Barack Obama has not been a good president. On a host of issues, he has been a bad president. But the United States could do worse.
New York City throbbed with manic celebrations four years ago. Obama had beaten John McCain and people were overcome and overwhelmed for the right reasons. His candidacy had proven that the country could be as good as its promise and that the promise extended to everyone. It was a good time for the US and the world.
But the candidate failed to live up to his promise, even if the country did not. He betrayed core constituencies – liberals and Latinos – to a mercenary decision-making process. His priorities appeared to be informed more by the value of historic gestures and legacy-building than by immediate necessity. The universal provision of healthcare matters, but not more than the corrosive economic malaise endured by so many for years now.
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The president pledged to signal a commitment to the rule of law by closing the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison. When he failed, his supporters developed the now-tired strategy of focusing on the structural constraints he faced. In fact, Obama’s reversal on Guantanamo was an early indication that he would preserve some of the morally abhorrent and illegal practices pioneered by his predecessor, like rendition.
New and exciting ways of violating international law blossomed under Obama. The domestic surveillance state flourished beneath it.
The war in Afghanistan bulged in what proved to be a senseless tactical move. Wars in Yemen and Pakistan were never declared before they were waged – ruthlessly, and with no oversight. In Bahrain, the arming of the suppression of democrats – in tandem with Saudi Arabia – was never declared at all.
George W Bush rightly endured criticism over provisions of the US Patriot Act that undermine constitutional protections in the US. The new president went further. William Binney, who worked at the National Security Agency for 40 years before resigning in 2001, protesting against domestic spying, claims that 20 trillion domestic informational exchanges have been catalogued by the agency.
It is an impenetrable number, incomprehensible as a concrete figure. Representationally, it signifies the arbitrary, steroidal and greedy drive to capture and penetrate the private lives of a nation. It is a number owned by Barack Obama.
And yet, the US could have done worse.
The president did not overturn the Bush-era decision to end “enhanced interrogations”, what normal people call “torture”. He also rightly followed through on Bush’s bank bailouts – even if he failed to hold anyone accountable or implement meaningful reforms and regulations. And the healthcare bill, which may have come at the expense of radical economic stimulus, appears to have established the basis for a better, more comprehensive universal healthcare system. Finally, the president has not waged war on Iran.
Mitt Romney’s candidacy, on the other hand, resists characterisation. The candidate inelegantly reverses or contradicts himself on a regular basis, so his statements are mostly vacuous. While Obama’s words are also hollow, he does not routinely distance himself from his own track record, something that lends him more credibility than his opponent.
The absence of a coherent vision does not mean that Romney is completely unknowable. He receives large amounts of money from donors whose views may serve as a good proxy for understanding what a Romney presidency could look like.
Republican billionaires Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers are firmly embedded in the extremist wing of the party. They are contemptuous of labour unions and the provision of social justice by government. They seek to enrich themselves through processes that impoverish society.
These are the men with private access to the Republican presidential candidate. With their extraordinary campaign donations, they could hold the key to the Oval Office. And in a United States where corporations are people, these men represent the largest threat to fairness, social justice and a reasonable quality of life in a generation.
Most urgently, they also represent the threat of war. Judging by Romney’s own pronouncements, his presidency will tend towards the “creative destruction” that Niall Ferguson eagerly, breathlessly wrote about. A US strike against Iran would surely be the worst outcome for Americans, Iranians, the Middle East and a fragile global economy. And it is mainly for that reason that many should hope and work for an Obama victory this November.
David Bromwich made the sharp observation that the coming presidential election pits a centrist Republican against a representative of the far right. It is a sad fact that there is no good choice for liberals in November 2012. There is, however, a bad choice.
The United States cannot afford a Romney presidency; the world cannot afford endless war.
Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American graduate student of Public Policy at Harvard University and co-editor of After Zionism (Saqi Books, July 2012).