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Joyce McMillan: Victory offers chance to take risks

Barack Obama and Joe Biden embrace on stage after victory

Barack Obama and Joe Biden embrace on stage after victory

Barack Obama’s supporters expect liberal political action, and the rest of the world is watching too, writes Joyce McMillan.

A COUPLE of months ago, in the middle of the US presidential campaign, I went along to the Arches in Glasgow to see a show in which a young British artist, using a pseudonym, went online live as a member of a right-wing republican-supporting group in the United States. As we watched, he could be seen sending and receiving messages on the party’s Facebook page; while we were shown a series of screen-sized images of the organisation’s recent public rallies.

To say that these came as a shock to me is perhaps to confess my own naïvety. Here, though, were images of posters that openly portrayed Barack Obama as a monkey; ranks of handbills damning him as a gay Muslim traitor, born in Africa; and large burly men wearing T-shirts that said “Put The White Back In The White House”.

And it’s because this segment of American society suffered such a striking defeat, on Tuesday night, that the rest of the world can fairly be said to have breathed a sigh of relief, on the news of Barack Obama’s re-election. It is often argued, among the European Left, that in terms of foreign and military policy, one US presidential candidate is as right-wing as the other. Politics, though, is never that simple; and although Barack Obama certainly has plenty of first-term failures to answer for – above all in the continuing excesses of the “war on terror” – we can at least say this: that the US presidency will not, come January, be in the hands of a man who owes his victory, in part, to the votes of open racists, and to extreme social conservatives whose views of the world beyond US borders range from the arrogant to the downright delusional.

Beyond that, though, it’s worth asking what we on the centre-left can reasonably expect or ask for, from Barack Obama’s hard-won second term. For if it is to make a real difference, it will have to amount to more than a holding operation on the hard-won social rights of the last half century, for women, gay people and black Americans. Instead, he will have to use the relative freedom of his second term to try to change the terms of western political and economic debate, and to set it on a new and sustainable path, that might give us a chance of riding out the shocks of the coming half-century.

So the first challenge he must pick up – lightly hinted at, in his acceptance speech on Wednesday morning – is the impact of climate change, brought into fierce focus by the ravages of superstorm Sandy, which swept into New Jersey and New York in the week before the election. The reports from friends in New York – travelling down to Staten Island in busloads of volunteers, raking through the wrecked homes and six-foot-deep mud with distraught householders – tell a story of a world in which rising sea levels and greater climate instability have suddenly hit home, at the very heart of our western urban civilisation.

So now, if he wants to be remembered as a great president, Barack Obama must seize the moment, and face down the climate-change deniers. A coherent policy on the transition to a low-carbon economy would be one of the best legacies Barack Obama could leave to America and the world; and now, he is in a far stronger position than before his re-election to take the initially unpopular decisions that may be necessary to achieve it.

Then secondly – and perhaps even more ambitiously – a second-term President Obama could play a key role in resetting the global financial system that failed so catastrophically in 2008. In winning re-election, Barack Obama has in fact ventured a sharper critique of neo-liberal capitalism than has been heard from any mainstream UK political party in the last 30 years. He has acknowledged the dwindling real incomes of average American middle-class earners, as the rich pocket an ever-greater proportion of the national wealth; and he has specifically condemned low-tax, low-spend “trickle-down economics” as a system incapable of rebuilding their prosperity.

The question, though, is what Barack Obama is going to do, in his second term, to address this blight of extreme and growing economic inequality. As this week’s rumblings of protest over the modest British Living Wage movement show, most of the common-sense policy moves that might begin to address it are still effectively forbidden by markets addicted to the idea that stripping out costs, reducing wage bills, and trashing workers’ rights is always a smart move, even when those moves are visibly impoverishing hundreds of millions of middle-income consumers.

It therefore seems like time for western governments to call in the debt they are owed by a financial sector, following the massive bailouts of 2008; to institute a new Bretton Woods conference, on the future of the global financial system; and to restore a proper balance of power between markets and governments. And to do that, they will need the leadership of the US President, at his most commanding and persuasive.

Barack Obama may well decide, of course, that these challenges are so immense in scale, and so intractable, that he had better not approach them at all. Yet if he does not at least try to rise to these great global challenges, over the next vital couple of years, then it’s fair to ask what exactly, in the end, will have been the point of all his intelligence, all his grace, all his breadth of vision, all his epic journey from Hawaii to the heart of US political power.

From France, on Wednesday morning, came a little cartoon. “I am pleased about Obama’s re-election,” it says. “It will give him a chance to finish all the things he hasn’t started.”

And as Barack Obama begins to breathe the free-er air of a second presidential term, that little Gallic joke contains a vital truth: that this is a time for bold new beginnings, and for daring to propose the kind of deep structural change that would take the President’s mighty rhetoric of hope, freedom and justice, and begin to make it real, in our time.

 

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