The Economy Shouldn't Decide Election 2012

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Presidents have more power over foreign policy and civil liberties matters than the economy. To ignore that is morally bankrupt.
 

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Shortly after President Obama's inauguration, he sat down with Anderson Cooper for a CNN interview, and told him, "Look, the only measure of my success as president, when people look back five years from now or nine years from now, is going to be, did I get this economy fixed?" Among political scientists, the near consensus is that the economy determines, more than anything else, whether a president is re-elected. And the unemployment rate, the debt-ceiling fight, and the decision of S&P to downgrade America's credit rating have kept economics in the headlines.

But I am not going to vote in 2012 based on the unemployment rate, or GDP numbers, or the credit rating. Nor should you. It isn't just that blame for the bad economy is properly spread among many actors, including Obama, President Bush, various Congresses, the mortgage industry, and voters. Or that presidents, no matter what policies they implement, just don't have that much control over economic health. As relevant as those factors may be, I am going to ignore the economy when I vote for a different reason: the president largely determines policy on foreign affairs, national security, and civil liberties -- and all are even more important than GDP and the unemployment rate.

Weren't the Bush Administration's most consequential actions the insufficient attention it gave terrorism prior to 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the passage of the PATRIOT Act? Circa 2008, it sure seemed like a lot of Democrats agreed with that assessment. So did many Republicans, who mostly kept quiet about Bush's profligate spending, McCain/Feingold and No Child Left Behind because they prioritized the War on Terror and supported the overall approach that Team Cheney took.

When President Obama said, during the 2008 campaign, that he'd end the War in Iraq, close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, subject the executive branch to the checks and balances designed by the founders, avoid imprudent wars of choice, give process its due in decision-making, and adhere to the constitution in the course of protecting Americans from terrorist attacks, he won my support, despite the fact that I disagree with his approach to domestic policy.

His betrayal on war, counterterrorism and civil liberties don't seem to bother Democrats nearly so much as his inability to negotiate a better debt-ceiling deal or his willingness to cut Medicare. But their partisan approach to those issues is wrongheaded. So is the common notion that if the economy gets better, he deserves to be reelected.

It matters that Obama went to war in Libya without Congressional authorization, that he has targeted whistleblowers with more vigor than the Bush Administration, that he has killed scores of innocents with drone strikes that arguably create more terrorists than they kill, that he is negotiating to keep American troops in Iraq beyond the withdrawal deadline he set, that he has put an American citizen on an assassination list without even a pretense of due process, that he has continued to wage a ruinous War on Drugs, that he has presided over TSA's deeply intrusive brand of security theater, that he continues to invoke national security in lawsuits any time someone challenges even the most egregious abuses of civil liberties, that he oversees a CIA that undertook an unethical campaign of fake vaccinations, that his Justice Department continues to spy on American citizens sans warrants...

There's more, but isn't that enough?

President Obama doesn't deserve to be re-elected. The only reason I'm not committing, right now, to vote for his Republican opponent is the fact that the GOP is as likely as not to nominate someone even worse. Will the GOP nominee favor bringing back torture? Appointing John Yoo or Andy McCarthy or Lynne Cheney to a prominent post? Building permanent bases in Iraq? Immediately bombing Iran? Provoking Russia by trying to extend NATO to its borders? Tripling Guantanamo? An executive branch that acts with even less regard for the balance of powers? Transgressions against the civil liberties of Muslim Americans, or anyone suspected of terrorism?

As the Republican primaries proceed, it is unclear whether the eventual nominee will prove to be better or worse than Obama on these issues. I am hoping to punish the president for his broken promises by voting for an opponent whose positions are superior. George H.W. Bush would do, if only he were running, but his foreign policy moderation in today's GOP would likely get him declared an apologist for radical Islam. (Have you ever heard him reject sharia law?) Perhaps I'll back neither the Democratic nor the Republican candidate as a protest. Only if the GOP chooses a nominee who scares me enough -- Gingrich, Palin and Bachmann come to mind -- will I vote Obama.

Where and under what circumstances we wage war, the degree to which the executive branch is checked as the founders intended, the effectiveness and morality of our counterterrorism policy, the civil liberties we enjoy and the pace at which they erode -- these things matter more than the unemployment rate. The failure to recognize that keeps the GOP captive to an Inside the Beltway defense establishment who favor an American empire, but won't call it that, knowing the GOP rank-and-file disagree. The Democratic Party is meanwhile supporting, as their standard bearer, a president who has normalized much of what the left decried when Dick Cheney was doing it. We're all hurt as a result. And we're complicit in domestic and international outrages being committed in our names. To ignore all that -- to make Election 2012 solely about 401(k)s or even jobs -- is both an understandable temptation and morally bankrupt.


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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