Obama could set an earthquake

Barack Obama’s candidacy has unleashed a tremendous amount of energy. To attract 75,000 people to a rally, as he did in Portland, Oregon, recently, shows immense drawing power. The question is, what to do you say to them when they get there? On the one hand, he has managed to articulate the aspirations of many people from whom we previously heard little, if anything, in American politics and mobilise them into a formidable voting bloc. On the other, the progressive forces that have gathered around him have now wedded themselves to a decidedly mainstream, tepid political agenda.

That an Obama victory would mark a radical improvement on George Bush and be far preferable to John McCain, there can be no doubt. Electorally, that is important. But politically, it leaves open the question of whether he is prepared to adopt an ambitious programme that can address the mess he will inherit. Politically, this question could have been asked of any of his main Democratic rivals in the primaries, none of whom pursued radical agendas. But electorally, more has always been claimed of his candidacy and more has also been expected of it.

Let’s start with the obvious. Electorally, Obama’s nomination marks a truly exciting and historic moment in US history. In a nation that prides itself on relentless progress and social meritocracy, the symbolic importance of a black president can be over-exaggerated. But that does not mean it should be dismissed. He was born before he had the constitutional right to vote (secured by the 1965 Voting Rights Act), to mixed-race parents who did not have the constitutional right to marry (the supreme court only legalised miscegenation in 1967). His campaign represents a milestone in America’s scarred racial landscape.

Obama’s campaign helped raise the share of young people’s (18-29) votes in the Democratic primary by more than 50% compared with 2004. Their swelling numbers and contagious enthusiasm will give them considerable leverage within the party. If — a big if — he can maintain the rest of the Democratic base, this could bring into play states like Virginia and North Carolina, which the Democrats have not won since 1964 and 1976 respectively. His candidacy could set an earthquake under the established electoral map.

Meanwhile, the economy continues its precipitous decline. Unemployment is increasing, the dollar is slumping. House prices are nose-diving and fuel prices are skyrocketing. More than one in six homeowners has negative equity or no equity in their house. By June, claims Moodys, that will rise to one in four. Yet Obama refuses to call for a moratorium, an interest rate freeze or substantial government spending, preferring instead a tax credit for homeowners that would amount to little more than about $500, beyond which only some borrowers could get more help. Over-represented among sub-prime borrowers are the very African Americans who have propelled him to victory.

The great thing about Obama is that he has raised expectations about what American do. Whether they develop into pressure or descend into cynicism is an open question. Will he be a vehicle for their hopes, or will they be a vehicle for his political ambition? The two are not mutually exclusive. But their connection is far from assured. — The Guardian