I didn’t even watch the inaugural festivities live on TV, much less attend them in person. But I did catch the president’s speech in re-runs, and like many others I thought it provided a persuasive articulation of his brand of pragmatic progressivism. It’s not a creed I fully share, but in terms of current American political possibilities, it certainly beats the alternatives. Four more years!
I voted today–D.C. started early voting last Monday–and, not surprisingly, I pulled the lever (or rather pushed the touchscreen) for the Obama-Biden ticket.
This wasn’t at all a hard decision. On every issue I care about, the Romney-Ryan G.O.P. is significantly worse than the Democrats. And this includes those areas where Obama has most disappointed–peace, civil liberties, and (to a lesser extent) the environment. Since 2008, the Republican Party has only intensified its commitment to Devil-take-the-hindmost economics, foreign policy belligerence, and particularly atavistic elements of social conservatism.
Obama has, best as I can tell, done pretty well with the hand he’s been dealt, at least with regard to domestic policy. (The president has a much freer hand in foreign affairs, so I judge him more harshly here.) Despite Republican intransigence, he managed to pull the economy out of a death spiral, make historically large investments in clean energy and infrastructure, and establish, at least at the level of principle, a federal commitment to universal health care. I give at least some credence to Left-wing critics of Obama who say he’s been too soft on Wall Street or that he should’ve pushed harder for the public option, but looking at the big picture, he’s got a strong claim to being the most successful liberal president since LBJ.
More importantly, though, the vision that the Democrats still represent, and that I embrace, is that government has a indispensable role to play in establishing the conditions for individuals to flourish. The Dems want to preserve and strengthen the welfare state; the G.O.P. wants to dismantle–privatize, federalize, “voucherize”–it. Democrats think collective action is necessary to fight climate change; most Republicans won’t even admit climate change is happening. Democrats think that some degree of regulation and redistribution is necessary to smooth the rough edges of capitalism and reduce inequality; Republicans decry this modest vision of a mixed economy–a vision more conservative than the one embraced by most center-Right parties in Western Europe–as “socialism.” Heck, there even now seems to be a debate about whether there’s a proper federal role for disaster relief!
Some progressives have argued that Obama is too compromised –too cozy with big business, too promiscuous in his use of deadly military force–to support. And these criticisms have merit. But what I haven’t seen is a plausible account of how an Obama defeat (which ineluctably means a Romney victory) would strengthen the hand of progressives in building the kind of society they want. (The Bush years, for example, were not exactly a high-water mark for progressivism.)
When it comes right down to it, I’m probably less left-wing than many of Obama’s progressive critics. But I want to move things in the same general direction they do. And the last four years have seen movement in that direction, even if not as consistently or as quickly as we might all like. I think that a Romney victory would probably spell doom for that progress, however incremental and timid you may think it’s been. An Obama victory, on the other hand, is a chance to consolidate and build on it. That’s enough to get my vote.
Fortunately for us, we have a pretty clear test case here. Remember back in 2000 when some liberals/progressives said that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush? And liberals had plenty of good reasons to be unhappy with the Clinton-Gore administration, arguably the most conservative Democratic administration since Grover Cleveland. Which is why some of those folks voted for Ralph Nader–helping to hand the election to Bush (with a generous assist from the Supreme Court). And yet, does anyone really think that the world was better off from a progressive point of view after eight years of Bush in the White House? (The institutionalization of the post-9/11 national security state alone is something we’ll be living with the rest of our lives.)
Wills agrees with Unger that Obama’s progressive credentials are less than stellar, but disdains Unger’s political purism:
The mistake behind all this is a misguided high-mindedness that boasts, “I vote for the man, not the party.” This momentarily lifts the hot-air balloon of self-esteem by divorcing the speaker from political taintedness and compromise. But the man being voted for, no matter what he says, dances with the party that brought him, dependent on its support, resources, and clientele. That is why one should always vote on the party, instead of the candidate. The party has some continuity of commitment, no matter how compromised. What you are really voting for is the party’s constituency. That will determine priorities when it comes to appointments, legislative pressure, and things like nominating Supreme Court justices.
To vote for a Democrat means, now, to vote for the party’s influential members—for unions (including public unions of teachers, firemen, and policemen), for black and Latino minorities, for independent women. These will none of them get their way, exactly; but they will get more of a hearing and attention—“pandering,” if you want to call it that—than they would get in a Republican administration.
To vote for a Republican means, now, to vote for a plutocracy that depends for its support on anti-government forces like the tea party, Southern racists, religious fanatics, and war investors in the military-industrial complex. It does no good to say that “Romney is a good man, not a racist.” That may be true, but he needs a racist South as part of his essential support. And the price they will demand of him comes down to things like Supreme Court appointments. (The Republicans have been more realistic than the Democrats in seeing that presidential elections are really for control of the courts.)
The independents, too ignorant or inexperienced to recognize these basic facts, are the people most susceptible to lying flattery. They are called the good folk too inner-directed to follow a party line or run with the herd. They are like the idealistic imperialists “with clean hands” in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American—they should wear leper bells to warn people of their vicinity.
The etherialists who are too good to stoop toward the “lesser evil” of politics—as if there were ever anything better than the lesser evil there—naively assume that if they just bring down the current system, or one part of it that has disappointed them, they can build a new and better thing of beauty out of the ruins. Of course they never get the tabula rasa on which to draw their ideal schemes. What they normally do is damage the party closest to their professed ideals.
I don’t know why some progressives come out at election time to bash the more liberal of the two candidates, when the more sensible course of action would be to try to move the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction between elections. Unger’s monologue consists mainly of a wish-list of lefty reforms with barely a nod in the direction of how we’re supposed to bring them about. What is so complicated about the idea of supporting the lesser evil on election day, but also keeping your eye on the long game? Conservatives seem to have become pretty adept at this “walk and chew gum at the same time” approach to politics; they support viable Republican candidates who deviate from conservative orthodoxy all the time, but they’ve also been very successful at building institutional power and gaining influence in the G.O.P. This has been a decades-long effort, but conservatives have essentially established their preferred positions on a host of issues as Republican orthodoxy. Seems like a smarter approach than “destroy the village to save it.”
Luban hones in on some of the thornier issues surrounding the targeted killing program: distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants, the question of proportionality, and whether “the decision-making process is based on a genuinely skeptical, probing structure, with a heavy burden of proof on those proposing a killing and an institutionalized ‘devil’s advocate’ to argue against each and every deadly ‘nomination.’” Despite recent reports in the New York Times and elsewhere, “the process still remains essentially shrouded in fog.”
Assuming that it’s permissible to use force in self-defense, Luban says, “targeted killings” aren’t necessarily immoral per se. “If anything, targeted killing is better than untargeted killing, which the laws of war call ‘indiscriminate’ and a war crime.”
Among this welter of arguments about targeted killing, the genuine issues of principle are whether self-defense requires it and proportionality permits it. The question of where the zone of combat ends and civilian rules begin is important, but it is a question of line-drawing, not of moral principle. If self-defense is a just cause of war, and if killing is necessary for self-defense (a big if), then targeted killing is permissible–provided that it targets only enemy fighters, keeps civilian casualties low, and actually does more good than harm in defending ourselves.
But this last one is a “far from a settled question,” Luban says, because the drone war may be creating more terrorists than it kills due to, for example, the radicalizing of Yemenis angered by the drone attacks. Add to this worries about the “opacity and unaccountability” of the program, and it’s far from clear that it is, on balance, a good idea.
As everyone not living under a rock now knows, in an interview with ABC yesterday, President Obama–who recently had said that his views were “evolving”–announced that he now supports the right of same-sex couples to get married.
Some liberal critics complained that Obama’s announcement does nothing to change the status quo, with marriage still being essentially a state matter. This of course was vividly demonstrated just two days ago by North Carolina’s amendment of its state constituion to exclude recognition of any relationships other than heterosexual marriage, even civil unions.
But others pointed out–such as in this article–that this may be part of a broader strategy on the part of the administration. This strategy includes its ending of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and its decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court. In addition to being good ideas on the merits, these may help set the legal stage down the road for the courts to recognize a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. As Chris Geidner, the author of the article, sums it up, “Obama’s legal, policy and personal views are not in any way contradictory and present a clear path forward toward the advancement of marriage equality across the country.”
Also worth noting is that the president couched his change of mind in explicitly religious terms. Writing at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner highlights this part of Obama’s comments:
when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.
Posner goes on to contend that
Obama didn’t just endorse same-sex marriage today. He abandoned conservative religious rhetoric about it and signaled that religious conservatives, even his close religious advisors, don’t own the conversation on what Christianity has to say about marriage.
Similarly, Ed Kilgore writes today that Obama’s “evolution” actually puts him in closer alignment with his own relgious tradition, the United Church of Christ, which has affirmed same-sex relationships as a denomination since 2005:
Relgious conservatives may scoff at the UCC (or the Episcopalians, or other mainline denominations that are, to use the buzzword, “open and affirming” to gay people). But the UCC is the country’s oldest Christian religious community, and among other things, was spearheading the fight against slavery back when many of the religious conservatives of the early nineteenth century were largely defending it as a divinely and scripturally ordained instituion.
So Obama has pretty strong authority for saying there’s no conflict between his faith and support for same-sex marriage.
Liberals are prone to arguing in bloodless, technocratic terms, so it was nice to see Obama making the case in explicitly moral–even religious–language. I personally think liberals could stand to do this more often.
Of course, no one seriously doubts, I think, that there was at least some degree of political calculation in this announcement. (Do presidents ever say anything that isn’t politically calculated to some degree?) And it remains to be seen if that calculation will pay off in November. But even granting mixed nature of his motives (and Christians of all people should be the first to acknowledge that we never act from completely pure motives), it was the right thing to do. Nice job, Mr. President.
If you follow writers associated with what I’ll broadly call the “disaffected Left,” you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are few if any substantive differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Both, we’re told, are content with the corporate plutocracy, support a hawkish foreign policy and an ever-expanding surveillance state, are open to making cuts to entitlement programs, and generally do not present significantly different choices for the future of American society.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll get into a common litany of betrayals that Obama has perpetrated: the expansion of drone warfare, continuation of Bush-era civil liberties abuses, a timid and incremental approach to health-care reform, and excessive obsequiousness to Wall Street being among the most often cited.
And there’s truth to virtually all of this! Obama hasn’t governed as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal nor has he transcended partisan animosity to usher in a new era of beyond-red-and-blue politics. He’s done stuff that anyone on the “Left,” broadly defined, should oppose. I personally have been most disappointed in his record on civil liberties and foreign affairs, but I also agree with much of the left-wing criticism of his domestic and economic policies.
All that said, however, there remain significant differences between Obama and Romney that will have major effects on people’s lives, depending on who’s elected. Here’s Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” blog to summarize:
Okay, I get it. But even if you think Obama has been a disastrous failure, or has betrayed the progressive coalition that supported him in 2008, the fact remains that if Mitt Romney is elected president and (as will probably happen if he wins) Republicans maintain control of the House and secure control of the Senate, the Ryan budget will almost certainly be enacted and implemented during 2013. If Obama wins, it won’t. If Romney wins, the odds of a constitutional right to abortion surviving the next four years go down to something like single digits; If Obama wins, it’s a very different proposition. If Romney wins, a war with Iran becomes something like a 50-50 proposition; not so much if Obama wins.
Perhaps none of these things matter as much as Obama’s failure to reverse many Bush-era civil liberties policies, his failure to pursue single-payer health reform; his failure to nationalize the banks or pursue criminal penalties against corporate malefactors; his failure to convince the country that Keynes was right after all. But they actually do matter to a lot of people who will be affected by little things like the destruction of the New Deal and Great Society social net, and the potential unravelling of the constitutional structure that has made anything approaching progressive policies possible over the last several decades.
Now Kilgore is a longtime Democratic strategist, but even allowing for some partisan cheerleading, this seems about right to me. Although he wants to tinker with it in a (possibly misguided) attempt to make it more fiscally sustainable, Obama accepts and even defends the basic post-New Deal social compact. The Romney-Ryan G.O.P., however, is a different story. In fact, opposition to the New Deal–and its principle that the government should ensure a basic level of economic security–is arguably the animating impulse of the modern conservative movement.
Similarly with foreign policy. Do I wish Obama was more dovish? Why, yes I do. But there are still important differences between his brand of liberal internationalism and the vision of unilateral hegemony favored by conservatives. And these are literally differences of life and death, possibly for many thousands of people.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that anyone is morally obliged to vote for Obama. But there are real differences between the candidates, even if not as many–or as significant–as we might like.
I haven’t been following the Republican primaries all that closely–partly because it’s too depressing, but also in part because I’ve been convinced virtually from the get-go that Mitt Romney will ultimately be the nominee. Nevertheless, what’s apparent even to the casual observer is that the G.O.P. intends to rerun the playbook they used in the 2008 election by attempting to brand Barack Obama as fundamentally un-American.
Romney thinks Obama wants to turn America into a “European-style welfare state”; Newt Gingrich is convinced (or wants to convince us) that the president is a “Saul Alinsky radical.” Obama, we’re told, intends to preside over the United States’ “decline” into a second-tier power, relinquishing our status as the global hegemon.
If this was unconvincing as an attack on candidate Obama in 2008–and the voters seemed to agree that it was–how much less convincing is it against President Obama in 2012? After all, the Obama Administration’s first term has, if anything, confirmed the hopes (or suspicions) of those of us who always saw Obama as essentially a center-left pragmatist, if an unusually charismatic and eloquent one. From the economics of “austerity-lite” to the killing of Osama bin Laden and the escalation of the war in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Obama has rarely strayed from the centrist playbook, for better or worse (and in my view it’s been a little bit of both).
I guess what I find so dispiriting about this is that it’s virtually impossible to have a good-faith debate about the problems facing the country when one party is attacking what amounts to a fantasy version of the current occupant of the Oval Office. Moreover, when the president is perpetually under the burden to prove that he’s not a “radical” or “socialist,” genuinely liberal or progressive ideas become that much more marginalized. Come to think of it, maybe that’s the point.
There’s been a bit of back and forth recently in the left/progressive blogosphere about whether people who meet that particular description should “support” libertarian Texas Republican congressman Ron Paul’s candidacy for president. Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, and others have expressed varying degrees of support for Paul’s candidacy, noting that his stances on civil liberties and foreign intervention and war-making are arguably to the “left” of President Obama’s.
Others have countered that Paul is a social reactionary who lent his name to (and profited handsomely from) a series of newsletters in the 90s that trafficked in racist and other inflammatory language as part of a “redneck outreach” strategy among self-described “paleo” libertarians and conservatives. Paul is furthermore a libertarian of a peculiar sort: one who would devolve much of the power of the federal government to the states, a move whose likely effect on individual liberty is debatable at best.
I’m neither a libertarian nor do I have much street cred as a “progressive.” But what I wonder is: what’s at stake in these arguments? What sort of “support” do Greenwald, et al. have in mind? Are they proposing that progressives, who one assumes are mostly registered Democrats, re-register en masse to vote in the Republican primary? Or that they should vote for Paul in the general election were he to get the GOP nomination?
What I think needs to be kept in mind here is that Ron Paul is very, very unlikely to win the nomination and why this is the case. It’s because, among other things, his stances on issues where he is appealing to the likes of Sullivan and Greenwald, are precisely where he is most at variance with the modern Republican party and the conservative movement. The Republican Party and the conservative movement, recall, are largely a fusion of economic, social, and national-defense conservatives. And I agree with the longstanding thesis of Jim Henley that, contrary to popular belief, these factions are not really “in tension” with one another to any great degree. These three varieties of conservatives are, if not identical, largely in sympathy with one another. Among conservatives of whatever stripe, free-marketeerism, cultural conservatism, and military hawkishness are seen as mutually reinforcing. Paul’s eccentric blend of isolationism, decentralization, Austrian economics, and social conservatism are out of sync with what remains the overwhelming conservative consensus.
So it remains unclear what sort of support a progressive or liberal is supposed to offer Paul’s candidacy. Is it that they (we?) should commend Paul for promoting certain perspectives (e.g., a critique of American interventionism) that fall largely outside of the bipartisan mainstream? Liberals can certainly do that without voting for him. But beyond this, what else is “supporting” Paul supposed to mean apart from wishing (and working?) for the success of his candidacy? Are liberals supposed to support (e.g., give money to or vote for) a candidate who opposes every facet of the regulatory and welfare state going back to the 19th century on the minuscule chance that he’ll win the presidency and dismantle the American empire? This seems like an odd allocation of resources for liberals to make. A better use of those resources would seem to be to try to move the Democratic Party–which after all already has a large progressive constituency–in a more progressive direction.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum makes a similar argument, focusing more on what he calls Paul’s “crackpot” ideology:
Bottom line: Ron Paul is not merely a “flawed messenger” for these views. He’s an absolutely toxic, far-right, crackpot messenger for these views. This is, granted, not Mussolini-made-the-trains-run-on-time levels of toxic, but still: if you truly support civil liberties at home and non-interventionism abroad, you should run, not walk, as fast as you can to keep your distance from Ron Paul. He’s not the first or only person opposed to pre-emptive wars, after all, and his occasional denouncements of interventionism are hardly making this a hot topic of conversation among the masses. In fact, to the extent that his foreign policy views aren’t simply being ignored, I’d guess that the only thing he’s accomplishing is to make non-interventionism even more of a fringe view in American politics than it already is. Crackpots don’t make good messengers.
Now, if you literally think that Ron Paul’s views on drugs and national security are so important that they outweigh all of this — multiple decades of unmitigated crackpottery, cynical fear-mongering, and attitudes toward social welfare so retrograde they make Rick Perry look progressive — and if you’ve somehow convinced yourself that non-interventionism has no other significant voices except Ron Paul — well, if that’s the case, then maybe you should be happy to count Paul as an ally. But the truth is that you don’t need to. Ron Paul is not a major candidate for president. He’s never even been a significant presence as a congressman. In a couple of months he’ll disappear back into the obscurity he so richly deserves. So why get in bed with him? All you’ll do is wake up in March with a mountain of fleas. Find other allies. Make your arguments without bothering to mention him. And remember: Ron Paul has never once done any of his causes any good. There’s a good reason for that.
Parts of the Internet are abuzz with some dumb comments made by filmmaker and lefty gadfly Michael Moore about Presdient Obama “governing like a white guy.”
The racist nature of these comments aside, what continues to surprise me is how many people apparently thought they were electing a wild-eyed liberal when they voted for Obama. An entire minin-genre of writing has been dedicated to this “Obama betrayed us” lament. It’s surprising because anyone who paid attention to Obama’s speeches, voting record, books, etc. prior to the election would’ve realized that he’s essentially now what he always has been: a moderate, center-left pragmatist.
To be more specific, Obama appears to share the values or goals of many liberals, but he’s also committed to the path of cautious, incremental reform. Health care reform is a good example: despite overheated conservative rhetoric, the Affordable Care Act was actually an attempt to provide relatively modest, technocratic tweaks to the existing health insurance system. It was emphatically not a wholesale overhaul of the system, much less a “government takeover.”
That’s not to say that the President should be above criticism–far from it! But it’s helpful to keep in mind that Obama is governing pretty much as expected–if you actually see him for who he is, not who liberals wish he was.
UPDATE: It’s probably bad blog form to quote yourself, but to illustrate my point, here are a few things I wrote during the months leading up to the 2008 election and shortly thereafter (some of which, I humbly add, have been borne out by subsequent events):
Jan. 5, 2008 “I have so far been less impressed by Obama than some of my friends; his vaunted oratory which seemed to promise to magically transport us to a post-partisan, post-race, post-conflict happy land always struck me as so much hot air.”
Sept. 12, 2008 “I personally find Obama’s backpedaling on FISA and his disinclination to challenge head-on the Bush/GOP paradigm for foreign policy the most troubling. It’s also clear to me that Obama just doesn’t share my views on, say, the scope of U.S. interventionism.”
Oct. 8, 2008 “If anything, my worry about Obama is that he’ll be too pragmatic, too prone to compromise, and too beholden to the Washington bipartisan consensus on a host of matters.”
Dec. 30, 2008 “Obama has given little indication that he dissents in any radical way from the US consensus on foreign policy.”
Now, if even I could see at the time that Barack Obama was essentially a center-left moderate, how come Michael Moore, et al. persist in this “We voted for a liberal gut-fighter, but he turned out to be a conciliatory, deal-making moderate” line?