The Case for Obama and Against Liberal Despair

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There are valid critiques of the president, but what's important now is that a vote for Obama is a vote against extremism -- and for functional government.

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I think the Weimar Republic collapsed ... because there were not enough citizens. That's the lesson I have learned. Citizens cannot leave politics just to politicians.

-- Günter Grass

A number of writers who identify with what passes in America for a left-of-center world view say they will not vote for Barack Obama's reelection or that they would prefer that Mitt Romney become president. There seem to be three principal varieties of this attitude:

  1. Obama is an unprincipled center-right politician who deceived us by campaigning as a progressive. Obama has implemented policies destructive enough to be "deal breakers" for principled voters. This objection focuses mainly on Obama's drone campaign, the surge in Afghanistan, indefinite detention, and his purported willingness to cut Social Security and Medicare.
  2. Obama, by "normalizing" bipartisan acceptance of Republican policies, may in the long-term be worse than Romney.This argument ratchets up the indictment against Obama by asserting not that Obama is insufficiently better than Romney, as the first argument usually implies, but that he may be worse. In this argument, Democrats are the key "enablers" in the process of moving the American political spectrum inexorably rightward.
  3. "The worse the better." I have not yet seen this argument in print, but I have heard some persons of a progressive or leftish tendency express it. They say they would prefer a Romney victory because it would administer a horse doctor's dose of emetic to a deluded electorate. By "heightening the contradictions" inherent in the American political system, a Romney victory would accelerate a crash whose pieces a reinvigorated left-populism would pick up.

The first argument is a morally principled one, and should be treated seriously. I have also criticized Obama's national security policy, relentlessly. But there are three counterarguments that should resonate in a political environment in which Mitt Romney and the policies he espouses are the only viable alternative.

First, progressives are deceiving themselves if they think they have been deceived by Obama. While campaigning for his first term, Obama was careful to proclaim Afghanistan the "good" war, so as to focus on al Qaeda. So we should not delude ourselves that the surge and the drone war were undertaken in violation of a campaign pledge. And candidate Obama's high-profile vote, just before the 2008 Democratic National Convention, to indemnify the telecommunications companies for their participation in illegal surveillance, was a clear marker of what to expect. Admittedly, that does not dispose of the moral arguments about the policies themselves. (I shall discuss that later, although no doubt not to the satisfaction of the pure of heart.)

Second, Obama has avoided a number of potential foreign-policy disasters which a President Romney, advised by the same neoconservative foreign-policy team that misdirected President George W. Bush, has frequently declared himself eager to embark on. Despite my past criticism of Obama's Middle East policy, I believe he acquitted himself reasonably well in the way he has played Roadrunner to Benjamin Netanyahu's Wile E. Coyote. A military attack on Iran would be disastrous to all concerned, including Israel; Obama escaped getting trapped into delivering an ultimatum to Iran he would have to make good on. Romney's sudden Etch A Sketch conversion into a peacenik in the last presidential debate is not convincing, given his previous statements, the mindset of his advisers, the expectations of religious fundamentalists who constitute the greatest part of his political base, and the likely demands of Sheldon Adelson, his largest contributor (who could plausibly state that his $100 million made the difference in a tight election).

Third, Obama's claimed derelictions in domestic policy must be considered within the realm of the possible, meaning Congress. Try persuading Ben Nelson about the glories of single-payer health care, or Mary Landrieu that despoliation of the Louisiana Delta is not worth unlimited oil drilling, or Joe Manchin that leveling mountains to obtain coal is short-sighted. Good luck with that. Likewise with Social Security and Medicare: Obama has been open to revisions to include a gradual rise in age-eligibility or modest changes in the contribution-benefit formula. Is this heresy in view of demographics? He has also been receptive, per the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan, to raising the earnings cap on Social Security taxes (an option one would think progressives might support). Medicare is fiscally unsustainable because the entire American public-private health-care system is unsustainable. Overhaul is in order -- but does any progressive think Paul Ryan's scheme to voucherize Medicare is a solution? Does any progressive believe the privatization of Social Security à la Augusto Pinochet is a better outcome than Obama's minor tweaking of a defined benefit?

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Mike Lofgren was a congressional staff member for 28 years, 16 of them with the House and Senate budget committees. He is the author of The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.

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