Sun | Feb 18, 2018

Arnold Bertram | Is the American Dream becoming a nightmare? (Part 2)

Published:Sunday | November 27, 2016 | 12:00 AM
US President Barack Obama departs from Tegel airport in Berlin, Germany, on November 18. Obama met the leaders of key European countries to discuss an array of security and economic challenges.

In November 2008, Barack Hussein Obama defeated Republican, John McCain, winning 365 Electoral College votes to McCain's 173, and 53 per cent of the popular vote, to become the first African-American president of the United States. It was a defining moment in the development of American democracy.

Barack and Michelle Obama tower intellectually over nearly all of their predecessors and certainly over their successors. They brought a refreshing integrity to public office and a sterling example of family life to the White House.

As president, Obama steered the ship of state out of the worst economic crisis faced by the US in more than seven decades. During his tenure, Africans and people of African descent, especially African-Americans, walked with their heads held a little higher and their backs a little straighter, while Democrats and Liberals worldwide joined in the applause.

However, at another level, many were disappointed that Obama did not become the transformational president they expected; that he did not seize the opportunity that presented itself in 2009 to rein in Wall Street and chart a new course for America that would bring a fuller realisation of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

President Franklin Roosevelt had faced a similar situation in 1932 with the Wagner-Costigan Bill, which sought to bring the full force of federal law against lynching. He was doubtful that he could successfully oppose the Southern leadership of his party, which was against the bill, and although he won four terms as president, the bill was never passed.




The engine of Obama's electoral machine in 2008 was the generation of young Americans that cut across the traditional lines of class and colour to unite around a demand for change.

A critical weakness in this machine was the absence of organised labour, a traditional ally of the Democratic Party, which, during the Kennedy administration, had one of its legal representatives, Arthur Goldberg, appointed secretary of labour. With the continued export of American jobs in manufacturing to places like China and Mexico, the American share of global manufacturing has continued to decline significantly. This, along with an employment practice that fragments the labour force

with subcontractors, has diminished the traditional role and bargaining power of labour unions.

It hardly helped that Bill Clinton, who took over the chairmanship of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in 1988, focused his activities on expanding the role of the entrepreneurial class in the DNC, which led Jesse Jackson to refer to the DLC as "Democrats for the leisure class".

The task of rebuilding the relationship with organised labour remained unattended. In Wisconsin, an industrial centre and a traditional Democratic stronghold, "unions once represented 35 per cent of the state's workforce. Today [2016], that figure is 11 per cent".




The campaign promise of "change we can believe in" later became "no drama Obama". One major reason for Obama's caution was the recognition that he could not have halted the downward slide of organised labour without rolling back the neo-liberal economic policies that gave corporate America complete control of the economy and extended its influence into social policy as well.

The path he chose may well have been influenced by his judgement that his social base would not have enabled him to prevail in what would certainly have become a war against big capital. In the end, he chose to be a consensual president, and this choice inevitably strengthened the status quo.

Larry Summers, who had been Bill Clinton's secretary of the treasury, was brought back as chairman of the National Economic Council. He had been directly linked to the policies that left the door open for the rampant speculation during the presidency of George W. Bush that led to the 2008 economic crisis. His appointment was certainly acceptable to Wall Street.

Another reason for Obama's caution was the recognition that despite his election to the presidency, racism in America was still alive and well at the highest levels. As late as 1980, Ronald Reagan had chosen to launch his presidential campaign that year in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the three civil-rights workers had been murdered by white supremacists in 1964 for taking part in the drive to register black voters. Many white voters who were too embarrassed by the Bush administration to vote Republican in 2008 simply stayed home. The thought of voting for an African-American would never have crossed their minds.




Predictably, Wall Street recovered before Main Street as in the first two years of Obama's presidency (2009-2010), 93 per cent of the economic gains made went to the top one per cent. The recovery neither enhanced the earning power of the working class nor halted the concentration of wealth at the top.

Neo-liberal policies had contributed to the decline of America's share of the global manufacturing market from 28 per cent in 2002 to 16.5 per cent in 2011; and even with the partial recovery during Obama's second term, it only moved to 17.2 per cent.

The concentration of wealth at the top gathered momentum, and by 2016, according to CNN Money, 10 per cent at the top held 76 per cent of the wealth, while the bottom 50 per cent of the population shared one per cent of the wealth of the country.

The social deterioration that resulted from the decline of manufacturing activities in traditional US industrial centres brought both poverty and deep depression. A study conducted by economists at Princeton University found that death rates had been going up for "white Americans age 45-54 ... especially working-class and rural whites ... as a result of increased use of opioids and other drugs ... liver disease from drinking too much alcohol, and increased suicide rates".

As the socio-economic situation deteriorated in the former manufacturing centres, the Democratic Party lost political capital. "Between 2006 and 2016, the Democrats lost nearly 1,000 seats in state legislatures." The trend would continue into the elections as the electorate in these "hollowed-out towns" would prove to be most receptive to Donald Trump's platform rhetoric.

The rate of incarceration also proceeded apace, and the United States now has the largest prison population in the world as with just 4.4 per cent of the world's population, the US incarcerates 22 per cent of the world's prisoners.

As Obama's presidency came to an end, his approval rate of 56 per cent was an indication that even his "enemies" had to concede his superiority to his predecessor.

However, the state of the Democratic Party he was leaving behind would need a radical reorientation if it was to communicate a message of hope to rural America and restore the support of the working class. Bernie Sanders, whose roots are in the working class, agonised that his party could not find a way to communicate with the people from whom he came.

Part Three will conclude the series next week.

- Arnold Bertram is a historian and former Cabinet minister. His most recent book is 'Norman Manley and The Making of Modern Jamaica'. Email feedback to and