Just over three years ago, more than a million people endured freezing temperatures in downtown Washington, D.C., to be a part of history: the inauguration of the country’s first African American president.
Emotions ran high as people came together for the culmination of a political campaign that took the country by storm, spreading a message of “hope and change” across the land. George W. Bush was leaving in disgrace, and a brilliant, charismatic new leader would redirect the country, putting it on a progressive path to finally meet the needs of the struggling working class.
What a difference three years make. It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the millions of people who were caught in the powerful emotional pull of the campaign who are now confronting the grim realization that “hope” and “change” was just an illusion.
This was apparent as soon as Obama established his cabinet and appointed key advisers. Robert Gates retained his post as secretary of defense. For the first time in U.S. history, an incoming administration kept a secretary of defense who had originally served under an opposing political party. People who had eagerly anticipated an end to the wars instead saw the number of troops in Afghanistan quickly triple.
Voters drawn to Obama’s promise to improve health care soon saw the new president break a campaign promise. Policy discussions leading to improved health care, they had been repeatedly told, would be carried live on C-Span TV. That may have sounded like a new way of doing things in Washington.
But it was not to be. Once elected, Obama invited the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies to join closed door meetings. A single-payer policy that would have created universal health care was never considered. Health care workers and other activists were arrested in acts of civil disobedience as they attempted to join the discussion.
The end result guaranteed a bonanza for the insurance and pharmaceutical companies but dubious benefits for the working class.
Then there were Obama’s financial advisors with deep connections to J.P.Morgan, CitiGroup and other Wall Street firms that had brought the economy to its knees and backed his campaign. Not a single bank executive was prosecuted under the Obama administration, which dutifully carried out the bank bailout. Wall Street, meanwhile, continued on as it had before—recklessly speculating, hoarding the country's cash, and foreclosing on working-class families.
Disappointments continued to accumulate. The Obama administration refused to investigate the Bush administration for its illegal torture and domestic spying campaigns. Instead, the administration aggressively prosecuted and incarcerated the whistle-blowers, while expanding the attack on civil liberties with a law that allows for indefinite detention, without trial, of U.S. citizens. Prisoners continued to languish without charges in Guantánamo, despite the administration's promise to close the facility.
Drone attacks increased in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan, killing hundreds of civilians. Reminiscent of the war on Iraq, the Obama administration carried out a “regime change” operation in oil-rich Libya in clear violation of international law. The country, which previously enjoyed the highest living standards in Africa, experienced massive civilian destruction.
Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars he received from labor unions in 2008, the Obama administration did nothing to stop the nationwide attack on workers’ rights. Despite the massive support he received from immigrant communities, the administration deported more people than Bush ever did.
Obama and other politicians serve as the managers of the ruling class. While the country was held rapt, mesmerized by Obama’s rhetoric, Wall Street bankers were feeding his campaign with money. The capitalists know the role that politicians play for them.
Many in the 99% have learned from the experience of the Obama administration that the political and economic system does not change with the selection of a new CEO. Real change comes from struggle, getting organized, and building a movement of poor and working people to fight for a government that truly serves our interests.