Tis the season: the season where reluctant progressives disenchanted with the Democratic Party and a Democratic president get barraged with attacks, entreaties, cajolements, analysis and more.
Consider this my all-wrapped-in-one entry. First, let me tell you where I stand with regard to President Obama's term so far: he's been a decent president who missed a chance to be great. His misreading of the politics and political bargaining, his reluctance to reshape the financial system, and his tardiness on fighting for fairness, meant that the real chances for transformative change were missed. Moreover, as is the wont of most presidents, he found a new "perspective" on executive power once it was his to wield. As David Leonhardt writes:
Ideologically, however, [Obama] has largely followed Mr. Clinton’s left-center playbook, preferring a mix of market-based and government solutions (like health-insurance exchanges) to a more radical approach (like Medicare for all). “The Obama presidency is not one in which the Democratic Party has been transformed,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a Princeton historian. “Instead, it has been four and maybe eight years in which the path of the ’90s was solidified.”
I can't claim to be disappointed. I argued that this was in essence what Obama promised in his 2008 campaign. I thought he could do better as president, especially after the September 2008 financial meltdown. But that's looking back. Let's look forward. But let's abandon the Obama-centric approach and focus instead on the issues. Let's look forward to how progressives can forward their issue positions in the coming election and beyond. How will supporting President Obama's reelection help? This is a focus I have forwarded often in the past:
Yes, they are all pols. And they do what they do. Do not fight for pols. Fight for the issues you care about. That often means fighting for a pol of course. But remember, you are fighting for the issues. Not the pols.
What I suggest then is an appraisal of the upcoming election from the perspective of what is at stake, in the short and medium term, for the issues progressives care about. I'll engage in this exercise below the fold.
The Supreme Court and the Judiciary. The image I have chosen for this post is no accident. There appears to me to be no ambiguity for progressives on the importance of the president's reelection with regard to the Supreme Court. A loss by President Obama in November would be disastrous for progressives in terms of the Court. Justice Ginsberg is a strong risk to retire. Justice Breyer is 74. If there are vacancies in the Supreme Court, President Obama will appoint much more progressive justices than will Mitt Romney, the likely Republican nominee. This issue is as clear as any before us. Add to that the appointment of judges at the appellate and trial level, for many, if not most, progressives, I would hope that this issue alone could persuade regarding the urgency of supporting the president's reelection.
Supreme Court appointments have long-lasting effects. On the current Court, Justices Scalia and Kennedy were appointed by President Reagan. Justice Thomas was appointed by President George H.W. Bush. These Justices will likely sit on the Court for more than 30 years. Policies MAY have long lasting effects. But Court appointments WILL have long lasting effects.
Fairness Issues. President Obama has consistently supported improving the fairness of the tax code. For some of us, his commitment to, and rhetoric about, the issue has been wanting. But since the debt ceiling fight of last August, the president has been stronger and seemingly more committed to the issue. A large part of this commitment can be attributed to the emergence of the Occupy movement and the change in the political narrative. Thus, in his State of the Union address last month, the president said:
[My grandfather's generation] understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share -- the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement. The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive. No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.
The president and his political team have clearly decided that the message of the Occupy movement, the need for a government for the 99 percent, will be the most effective theme against 1 percenter Mitt Romney.
Will this guarantee policies that address the fairness issue? Of course not. Progressives must continue to fight for fairness. But a loss by President Obama will guarantee the issue is lost in the short term. For better or worse, for progressives, the president's reelection will be the test for the traction of the fairness message of the Occupy movement. Despite the non-partisan nature of Occupy, if the president loses, Occupy loses.
Government's Role in the Economy. While many of us firmly believe that President Obama's 2009 stimulus package was woefully inadequate, his reelection remains a political test for the view that the government has a major role in the economy. If the president wins reelection, the view that in times of economic distress, the government has a proper and significant role in addressing this distress will be politically vindicated. An Obama loss will be viewed as a repudiation of government attempts to bolster a distressed economy.
Environmental issues. I am less familiar with the efficacy and significance of President Obama's environmental policies. That said, I do recognize that as a general matter, Democrats are viewed as supporting more environmentally friendly policies than Republicans. I expect the Keystone pipeline will be an issue in the upcoming campaign. At least with regard to the political narrative, President Obama carries the banner for addressing climate change and for protecting the environment.
Civil Liberties. This is an issue where I do not think the president is aligned with progressives. After a promising start in 2009, the president's policies on detainment, targetting of American citizens overseas, and other related issues have strayed far from progressive views. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that there is virtually no difference between the president's positions and those of the Republicans. Perhaps as the president wished, I seriously doubt this will be an issue of dispute in the upcoming election. I do not see how an honest observer can argue that this issue is an incentive for progressives to support the President.
Foreign policy. This was a major issue in 2008, and for the president personally, it will redound strongly in his favor. That said, I do not see that progressives have a major stake in this issue in this election. Of course it is in the interest of all Americans that the nation have a cogent and effective foreign policy, and I believe the president has clearly delivered that. But I see no stake for progressives tied to the president's reelection on this issue. If President Obama fails to win reelection, no one will argue that it was because of a "progressive" foreign policy.
Other issues. There are of course any number of issues that progressives care about—the homeowners' crisis, intellectual property laws (SOPA and PIPA, for instance), health care and health insurance are among them, to name just three. And some may believe that the president's reelection (or loss) will have a profound impact on these issues. This could be so. I am less certain.
With regard to the homeowners' crisis, President Obama has adopted poor policies that are not associated with progressivism. These polices have been abject failures in my view. The president may abandon them or may double down on them. Either way, since the Republicans do not offer better alternatives, I do not see this issue as an argument for or against supporting the president's reelection.
Similarly, the Affordable Care Act is a mixed bag. While I support the significant expansion of Medicaid, I am skeptical that it will be fully funded by the Congress likely to emerge from this election (unless of course Newt Gingrich miraculously wins the GOP nomination. At that point, all bets are off.) I am also very skeptical that the reform aspects of ACA will work. I imagine most will disagree with me, but I do not see a major progressive stake in ACA.
In any event, what I do urge is this type of issue by issue analysis by reluctant progressives in evaluating their support for President Obama's reelection. Remember, we fight for the issues, not the pols. This is not about President Obama, in my view, it is about the issues.