The Case for Obama and Against Liberal Despair

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.


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?

The same counterarguments apply to the second argument. It is difficult to see how Romney's announced policies would be less deleterious to the country than Obama's over any given span of time. Romney's 20-percent income tax rate cut, plus other tax cuts, would add about $6 trillion to the deficit over the next ten years. His plan to increase military spending would add another $2 trillion. As a former analyst of the federal budget, I know that his claim that he could not only make these policies revenue neutral, but actually reduce the deficit, is simply eyewash intended to bamboozle low-information voters. We have 30 years of empirical evidence that tax cuts -- especially those directed at the wealthy -- neither pay for themselves nor correlate with economic growth. More likely, his scheme is a continuation of the "starve the beast" philosophy: Provoke a deficit "crisis" that can only be solved by cutting programs the GOP doesn't like -- to include Social Security and Medicare. Currently, income inequality and the ratio of CEO pay to employee pay are national scandals -- does anyone think they would improve under a Romney presidency?

If we are to give the third argument credence, we should stock up on canned food and ammunition. "The worse the better" is a Leninist argument suitable for those wishing to overthrow a harsh authoritarian system -- and replace it with a similar one, but with themselves in charge, just as Lenin sought to replace Tsarist autocracy with Leninist totalitarianism. Very likely, though, disaffected Americans who claim to hope for a heightening of contradictions don't think with such ruthless consequentiality. No doubt most who say it do so because they think it sounds clever and mildly shocking. But attempts at self-government, imperfect and riddled with failure as history has shown them to be, demand serious adult thinking. The "lesser of two evils" political options that these people incessantly complain about are an existential fact of politics, just as many of our most important personal decisions in life boil down to choosing the lesser evil. We might as well wonder why man was born to suffer and die.

The most compelling argument to support Obama has nothing directly to do with him or his performance in office, but goes to the heart of what self-government is supposed to mean. Since Obama's inauguration, Republicans have engaged in an unprecedented -- in my lifetime, anyway -- campaign of obstruction, feral negativity, and brinksmanship. On one occasion, they brought the country to the edge of default and a resultant credit downgrade. "The worse the better" has become, in fact, a Republican political strategy whenever they are out of power. To reward a party for such obstructionism would be like rewarding the Southern fire eaters of antebellum congresses for their efforts at shutting down the debate over slavery with the gag rule.

In his "closing argument" speech on November 2, in West Allis, Wisconsin, candidate Romney all but threatened the country with a government shutdown and national default should Obama be re-elected, saying that only that he, Romney, could work with the congressional Republicans who pushed the country to the brink in the summer of 2011.

I have written elsewhere how the reactionary right and its rich contributors had mentally seceded from the Third French Republic and doomed it to defeat, occupation, and a sordid regime at Vichy. The parallels with some of our own seceding plutocracy are uncomfortable. But it was the case that many French citizens of the left and center also became disaffected from the republic. If the regime is corrupt and the process is rigged, why bother participating? Many American progressives are similarly infected with a kind of facile despair to the point where they confuse half a loaf with no bread. But citizenship demands that you get your hands dirty and consent to compromises that are sometimes repellent. In 28 years on Capitol Hill, I did not see a foreign policy carried out by presidents of either party that did not have elements that were morally repugnant, fraudulent, hypocritical, or all three. Citizens must get their hands dirty nevertheless. The alternative is to cease to be a citizen and let others do the work. I am certain they would be happy to oblige.