business got its tax breaks anyway.

The aim of the stimulus package, from the beginning, was to bail out the profits of the capitalists. Whatever was included for ordinary people was mere window-dressing. And even a good part of that was ripped out before the bill was passed.

Leading the Attack on the Working Class

The conditions of the laboring people will get worse – all the more so, since Obama, like Bush before him, is leading an attack on the standard of living of the workers, beginning with the auto workers.

In December, Bush had listed a series of demands directed against workers at GM and Chrysler, holding the specter of company bankruptcy over them – using the weight of the federal government to help the auto companies reduce wages, health care benefits, the number of jobs and work rule protections. He gave auto workers until the end of March to surrender.

In late February, the UAW leadership made a surprise move to push through a series of concessions at Ford before Bush’s plan came up for a vote at GM and Chrysler – thus signaling that the union bureaucracy was ready to do what the companies required. But the push at Ford didn’t go so well. At least 41% of Ford workers voted NO, signaling that problems might develop at GM and Chrysler.

Thus, at the end of March, Obama jumped into the battle, adding demands for even greater concessions than what Bush had required. He set up a “task force” charged with “restructuring” the auto companies, and he gave Chrysler 30 days and GM 60 days to impose those concessions on the workers, threatening that the government might force a bankruptcy, thus costing even more jobs. It was extortion, pure and simple.

Justifying this extortion, Obama said: “It will require hard choices by the companies. It will require unions and workers who have already made painful concessions to make more.” And while he added that bondholders also had to make some sacrifices, his subsequent actions showed that they would be protected. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, repeated and repeated his refrain that the auto industry has a “health care cost structure that is outdated.” In other words, auto workers’ and retirees’ health plans are put on the chopping block.

Addressing a “letter” to newspapers in states with the auto industry, Obama actually dared to say, “I cannot pretend there isn’t more difficulty to come. But I am confident that if we are each willing to do our part, then the restructuring, as painful as it will be, will mark not an end, but a new beginning.”

Or to say it directly: Obama’s “part” is to cram the concessions down the workers’ throat; the “part” assigned to the workers is to surrender, making still bigger sacrifices.

Obama appointed Steven Rattner to head his “task force.” Rattner is currently under investigation by the SEC and the New York state Attorney General for a scheme through which Rattner’s private equity company put its hands on a big chunk of New York state employees’ pension fund. Apparently Obama thought Rattner’s experience with workers’ pension funds would come in handy.

Since threatening the auto bankruptcy, the Obama administration continued to hand over more billions to the auto companies. His administration quietly extended more loans; then it transformed some of the earlier government loans to GM to stock purchases; it gave the two companies five billion dollars to distribute to the auto parts makers, via the intermediary of CitiBank; it worked out ways to subsidize the banks in order to reduce the bonds they were holding over GM’s and Chrysler’s head.

In mid-April, when GM announced that it had sent out 1,600 termination notices to salaried employees, the task force called it a “good beginning,” but noted that many more employees needed to be cut.

The threat of a forced bankruptcy was not directed against the auto companies, nor against the banks holding their bonds, but against the workers.

It was part of a political campaign aimed at forcing the auto workers to their knees, forcing them to surrender, bringing down with them the rest of the working class. The threats and pressure coming first from Bush, then reinforced and increased by Obama, were the spearhead of an extortion campaign, organized and directed from the very top of the state apparatus.

The meaning of this campaign was not lost on other workers in Michigan, the center of the auto industry. Many health care workers, state workers, city workers, parts company workers recognized the threat: “If auto goes down, we’re next.” Nor was Obama’s role lost on auto workers, black and white alike. His comments set off angry comments, and Obama hats and shirts virtually disappeared from many plants.

How Obama Proposes to Give Workers the Right to Organize

Addressing the AFL-CIO Executive Council via a teleconference hookup, Obama hinted that he would work to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, so-called “card check,” which would allow workers to have the union of their choice as soon as the majority in a workplace signed cards indicating they wanted to join.

The next week, however, when Obama addressed a joint session of Congress about his budget and legislative priorities, he didn’t mention “card check.” And while some Democrats introduced “card check” bills in Congress, Democratic senators supposed to be the most friendly to labor warned that the bill would not pass without big “modifications.” Dianne Feinstein, one of the bill’s chief sponsors during the Bush administration, now refused to sponsor it, saying that the “extraordinarily difficult economy” requires “less divisive” legislation. She expressed her hope that “there is some way to reach a common ground that would be agreeable to both business and labor.” In other words a “compromise” with the same employers who have been using every legislative and judicial trick in the book to block union organizing!

Tom Harkin, labor’s supposed best friend, said, “We knew all along that this bill would be amended.” Yes, right out of any resemblance to its original intention.

Hypocrisy

The Democrats, of course, blamed the Republicans, predicting they would use their 41 votes to block passage. What a convenient excuse – and typical of the Democrats! This party, which helped Bush ram through the TARP bail-out for the banks and then rolled through Obama’s stimulus plan for business, is always helpless when it comes to passing legislation favoring working people. Those who pin their hopes on the Democrats ought to think about this: why can’t Obama pass what he promised during the campaign when Bush was able to pass so much of his program?

Obama came into office given a clear electoral mandate for change. And it was obvious that he had popular support, including from many who had not voted for him. The Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, with wider margins in the Senate than Bush had ever had.

If there ever was a time when the Democrats, who pretend to be the friend of working people, were in a position to demonstrate true friendship, it’s today. They could have made a radical break with Bush’s policies. The situation demands it, and they had the popular support to do it.

But they haven’t done it. They haven’t even tried – for example, by making a big campaign in the population to force the Republicans to support measures the population wants. They haven’t proposed such measures. And when they do propose something like “card check,” they don’t fight for it. Worse, most of their measures are open attacks on the working population.

Blame the Republicans? Yes, of course. But don’t think they forced the Democrats to carry out policies the Democrats didn’t want. The Democrats are doing exactly what they want to do, passing the legislation they want, covering their rear end with a convenient excuse.

Reducing the Budget Deficit as a Way to Cut Social Security

Under the cover of reducing enormous budget deficits caused by huge amounts of money poured into the banks and the biggest corporations, the Obama administration set up a commission to look into reducing waste. But it wasn’t waste in the bailouts the commission was to look for, but “waste” in the “entitlements,” that is, Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment Benefits, Food Stamps. The first leaks, which came out in early April, showed that Social Security was the big target of this commission. Apparently, the commission had discussed four changes: to decrease the cost of living adjustments made to Social Security, that is, to let inflation lower the real value of the benefits; to increase the amount workers are taxed; to increase the number of years workers must contribute before they qualify; and to increase the age at which they can retire. To ease through these cuts, Obama had given the commission the authority to craft a take-it-or-leave-it bill. No amendments, no discussion, either vote it up or down – in other words, jam it through.

Having watched Bush run into problems when he loudly announced at the beginning of his second term that he intended to “reform” Social Security, Obama quietly shuffled that “reform” off into the meetings of a commission working behind closed doors. For the working class, it makes absolutely no difference: a cut is still a cut.

Hiding Attacks behind Proposals to Reform

Even those programs that Obama has offered as improvements to the population carry the possibility of more attacks.

Health care, for example. Pledging a “commitment to reform that will lead to lower costs and quality, affordable health care for every American,” Obama nominated Nancy-Ann DeParle to direct health care reform.

The nomination itself reveals that Obama has no intention of challenging the biggest obstacle to affordable health care, that is the enormous weight of profit in the health care system. For the last eight years, DeParle has advised financial companies like J.P. Morgan Chase on profitable investments in medical care and medical insurance. Before that, she was responsible under Clinton for implementing changes to the Health Care Financing Administration, changes which allowed private insurance companies to take larger profits from the Medicare program.

Looking for other ways to reduce costs, the Obama administration floated a proposal that Bush and McCain had raised earlier: to tax the health care coverage that workers get from their employers as income. The Congressional Budget Office estimates this tax could provide as much as a quarter of a trillion dollars a year. Testifying to Congress, Obama’s Budget Director Peter Orszag said that this option “most firmly should remain on the table.” Other Obama advisers, particularly Jason Furman, have pushed this same proposal.

Education is another of those fields to be “reformed.” Certainly it needs reform – and first of all, an enormous increase in the amount of money spent on schools so that enough teachers could be hired, so they can continue to qualify themselves, so the buildings and facilities are up to date, so there are enough books and supplies, etc. etc. etc.

Instead of this, the main focus of Obama’s education “reform” is to increase the number of charter schools by eliminating the limits that many states have set on their numbers. No one looking at the results rolled up by charter schools would propose such a thing. On standard testing, these schools paid for by public money but run by private interests have either done no better, or done worse than comparable public schools. But they have drained money out of the whole public school system. How could it be otherwise? Many of them are run for profit, or as a pay-back to friends of politicians, or by religious forces. In most states, these schools are usually not required to meet the same standards that the public schools are subjected to.

Furthermore, Obama proposes to leave in place the big attack that Bush imposed on the public school system, “No Child Left Behind.” Under the guise of pushing the schools to improve, what was set up was a system for gradually cutting off federal money to more and more of the schools – usually the ones already in the poorest districts.

And so it goes, with the environment, with consumer protections and the whole range of other happy announcements coming out of the White House. The Obama administration, while extending trillions more to the thieves that threw the economy into its quagmire, has not proposed any program to aid the population that would endanger the profits of the capitalist class.

A Tiny Change on Abortion – Leaving the Main Attacks on Women in Place

Even on the things that would not endanger capitalist profits, Obama was not ready to oppose policies that Bush had made the centerpiece of his campaign to drum up reactionary sentiment in the population, and especially his attacks on abortion.

Three days after taking office, Obama announced he was scrapping Bush administration rules that withdrew federal funding from international organizations that provide abortions to women ... in other countries. But he issued no call to drop the single biggest impediment to obtaining abortion in this country, the “Hyde amendment,” which prevents Medicaid from paying for abortions, de facto cutting off access for poor women.

The “Hyde amendment” could easily be dropped – it exists today only because every Congress, since it was first passed in 1976, has quietly re-authorized it when the budget was passed. What needed to be “re-authorized” each time obviously could have been dropped each time, just as it could be dropped today – if the Democrats wanted to do it. But when Obama offered his budget in April, not a peep from the Democrats about dropping Hyde.

In Conclusion – It’s Not Over

Obama didn’t even need 100 days to make it perfectly clear that he offers no essential change from Bush. Look at the record he has run up on the four major issues facing working people. He is continuing and expanding Bush’s wars. He is letting Bush’s tax cuts to the wealthy and the corporations stand, while extending other ones under the guise of “stimulating the economy.” He is subsidizing profits at the workers’ expense. He is continuing and expanding Bush’s bailout to the banks. And he took over the lead of a political campaign aimed at drastically forcing down the standard of living of auto workers, and behind them of the whole working class. Even the “reforms” he proposes are covers for new attacks. And, while Obama criticizes certain issues on which the Republicans went “too far,” he toys with those same reactionary sentiments, and he plays on people’s fears about terrorism. Obama and the Democrats serve the same capitalist class that Bush served – and on the essential questions they serve them in almost exactly the same way. Only their rhetoric is different.

Waiting for Obama to change things is a hopeless exercise – working people would be waiting for ever. Workers have to prepare themselves to fight back. If they want a change in their favor, they will have to fight to impose it.

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