Why I’m Voting For Barack Obama
This article could just as easily be titled “Why I am a Democrat.” While President Obama’s personal story is remarkable and inspiring, and he possesses many of the non-partisan traits we should want in a president—dignity, calm under pressure, good humor, humanity—substantively, Obama has never been much more than a generic Democrat, for all the good and bad that that entails.
From the start of his first presidential campaign, I haven’t been terribly enamored of Barack Obama, certainly not in comparison to other progressives of my generation. During the 2008 Democratic Primary, I supported . . . one of the other candidates. For all of Senator Obama’s soaring rhetoric, there was very little he was offering in terms of policy that was different from a generic Democratic presidential candidate. While Edwards challenged Americans to rethink the relationship between society and its least fortunate, and between corporations and the state, Senator Obama’s campaign was based much more on affirming than challenging. While we have since been given plenty of reason to doubt the sincerity of Edwards’s commitment to his own platform, the platform itself remains powerful and, to my mind, far preferable to the ill-defined hope and change theme of the Obama campaign.
So, my disappointment with President Obama is not that he has failed to meet my expectations, but rather that he has met them perfectly. He is a skilled politician and an often inspiring figure, but in his platform and priorities he is an ordinary Democrat with a weakness for valuing symbolic gestures of unity and the appearance of magnanimity over policy outcomes. From early on in his presidency he displayed a troubling tendency to begin negotiations with a concession in hopes of being rewarded for his good faith and willingness to compromise. Instead, the Republican leadership, committed from Day One to defeating President Obama at all costs, kept gleefully moving the ball further to the right.
[pullquote_right]Obama has been affirmatively awful in his expansion of Bush-era War on Terror policies.[/pullquote_right]
While the degree of Republican obstructionism may have been difficult to foresee, it was never likely that Mitch McConnell and John Boehner were going to get on the hope and change bandwagon. Whether President Obama viewed his bipartisan posture as an effective policy strategy—that is, that Republicans would actually compromise—or as an effective political strategy—that voters would punish Republicans for refusing to compromise—that strategy has not worked. The two most significant domestic policy accomplishments of President Obama’s first term—the stimulus and health care reform—were won at great political expense with almost no Republican support. Even though the former kept us out of a depression and the latter will, if fully implemented, provide affordable, quality health insurance to millions, they remain politically losing issues for the president. Counterfactuals are impossible to prove, but there’s reason to believe the president would be in a stronger political position had he moved quickly the leverage large Democratic majorities rather than negotiating against himself in hopes of getting Republicans on board. Progressives like Paul Krugman were arguing at the time of the stimulus that it needed to be larger, and perhaps if it had been unemployment would be much lower and the president would be in little danger of losing re-election. And while it’s unclear whether health care reform could have been made a better policy, the president might have benefited politically by avoiding the long, nasty fight that was drawn out in part by believing that Republicans like Charles Grassley were negotiating in good faith and by reluctance to use parliamentary tools like reconciliation.
Even worse than the issues where President Obama has been feckless or misguided strategically are those issues on which he has been affirmatively awful, most notably his continuation and expansion of Bush-era War on Terror policies. Of the several anti-Obama arguments being made from the left, the one I find hardest to argue against is that made by Conor Friedersdorf. Friedersdorf argues that, just as many progressives would consider a candidate who made explicitly racist or homophobic statements, or was pro-life, to be disqualified from the presidency, a president who orders the needless killing of children should also be disqualified no matter what his other strengths and no matter how odious his opponent. There is both a principled and pragmatic component to Friedersdorf’s argument. The principled part is that he will not vote for a candidate with President Obama’s anti-terror and civil liberties practices, period. While this is not my position—while not happy about it, I’m comfortable voting for the candidate who would kill people with drones while expanding access to health care over the candidate who would kill people with drones while restricting access to health care—it’s a choice that I respect and can’t really argue against.
[pullquote_left]Progressive arguments against Obama overstate his weaknesses and downplay his strengths.[/pullquote_left]
The pragmatic component to Friedersdorf’s argument is that if there is no political price to pay for drone strikes and kill lists, those kinds of practices will remain in place regardless of which party is in power. This argument can be applied to many issues on which there is far too much agreement between the parties: corporate dominance over politics, the war on drugs, the prison industrial complex. This progressive argument against President Obama—and against the Democratic Party in general—is built on a premise that I agree with: the major reforms that are necessary to make the United States a more just and peaceful nation can only occur if either the hegemony of the two parties comes to an end or the Democratic Party becomes significantly more progressive. What makes this such a difficult choice, however, is a second premise that’s equally true: if progressives were to steer resources—money, time, energy, votes—away from the Democratic Party and into a more radical movement, there would be tremendous negative consequences in the short-term with no guarantee of success in the long-term. Millions of people would lose access to health care, the safety net would come under serious attack, worker and environmental protections would be jeopardized, higher education would be less accessible, right-wing ideologues would get life-time appointments to all levels of the federal courts, women’s rights would be rolled back, the march towards LGBT rights would be halted and likely reversed. I don’t fault those on the left who see the current system as so corrupt that it must be rejected entirely, so long as that decision is made with proper acknowledgment of the trade-offs involved.
This is a hell of an endorsement so far, huh? But, personally, I see President Obama as much more than the lesser of two evils, and my problem with many of the progressive arguments against him is that they attempt to shortcut a very difficult argument by acting as though the short-term consequences of defeating President Obama do not exist, overstating his weaknesses and downplaying or flat-out ignoring his strengths. Matt Stoller’s “The Progressive Case Against Barack Obama” provides an assessment of the Obama presidency with almost no discussion of health care reform, the stimulus, student loan reform, or the auto rescue—nor the American Jobs Act, which President Obama has pressed for but Republicans have blocked. All of these policies, as well as the president’s history as a community organizer, his writings, and his track record as a legislator, reflect a belief in community, a belief that we the people are at our best when acting together with common purpose and that government has a powerful role to play—that government is, as Barney Frank has said, “simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” These policies are not—as President Obama’s critics on the right have charged—the first steps on the path to socialism. Instead, they are a continuation of the principles the Democratic Party has been fighting for since FDR—nothing more, and nothing less. President Obama may not be as aggressive as I would like in using government to shape a more equitable country, and he may see more of a role for elites than I do in shaping and governing our community, but the “we’re in this together vs. you’re on your own” framing of the Democratic Convention is more than political rhetoric—it’s borne out in policy.
And while President Obama and the Democratic Party have continued seeking to build community, the opposing party has increased its efforts to destroy community. The Republican Party chose “We built it!” as the theme of the opening night of its convention, a theme derived from a misrepresentation of President Obama’s defense of the government’s role in facilitating private enterprise. The result, as Charles P. Pierce wrote, was:
[quote]an entire evening based on a demonstrable lie because it was an entire evening based on rejecting—publicly and dishonestly, and without caring that the facts of your own biographies give the lie to the words you’re saying—the idea of a general political commonwealth as expressed through the national government, which has been the great engine behind the expansion of the country’s size, the country’s wealth, and, yes, the country’s freedom.[/quote]
Two strands of the Republican efforts at destroying community are worth highlighting: the restricted definition of who counts as “American” and the continued assault on objective truth. Underlying much of the anti-Obama rhetoric of the past four years has been a certain assumption about who really counts as American—to be truly American is to be white, rural, heterosexual, Christian, and part of a nuclear family; the further you get from that ideal, the more you just happen to be living here. Certainly, this notion predates the Obama presidency. It permeates talk about “the heartland.” When Republican Senator George Allen infamously welcomed “Macaca” to “the real world of Virginia,” he wasn’t simply mocking one individual with brown skin; he was deriding all of urban, multicultural, liberal Northern Virginia as being less “real” than rural, white, Christian Virginia. But this kind of rhetoric has had a newfound prominence in the Obama era. The rallying cry of the Tea Party through the fight against health care reform and the 2010 midterms was to “take OUR country back.” Whose country? From whom? And to where?
The idyllic America seemingly envisioned by the Tea Partiers—a perfect land of liberty and justice, just as imagined by the Founders—never existed. The story of America is one of a constant struggle to get our flawed reality to match the noblest aspects of the Founders’ vision. As that struggle has progressed, the “real Americans” have had to accommodate as the interlopers won the right to freedom, to hold property, to vote, to protection from segregation and discrimination, to entry to the most prestigious schools and professions. The presidency, however, may have been one indignity too many. And so, from the moment Barack Obama’s presidency seemed possible, he has faced attacks on his Americanness. These attacks have come in the form of charges that he is literally not American, that he does not sufficiently display his Americanness, that he does not sufficiently extoll the virtues of America, and/or that his policies are un-American. Too much energy is spent debating whether these attacks on the president, and on liberalism in general, are “racist,” allowing the president’s attackers to claim the mantle of victimhood. Whatever label does or does not attach, these attacks are corrosive, and must be defeated.
[pullquote_right] The conservative movement has replaced objective truth with partisan disagreement.[/pullquote_right]
At the same time, the conservative movement has gone to another level in engaging in “post-truth politics,” replacing objective truth with nothing more than partisan disagreement. In order to portray President Obama as a radical force who must be resisted at all costs, it has been necessary to portray his ideas as radical. This requires constructing a new reality, one where a health care law built on conservative proposals is the gateway to socialist tyranny and global warming—which once inspired bipartisan cooperation—is nothing more than a liberal hoax. Even tax cuts aren’t safe as being sound policy when supported by President Obama!
The media has been ill equipped to hold its ground against the shamelessness of the conservative movement. Fearful of being charged with bias, the media has given credence to the new reality constructed by conservatives, since saying, “No, that’s not true!” would show too much favoritism to the left. As the Republican Party has acted in increasingly bad faith in obstructing, distorting, and totally refusing to engage with the Obama agenda, the media has bemoaned the dysfunction “in Washington” and held both sides equally blameworthy for the state of affairs. Two swing-state newspapers that endorsed President Obama in 2008—the Des Moines Register and the Orlando Sentinel—recently announced their endorsements of Romney, based largely on President Obama’s failure to reach bipartisan accord with Republicans but lightly dismissing that this failure is almost entirely the fault of the Republican leadership. Even those in the media whose express job it is to cut through the spin to find the truth have been cowed by the conservative war on objectivity: as Paul Waldman correctly predicted, Politifact could not stomach the idea of giving its “Lie of the Year” distinction to conservatives three years in a row, and so its 2011 Lie of the Year was the perfectly true charge that Republicans who voted for Paul Ryan’s budget voted to “end Medicare.”
These two strands, portraying “real Americans” as under attack from alien forces and disregarding objective truth, aid conservatives in the debate over government’s role in facilitating community. Fueling resentment and division helps the GOP frame government action as being for them, not you. Blurring the lines of truth helps Republicans fuel skepticism about government action. Will the Affordable Care Act make health care more affordable and accessible, or will it allow some bureaucrat to tell my doctor what kind of treatment she can or cannot provide me? Better not chance it. Is global warming real, and are humans causing it? Well, if we aren’t sure, no reason to spend a lot of money fighting it.
This year, this perfectly cynical party chose (albeit reluctantly) a perfectly cynical standard bearer. The examples of Romney’s disdain for truth and principle are too numerous to recount, but I can’t resist a few examples: his shift from “moderate” to “severely conservative” and back again, his conveniently evolving positions on abortion rights, his apparent belief that “specifics” and “principles” mean the same thing, his disavowal (and occasional re-avowal) of his own health care plan, and, most recently, his absurd claim that he, and not President Obama, favored saving the auto industry. One of the great questions of this campaign is why someone who doesn’t seem to believe in anything would even want to be president. The best answer I can come up with is that Romney simply believes he is of a class of people that should make the important decisions. As I wrote two weeks ago, Romney’s campaign, in stark contrast to Obama’s 2008 campaign, is not premised on any kind of movement or common purpose, but solely on his own competence. It’s not even important that Romney actually explain to voters what he will do as president: we can just trust that, with his good breeding and corporate training, he will make the right decisions. Most importantly, he will keep government out of the way so that others of his class—the job creators!—can make the decisions for the rest of us.
Progressive critics of the president may be correct that continued support of the Democratic Party will make it impossible to obtain meaningful reform in America. They are almost certainly correct that four more years of President Obama will mean a continuation of the injustices of the first four years. But, a second Obama term would move us closer to a more just, equitable society in many important ways, while a Romney administration would move us further away in just about every way imaginable. I remain baffled as to the best strategy for obtaining long-term, progressive reform of the American state. But I am fairly certain that I’m making the right choice this Tuesday.