This morning we steamed back into Columbus. From Youngstown, via Akron, we skirted the freshly smashed corpses of dozens of Ohio bucks, looking out for police patrols on a beautiful November morning. The temperature rose steadily as we headed south, topping out somewhere approaching 70 degrees fahrenheit, a massive change from early last week when it was almost freezing.
Back in the state capital, sucking thousands upon thousands of onlookers into the center, was our quarry, the 47 year-old senator from Illinois, and his wife. Half of Ohio was on hand as well, as we parked and walked the mile or so into town, much too late to take up a position inside the square outside the State House, where Barack Obama was due to speak.
It was a distinct contrast to the McCain rally of a couple of days ago. Instead of cloaking off half of a basketball arena, Obama was to speak in an open public place. He would be addressing the people from stairs in front of Ohio’s center of power, not on a stage set which parodied an Ohio farmstead. Alongside him, giving a speech to warm up the crowd, his wife. Paving the way for McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Obama’s merchadising stretched into the surrounding streets, forming a flea market with t-shits, buttons, packs of cards, pins, posters, and business was brisk.
It all added up to an energy which eclipsed that generated by the GOP, and that was even before Obama had descended the State House steps to speak. The numbers were far, far larger as well. 20-30,000 people were there, maybe more, with queues for the square snaking round the blocks of inner-city Columbus. Young, old, black and white were there. Few minorities decided to check out McCain’s pitch.
But what of the message? Well, I’ve been critical of Obama’s policies in the past, and I stick to those criticisms. What I heard today offered nothing to change my view that his ideas mark a return to Clinton’s America – with its huge inequalities, militarism, corporate dominance and global domination. That such a return is preferable to Bush or McCain’s America is a consolation, but not a recommendation.
Obama chides McCain for the “smallness” of his politics, and we should do the same for him. Having said that, there is no doubting that the movement that Obama heads is hugely important, and encouraging. He depends upon a grassroots commitment to democracy which bodes well. Significantly, he began his speech today with an imploration to Ohioans to vote early, today if possible, if they have not already done so. Yet when he asked early voters to put up their hands, a huge number did so – a sign of how energised Columbus (at least) has become this time around.
Obama also marks an important political shift, which he constantly stresses. Today, he said that he sought to “end the politics of fear” and to seek a “new kind of politics [focusing on] common sense over ideology and what we have in common over what divides us.” He is genuine in his pursuit of unity, and genuine too in his rejection of “trickle down economics”, favoring a “bottom up” approach to the economy, at least in his rhetoric.
Tackling several easy targets in his rhetoric, Obama pointed to Exxon Mobil’s massive profits and Dick Cheney’s recent endorsement of John McCain. In what was by far the funniest segment of his oratory, Obama said that “yesterday, Dick Cheney came out if his undisclosed location and said that he was ‘delighted to support John McCain.”
“Well you’ve never seen Dick Cheney delighted before. It’s quite hard to picture,” he continued, adding that he would “like to congratulate John McCain on this endorsement because he really earned it” quoting the Republican candidate’s shining record in backing Bush era economic legislation, and his role as Bush’s prime “cheerleader” on Iraq.
As I said, easy targets. The attacks that McCain has been making on Obama were also easy, easy targets. As Obama said, his tax policies would deliver a cut to 95 percent of Americans, and “99 percent of plumbers” raising an inevitable laugh. That’s another huge difference.
Not intimidated by McCain’s charges of “socialism” against Obama, the Illinois Senator articulated a defense of labor against capital, artfully expressing it in terms congenial to media discourse on the economy. He’s an incredibly slick operator, leveraging the poverty of his opponent’s proposals to great effect in order to amplify the attractiveness of his own.
In truth, of course, Obama is an establishment candidate of a different stripe. His promise to invest $15 billion in renewables is a derisory sum, a fraction of American military spending, and totally inadequate to spearhead a conversion to clean energy. His love of biofuels and clean coal are absolutely corporate driven, while he says nothing about mass transit. It is painfully clear that his energy policies show his closeness to the status quo, not his commitment to real change.
His foreign policy is potentially horrendous. It isn’t edifying to see Obama using withdrawal from Iraq as an excuse to escalate the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is dangerously truculent towards Russia, and has no discernable interest in fair trade in a global sense. His trade policies seem to be geared towards protecting American jobs, and American capital, and he is not averse to painting foreign workers as bogeymen (Korean car manufacturing was highlighted today).
Obama’s America is a victim of global trade. In a sense this is true, but to say that American workers need protection against offshoring and cheap imports is a dangerous half truth. All workers in an interlinked world need protection, and we need fair, democratically regulated trade. Otherwise, gains for American labor will be bought through the immiseration of labor abroad.
This is not change we should believe in.
Yet if Obama is a candidate of the investor class, then we do have to realize that he is a candidate who has galvanised a significant portion of the American citizenry. The crowd today was enormous, vibrant and enthused by their candidate. They have a sense of ownership of Barack, which produces a very special dynamic.
Being propelled into office by massive turnout and with such backing would, to an extent, bind Obama’s hands, and direct him towards democratic change, to which his rhetoric commits him. We all know how shallow rhetorical commitments can be. But this time there is a huge pressure to translate them into action. Moreover, although we can’t know how deep an impression the Obama movement will make on American democracy, it is likely that it will lead to a spike in political participation at all levels of the polity, and especially amongst the young.
This is reason alone to celebrate the candidacy of Barack Obama.
Add to that Obama’s charisma. He is a magnetic individual. He generates emotion through the force of his presence. He is one of those politicians who make tired old campaign slogans seem continually fresh. He is, to put it plainly, an extremely good candidate for President of the United States.
Polls today suggest that Obama holds a commanding lead coming into the last full day of campaigning. An average of polls, compiled by RealClearPolitics gives him a six-point advantage, and that includes outliers favorable to McCain from right-wing pollsters like Mason Dixon, and even they have him extending his lead in Ohio.
Election fraud gremlins notwithstanding, the confidence shown by Obama today (his exit music was “Signed, Sealed and Delivered”) seems justified. But beneath the hope and excitement that his campaign is generating, which is hard not to share on the ground, there is room for huge scepticism.
Bruce Springsteen shared a stage with Obama today up in Cleveland, itself a huge improvement in my opinion on the execrable Hank Williams Jnr. The Boss once sang a rather cryptic lyric which seems somewhat apposite:
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse that sends me
Down to the river though I know the river is dry?
I guess if Obama is elected, Americans themselves need to make that dream true. Relying on the president at the peak of the country’s hierarchy won’t cut it. Real grassroots citizen’s movements need to grow to force change. If they don’t, then well, it’s back to the river for another good ol’ wallow in American nostalgia, and the creation of a myth of what might have been.