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Ten days after

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It is about ten days now since America’s historical presidential elections. The excitement has continued as the world looks forward to see the first black American president in the White House. The air is full of expectation, and while I remain sceptical of the restraints on any American president posed by special interests, I am somewhat optimistic that the road is open for a progressive agenda. Clearly, the economy is a major challenge and could possibly set limits on what any President can do, but Obama’s overwhelming victory represents a clear call for fundamental change.{{more}} There is hope in some quarters that Obama can do another ‘New Deal’ as Franklin D Roosevelt did after the Depression of the 1920s/ 30s. The US is in deep economic trouble, with millions out of work and established companies holding on for dear life and threatening to throw more workers on the bread line, with the hope that that can resuscitate them.

I am at the moment reading Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal. Krugman is a columnist for the New York Times and a Professor at Princeton University. This year he won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. The Conscience of a Liberal really helps us to understand the forces impacting on America at the moment. One of the things that stands out at this time is the high income inequality which he claims is as high as in the 1920s. That early period of high inequality started in the 1870s, the beginning of what is called the Gilded Age which was marked by the extravagant wealth and excesses of the Upper Class. He argued that this persisted through the 1920s before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal helped to create a strong middle class on which the economic prosperity of the US rests. In fact Krugman suggests that “… institutions, norms and the political environment matter a lot more for the distribution of income and that impersonal market forces matter less.” Krugman blames Bush’s policies and has singled out his attempt to eliminate estate taxes for the high income inequality at this time.

Krugman looks, too, at the take over of the Republican Party by what he calls Movement Conservative. In his view, “…the Republican Party chose to cater to the interests of… (a) rising elite, perhaps because what the elite lacked in numbers, it made up for in the ability and willingness to make large campaign contributions.” The Conscience of a Liberal was published in 2007, and Krugman was somewhat prophetic, and what he has to say makes interesting reading;: “Movement Conservatism still has money on its side, but that has never been enough in itself. ..it looks like a reasonable guess that by 2009 America will have a Democratic president and a solidly Democratic Congress. Moreover, this new majority, if it emerges, will be much more ideologically cohesive than the Democratic majority of Bill Clinton’s first two years…”

As it has turned out Movement Conservatism did not have money on its side. Obama tricked McCain into agreeing to accept public funding while he was able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, a large percentage of it coming from small donations, a strategy that began last election with Howard Deane but was developed and taken to tremendous heights by Barrack Obama, capitalising on the new technology which his campaign used creatively. Krugman has touched on an issue which is hotly debated today as analysts and party strategists try to decide what should be Obama’s priorities and what should be the focus of his first hundred days. Krugman writes, “The question is, what should the new majority do? My answer is that it should, for the nation’s sake, pursue an unabashedly liberal program of expanding the social safety net and reducing inequality – a new New Deal. The starting point for that program, the twenty-first century equivalent of Social Security, should be universal health care, something every other advanced country already has.” Interestingly putting universal health care high on the agenda is being called for by quite a number of persons. Krugman made this call obviously before the economic crisis hit home, since his book was published in 2007. To what extent will the economic crisis which is still on the loose force the new president to back away from what he really wants to do? But even without this, we have heard many on the Republican side talk about the huge cost of universal health care. It has always astounded me that a country that spends billion of dollars on an unpopular war could dare to argue that universal health care is too expensive.

Obama needs to do what is necessary to sustain the interests and involvement of the millions of young people, blacks, Hispanics, the middle class and all others who supported his call for change. It is difficult because he has to deal with diverse interests but there are obviously issues that run across these different interests. Some people who had never voted before, particularly blacks and young people turned out to vote for Barrack Obama. He cannot disappoint these people. They do not expect him to do everything immediately, even in his first term, but certainly they would be looking for signals that determine where he wants to go and how they fit into his agenda. Obama has a tall agenda but he has to be what Bush has not been. The Upper class and monied interests will not easily surrender even though some of them are reeling under the forces of the economic crisis.

A successful presidency boosted by a progressive agenda will not only see Obama’s re-election but will help to sustain the interests of those millions of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of small people who contributed financially to his campaign and without whom his victory would not have been possible.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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