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Behind the votes for Obama & Rodham Clinton

Published Jan 9, 2008 9:20 PM

The surprisingly strong victory for Barack Obama in the Iowa caucuses and his close second to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the New Hampshire primary have put the campaign of the African-American senator from Illinois front and center on the U.S. political scene and put him neck-and-neck with Clinton. His results are all the more impressive because they take place in lightly populated states whose overwhelmingly white voters greatly underrepresent the big-city and suburban population centers of the country. With these contests showing that a large number of young white people are enthusiastic supporters of Obama, tens of millions of people who hadn’t believed it possible that a Black man might be elected president in the racist U.S. now might think Obama could be the first.

None of this changes the basic truths about U.S. elections. The presidential contest remains firmly in the hands of the ruling class and their politicians in the two big capitalist parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. Who wins is closely related to the amount of money raised by the candidates and leaves him or her beholden to the ruling-class donors. Clinton and Obama have been the biggest fundraisers, even out-raising the Republican candidates. All the leading candidates of both parties have been firm defenders of U.S. imperialist interests and big capital all their political careers, still are, and can be expected to remain so.

Still, Obama’s strong showing amid the large turnouts already has lessons about the mood of the population. Since Iowa is at least 92-percent and New Hampshire 94-percent white, it says little about nonwhite voters, who will be heard from in large numbers only on Jan. 19 and 26 in South Carolina, Jan. 29 in Florida and then on Feb. 5, the so-called Super Tuesday of primaries in more than 20 states.

The first lesson comes from the large turnout in Iowa for the Democrats, double the Republican turnout and almost double the Democrats’ 2004 number. A high proportion of the participants were youthful voters. The high participation in the Democratic caucuses in Iowa by people calling themselves “independents,” that is, not members of either party, reflects their strong revulsion to the Bush gang.

Many post-caucus analysts—including Obama and candidate John Edwards, who came in second in Iowa just slightly ahead of Clinton and a distant third in New Hampshire—said that Iowa showed the people wanted change and they were the candidates who most represented change. Disgust with the Bush gang on the one hand and perhaps consciousness of impending economic difficulties on the other has moved the voting population somewhat to the left.

Those selecting Obama seem to be looking beyond his program. John Edwards has a program that is more pro-labor, pro-health care and anti-war than Obama. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s domestic program is also more progressive than Obama’s, although among many anti-war activists she is identified as an early supporter of the Iraq war who won’t cleanly break with that position. The voters’ perception of the candidates is not necessarily connected to the spoken or written promises. If they see Obama as an agent of change this appears to come from the image he projects.

Former Rep. Cynthia McKinney, who is running an independent progressive campaign in the Reconstruction Party and contending for nomination of the Green Party, was interviewed following the Iowa caucuses. She took a critical view of Obama’s team and program, and what she believes could be a negative impact on the struggle for Black rights. McKinney points out that Obama’s main foreign policy adviser is Zbigniew Brzezinski, the ultimate Democratic Party cold warrior.

Of course Clinton’s foreign policy advisers, like Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke, are the people who planned and executed the war against Yugoslavia. And McKinney doesn’t let her and Edwards off the hook on this. But in discussing Obama, McKinney also notes that by playing down the differences in how Black and white are treated in the U.S., Obama does nothing to help, for example, the people displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

There is little doubt that an Obama campaign that looks successful will draw the fire of the most virulent racists in the U.S. This will happen even if the majority of the ruling class is content to have him run and even to win. Clinton, who has been in the public eye for 15 years, has already drawn the fire of the worst sexists and male chauvinists. It would be naive to think the reactionary Republican Party will campaign without trying to manipulate backward sentiments of racism and/or sexism.

With an Obama candidacy, working-class and revolutionary organizations will have to stay sensitive to the impact of racism on the electoral campaign, even as the left differentiates itself from Obama as well as the Republican. The left will also have to adjust its approach should there be an active intervention of the population in the electoral process, especially if an economic or war crisis arises during the election.