Saturday, January 7, 2012

Reelecting Obama: The Right Thing to Do

America, it's 2012 now.  Apocalyptic nonsense aside, it's time we talked about something important.  There's a presidential election this year, and we as a people have a distressing tendency to act ridiculous whenever we get around to electing people.  We don't think straight.  We respond to outrageous fabrications as though they were truth.  We treat the truth as though it were merely a speculative hypothesis.  We watch a lot of cable news.  None of those things are healthy for our democracy.

This year, barring negative developments I choose not to speculate upon, I will be voting to reelect Barack Obama.  This should come as no surprise, since I am a liberal who believes in liberal things like equality and social justice.  It is a decision, however, that requires some explanation, given the times in which we live.  I have a rather long and thorough explanation which I would like to offer here, in the hopes that others will read it, and possibly come around to my way of seeing things.

The Problems with Obama

I'll start with the two biggest points against him. The obvious one is the state of the economy, which is pretty sad.  I've heard rumblings about recovery and it's also true that we are technically no longer in the recession that began in 2008, at the end of the Bush administration.  However, right now the economy still sucks, with an official unemployment rate of 8.5%, and it's not transparently obvious that it will get much better before November.  The Obama administration has plans and policies designed to improve the economy and generate new jobs for Americans, but in the face of Republican opposition, few of them have been enacted in robust ways.

Republicans, of course, don't believe those policies would work anyway.  Mainstream economists generally accept the Keynesian idea that government spending can stimulate the economy in a recession, though given the nature of economic theory it's not too difficult to find an economist who will endorse any theory you can imagine.  But even granting that his policies would work if fully realized, Obama's failure to fully realize them is a severe mark against the effectiveness of his Presidency.  Yes, yes, the Republicans are being obstructive, but one can't help thinking that more could have been done.

As things are now, the economy is in fact recovering.  It isn't the strong recovery we hoped for or were promised, but it is recovering; in light of all the obstruction from Congress, that's something to be very optimistic about.  Obama's famed stimulus package may not have been enough to prevent recession or high unemployment at the time, but the numbers show that, contrary to portrayals of him as a "job killer," 2011 has seen a considerable drop in unemployment.

The second big point is, in my opinion, much more serious.  In fact, of all Obama's negative attributes, it comes closest to being a deal breaker.  It concerns that broad circle of domestic and foreign policy generally known as "The War on Terror."  Frankly, Obama's conduction of it has been difficult to distinguish from that of George W. Bush.  It is true that troops are coming home from Iraq, and that they are scheduled to do the same from Afghanistan, but our military involvement with those countries is not likely to end completely in the foreseeable future.  In the meantime, we've become meddlers in more countries than I can name, and we're closer than ever to a new war in Iran.  Guantánamo Bay, as I understand things, was supposed to be closed by January of 2010.  It remains open, with all of its "enhanced interrogation techniques" and its lack of any meaningful judicial oversight.

Having come of age in the midst of the era of Bush, being duly horrified by his authorization of torture, warrant-less surveillance, and other crimes against individual rights and the good name of America, I am gravely disappointed that Obama has changed virtually nothing of that system.  Were I any less disciplined, I'd be tempted to withhold my vote on these grounds.  However, there is another uncomfortable, sobering truth that transcends the question of one candidate or another.  Although many people would like to see this system end, there is a complete lack of will among the political class to do it.  If a self-professed liberal won't end it, then I'm at my wit's end.

Credit where credit is due: the Iraq war is essentially over, and Osama bin Laden was killed in a well-planned and well-executed operation.  In addition, several cuts in the military budget are now being planned that will end our capacity to fight two simultaneous ground wars for any extended length of time, restraining us from the kind of overzealous foreign policy pursued by the Bushes.  But the expansion of the power to detain citizens, in defiance of the Bill of Rights, is still a massive problem.  Many forces in Congress, the military, and the private sector have pushed for this expansion, but the President has the choice to accept or reject it.  Thus far, he has not rejected that power.

There are other reasons one might choose not to vote for Obama.  However, it's worth remembering a few things for sanity's sake.  Obama was not born in Kenya, or Indonesia, or the moon, or the USSR; he was born in Hawai'i, which is a U.S. state on an equal constitutional basis with states like Iowa or Pennsylvania, or even Texas.  Obama is not a socialist; it's my understanding that many of America's real socialists have their doubts as to whether he's even a liberal.  Obama is not a crypto-Muslim or any other sort of subversive or sleeper-agent, planted to undermine our cherished values and deliver us into the hands of our enemies.  That's only a ridiculous paranoid fantasy, and if it were true he certainly would have done something really nefarious by now.  If you plan to vote against Obama, and your rationale for doing so includes any of the allegations in this paragraph, I suggest you go back and check your work.

The Case For the Reelection of Obama

Now, I'd like to get into some real, positive reasons to vote for Obama.  In three years, his administration has in fact achieved several laudable, progressive achievements.  These will only seem like achievements if you are sympathetic to their goals; many anti-government conservatives these days see any type of government action as tyranny, and there's just no convincing those people.  For the rest of us, it's worth remembering what Obama has done, and what Republicans have threatened to roll back if they regain the presidency.

First of all, Obama and the 111th Congress (that's the one that served from 2009-2011 and was controlled by Democrats) passed the Affordable Care Act, which made several improvements to the health care system in the United States.  Its provisions increase access to insurance for over thirty million people, and disallows some of the insurance industry's most loathsome practices, like denying coverage for preexisting conditions.  It also reduces the deficit, contrary to bold-faced attempts by Republicans to depict it as a budget buster.  It isn't the Canadian-style single payer system progressives have dreamed of, but it will improve many people's lives, and an improvement is better than stagnation.  The Republicans contributed nothing to the health care reform, except to take ideas they had once espoused (the so-called individual mandate chief among them) and brand them as communist plots.  Healthcare reform is in serious trouble if Republicans take back the White House.

Obama and the 111th also created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as part of an attempt at financial reform.  The recession and the financial crisis were caused by failures in the private sector: Wall Street entities, emboldened to seek maximum profits in environments with few to no effective rules or regulations, embarked on elaborate schemes that collapsed when all of the bubbles burst. They invested billions in risky schemes, confident that they would be bailed out if things went sour.  They were, at a tremendous cost to taxpayers; now they wish to resume those same risky behaviors.

The CFPB was created to regulate banks, securities firms, and other institutions which generate profit by handling other people's money.  It exists to ensure that they handle it wisely and without unnecessary risks, and that they do not engage in punitive or fraudulent practices against their customers.  Republicans, for their part, have attempted to stall the bureau and prevent a director from taking office.  With a director finally in place (thanks to a convenient recess appointment), the CFPB now has a chance to put the brakes on some of Wall Street's worst habits.  Republicans, however, continue to maintain that financial institutions are the "job creators" and saviors of our economy, and are determined to undo these reforms.

In the field of civil rights, Obama's administration has done many good things.  The first bill Obama signed as President, in fact, was a civil rights law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which made it easier for women to sue when paid discriminatory wages.  Most notably, Obama oversaw the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, a policy which had preserved the principle of discrimination against homosexuals in our military.  His Justice Department has also dropped the legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act, a law which prohibits federal recognition of homosexual marriages in any state.  Republicans have opposed all of these measures, particularly those related to gay rights.  They instead continue to feed on the resentment of conservatives, who see every step toward equality as an imposition of "special rights."  As Secretary of state Hilary Clinton recently made clear, the idea of "special rights" is totally bunk: this is an issue of human rights.

One issue on which Obama is frequently misrepresented is taxation.  There is a stereotype that Republicans apply to Democrats automatically and without exception, that they always raise taxes.  This lie is so pervasive that many otherwise rational people actually believe Obama has raised taxes on them.  As a matter of fact, Obama cut taxes for middle class families, though the effort was eventually undone by the Republicans in Congress. His only effort to raise income taxes has been aimed at the wealthiest members of our society, who benefited from a massive tax cut under George W. Bush.  The effect of the Bush cut, which conservatives at the time argued would increase revenue (somehow), was to become the single largest component of the present budget deficit.  Obama has called for the cuts on only the wealthiest earners to expire, preserving the cuts for average earners.  Republicans call this "class warfare."

Obama has been criticized for not being liberal or progressive enough, or not pursuing his goals with enough energy and leadership.  Some liberals have expressed a lack of enthusiasm or desire to see him reelected.  This is ludicrous thinking.  Someone who truly believes in equality and reform should not vote for a candidate who has vowed to preserve inequality and roll back reform, and neither should they allow such a candidate to come to power by withholding their vote in protest.  Obama might fairly be said to have not done enough, but he has pursued liberal policy on these and many other issues, and it is conceivable that liberal activism could spur greater achievements in a second term.  Under a Republican administration, those reforms would certainly be smothered.

The Republicans

With the economy struggling and Obama's approval numbers unsteady, there is a considerable chance that one of the Republicans running this year will be our new President in January of 2013.  I'd rather not get hyperbolic in forecasting doom, but a Republican victory would be a very negative development for this country.

The biggest problem we face as a nation is money.  Specifically, those with money are the ones who control this nation.  They can make unlimited contributions to political campaigns, and the politicians they help to elect can enact laws that tilt the table even further in their favor.  Thanks in part to Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United, corporations enjoy ridiculous privileges as legal "persons" that prevent firm attempts at regulation.  They subvert our democratic system with loud voices and large pockets.

Both parties are, to a disgusting extent, in thrall to this system.  Even Obama has been unduly influenced by men in suits who made their fortunes on Wall Street.  It's likely that the tension between democracy and corporate interests is a perennial problem that will never fully be resolved.  That is not, however, an argument to accept the primacy of corporate interests simply because of the power they hold.  We should resist corporations, rather than coddling them: if they're too big to fail, they're more than big enough to take care of themselves.

In all likelihood, Mitt Romney will be the nominee for the Republicans this year.  Aside from being governor of Massachusetts, he has been a businessman and a CEO, and today he is backed by staggering amounts of corporate cash.  He has argued that America's problems stem from not being friendly enough toward the interests of large-scale businessmen, even though America has been quite friendly to them indeed.  A vote for him is an endorsement of that state of affairs.

A vote for Obama, on the other hand, represents the hope of further reforms and an opportunity for continuing struggle against moneyed interests.  Obama isn't perfect; nobody is.  But that opportunity will not exist with Mitt Romney, or just about any other Republican, in the White House.


  1. I don't particularly enjoy talking about politics in real life, much less on the internet. But I'd like to hear your opinion on the NDAA Indefinite Detention Clause. From what I've heard, read, and understand of it, Obama only signed it into law because to veto it at that point would have been political suicide. This is because the NDAA itself is tied to the Department of Defense and essentially has to be passed every time it comes up or whoever objects to it will be labeled as a terrorist supporter.

    Obama demanded the bill be changed twice in 2011, threatening to veto if something wasn't done about this clause. Both times it was revised, and the clause he objected to specifically remained intact. This is because Republican opposition in the House and Senate cares about literally nothing more than getting Obama out of office, and they saw a sure-fire way of turning the public against him if they could force him to sign a bill which came into conflict with so many basic rights.

    Faced with either adding fuel to the "Obama supports terrorism" fire or potentially getting called out on passing something that opposes the Bill of Rights, he opted to sign it into law quietly on New Year's Eve, when everyone (including the media) was distracted. At this point, he's just hoping to keep it quiet until after the election. Or at least, that's how I've come to understand it. I'd like to know your perspective.

    Disclaimers: I do not identify as either Republican or Democrat. I have only begun to take a serious interest in US politics in the last several months. This will be the first year of my life when I will be of legal voting age during a presidential election.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Levi. 2008 was my first voting-age election, and I remain very proud of the vote I cast.

    You're pretty much right on about the circumstances behind the signing of that bill, offending clause included. Obama did call for the removal of that clause before he signed it, and later issued a statement promising not to use the power it granted him. That's all well and good, except for the fact that we now have a very bad law to contend with.

    Developments like this, frankly, make me want to bash my head against something hard in the hopes that, when I revive, I will be blissfully unaware of them. The text of the Indefinite Detention Clause is laughably unconstitutional. The only possible argument in its favor is that the threat of terrorism justifies everything, which is an unacceptable argument because it literally justifies EVERYTHING, thus rendering the Constitution itself moot. I've written here about changes I'd like to see made to the Constitution, but the document we have now is the highest law of the land and it is our respect for that law that allows us to derive any benefit from it at all.

    So I hate the clause, along with the Patriot Act and everything else that makes a mockery of law and human rights. And I'm angry that the signature that made the latest clause into law belongs to the President I voted for.

    Of course the proper object of rage here is Congress, with its serial bad habit of embedding controversial bills as amendments to bills that "have to" be passed, essentially blackmailing themselves as well as the President into making bad policy. The honorable thing for Congress to do would be to introduce repeal legislation at the earliest opportunity. If Obama is serious about not using this new power, then the courts will have no cases to hear and invalidate it; consequently, it will sit on the statute books forever until a less scrupulous President decides to use it. That is both a dangerous and disgraceful situation, and Congress needs to fix it. Congress won't, of course; they'll wait as long as it takes for the courts to clean up their mess.

    So I understand why Obama signed the bill. He wants to be reelected, much more than I want to reelect him. He's part of a system that works this way, and he can do very little to change how Congress works. But if Presidents, by the nature of the system they operate in, cannot stop these laws from being passed, then who can? If Obama had vetoed the bill, he could have suffered a backlash the likes of which could have torn his campaign to shreds. Or, he may not have; perhaps he could communicate his case effectively, and the people would be with him. I don't know. But if he'd vetoed it, I know that I and others like me would be praising him for his courage.

  3. I did not know Obama promised not to use it. That's fairly reassuring, I suppose, and gives me a better opinion of him. It's not a vote-deciding factor though, because he really should have vetoed anyway and put any time and energy (and money) he's putting towards keeping it from blowing up into a scandal towards explaining his decision in the context of the situation instead. The thought of any future president deciding to take advantage of it is not a nice one, though I imagine it would probably kill any chances that president had of getting reelected if he or she used it unscrupulously.

    Personally, I'm not sure it's congress which is necessarily to blame. The people currently in congress, maybe. But as radical a viewpoint as this may be, I tend to point the blame at the two-party divide. If, near the start of our country, there had been some way of regulating the number of parties and preventing any one or minority number from dominating the races to the point that most of the population believes they're the only real options, we might be in a better place today. I believe the only way to waste a vote is not to cast it at all, but right now a vote for an independent candidate is considered a vote wasted because the chances they'll win are infinitesimal. That needs to change.

    I could go on and add a tangent about how Instant Runoff Voting would fix a lot of problems by making people consider several candidates and think seriously about how they compare, but I won't. Despite the 242 words I wrote in those two paragraphs, I was serious about disliking political debates, especially on the internet. Thanks for taking the time to reply though.