The Obama Dilemma

On March 21, 2012, 3:46 PM by

It is time again for the quadrennial absurdity of the American presidential race. In reality, it began as far back as last summer as the slew of risible “candidates” for the Republican nomination entered the fray. While the establishment media myopically focuses on the long slog of a horse race that is the primaries, it is often difficult to discover the other things going on in the world. The average broadcast on Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN consistently devotes the majority of its airtime to the inequities and megalomania of Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum’s sweater vests, or Mitt Romney’s automaton personality – often ignoring Ron Paul, the only principled, yet deeply flawed candidate. Now this coverage of the seemingly meaningless rigmarole of the Republican primary and the similar upcoming coverage of the presidential race may make Chuck Todd’s heart palpitate, but it does a massive disservice to everyone else. We will be told over and over again, from the editorial pages of the New York Times to primetime cable new shows, that this election is about the future of the country and presents two stark contrasts for the trajectory of America. While some Americans increasingly recognize that our electoral politics are a sham, progressives and leftists must ask themselves if they can vote for President Obama in good conscience.

It is difficult to fully understand the causes of the manifest failure of the Obama administration to implement progressive initiatives. Are these failures endogenous to President Obama? Is he really the tepid, bipartisan-craving centrist (even center-right) politician that we have seen over the past three years? Or has the obduracy of the Republicans and the pathetic, spineless Democrats in Congress presented an insurmountable stumbling block to the advancement of his agenda?

To my mind, it is likely a combination of the two. To be sure, the posture of Republicans, who have declared their primary goal to be defeating President Obama in 2012, has been cynical, opportunistic and overtly self-serving. Yet Obama has pursued a host of policy initiatives that have been anything but progressive. Even many of Obama’s ostensible legislative successes have been a mixed-bag at best.

Let’s look at the Affordable Care Act, also known in Republican lexicon as “Obamacare.” While an additional 30 million Americans receiving healthcare is laudable and an important step in rectifying the maladies of the American healthcare system, it is also a boondoggle for the healthcare industry. One must wonder whether Obama even entertained the possibility of a more progressive healthcare initiative. Richard Kirsch, the former director of the advocacy group Health Care for America Now has asserted has asserted that the Obama administration only used the public option as a bargaining chip. According to Kirsch, “The White House had negotiated a number of deals with the health industry, designed to win their support for reform, including agreeing to oppose a robust public option, which would have the greatest clout to control how much providers got paid.” Rather than exerting a strong push for a public option, the “weak-kneed” White House was content to use the public option as leverage to get something, anything, passed. The recent kerfuffle over administration attempts to require religiously affiliated universities and hospitals to cover contraception in their healthcare packages demonstrates the true absurdity of employer-based healthcare. If there was a single-payer system such controversies would not exist. In any case, the healthcare battle is just a microcosm of the Obama presidency: a backroom capitulation to corporate power masquerading as a public confrontation.

Obama’s response to the financial crisis has arguably been even worse. It was clear what direction his administration would take from the beginning. By appointing people like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner to senior level positions, Obama maintained the neoliberal course. The very people who helped create the crisis are now those we are relying on to remedy it. Not a single executive from any of the major financial institutions has been prosecuted or even indicted for their dubious and morally reckless activity. Meanwhile, millions of Americans have had their homes foreclosed upon and millions of others continued to be mired in life-changing levels of debt. But the banks, well, they received billions in bailout money and continue to hand out millions in bonuses and have seen record profit levels. What has Obama’s response been? Nothing, more or less. The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, meant to clamp down on the banks, is a rather innocuous little piece of legislation. Indeed, it does not even regulate the derivatives market that was one of the unquestioned causes of the Great Recession.

However, the real cause for progressive concern and reticence in the 2012 election should be Obama’s record on civil liberties and the so-called “war on terror.” President Obama’s administration has maintained a marked continuity with the Bush/Cheney counter-terrorism detention policies and their penchant for wantonly violating civil liberties. While Obama campaigned on closing Guantanamo’s detention facilities and issued an executive order to do so immediately after his inauguration, the facility remains open. Moreover, in 2011, Obama issued another executive order that created “a formal system of indefinite detention for those held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.” In effect, Obama not only reneged on his campaign pledge to close informal detention facilities, he formalized their place as a component of the U.S. counter-terrorism policy and created a legal black hole where the U.S. can hold detainees without charge or trial. As part of the National Defense Authorization Act, President Obama codified indefinite detention as a part of U.S. law. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) notes, “The statute is particularly dangerous because it has no temporal or geographic limitations, and can be used by this and future presidents to militarily detain people captured far from any battlefield.” In an effort to assuage civil liberties defenders, Obama attached a signing statement to the bill noting that his administration had “serious reservations” with the provisions related to indefinite detention and would thus not utilize them. However, this does not prevent future administrations from employing indefinite detention, which this administration has copiously practiced anyway.

Perhaps what is most pernicious, if you are an American citizen, is Obama’s denial of the Fifth Amendment’s due process rights to American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who was assassinated in a drone strike in September 2011. Awlaki, we are told, was an important member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and inspired the Fort Hood attack and the failed “underwear” bomber. Awlaki was born in the United States and retained American citizenship while living in Yemen. While his leadership status in AQAP has been questioned, there can be no doubt that he played some sort of role as a firebrand cleric and member of AQAP. This does not mean that President Obama has the right to revoke his Fifth Amendment rights and serve as judge, jury, and executioner. The Obama administration then proceeded to assassinate Awlaki’s 16 year old son and another 17 year old member of the Awlaki clan via drone strike. Obama’s justice department has averred that they could not release documents on Awlaki and the evidence they had compiled against him because they are “state secrets” and could damage national security. The ACLU is now suing the Obama administration over their policy of targeting American citizens for assassination without trial.

While the Awlaki assassination is one egregious and salient example, the Obama administration has ratcheted up drone strikes and increasingly relied on them in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Even if these attacks result in the killing of al-Qaeda leaders, there are always civilian deaths (collateral damage, in the official parlance) that render this policy profoundly unjustifiable. As Glenn Greenwald discusses, drone strikes have even targeted mourners and rescuers who attempt to provide succor to the victims of other drone strikes that occurred just moments earlier. Our Nobel Peace Prize winning President presides over a policy of indiscriminate murder of innocent civilians.

This discussion provides only a cursory overview of the troublesome policies of President Obama. In regards to immigration, President Obama has maintained a draconian effort to deport as many illegal immigrants as possible. Indeed, he is on pace to deport more people in his first term than President Bush did in both terms combined. In violation of the 1973 War Powers Act, President Obama engaged in war in Libya without Congressional authorization. His administration’s justification was that the NATO mission was not engaged in the type of hostilities stipulated under the War Powers Act; a dubious argument at best. As the four decades-long assault on worker’s rights continues, perhaps even accelerates, Obama has done little to protect them. The administration may have taken a public stance against anti-union bills in states like Wisconsin and Ohio. However, as part of the recent FAA Reauthorization Act the administration, Obama signed into law a bill that could serve as a precedent to make union organizing increasingly difficult. And Obama’s Race to the Top education policy rewards schools that reach certain thresholds with additional funding and in some cases pulls founding or shutters struggling schools. One must ask, is not the goal of education reform to improve the performance of failing schools? President Obama has also, despite some rhetorical platitudes, done little to reorient our massively unfair taxation system. He has continued the racist War on Drugs and the done nothing about the creeping expansion of the prison-industrial complex. I’m afraid the list of anti-progressive Obama initiatives could go on for days.

Yet, what are the alternatives? From a progressive or leftist perspective, there are none. Mitt Romney would likely represent a more pugnacious tonal shift in regards to foreign policy and redistribution of wealth, but his presidency would look markedly similar to Obama’s. Rick Santorum’s presidency would be a disaster to anyone concerned with civil liberties and sexual rights. There has been a robust debate in many progressive circles regarding the utility of Ron Paul as a candidate and his foreign policy principles. Paul’s anti-imperialist message certainly has a deep resonance with many progressives and I agree with people like Greenwald that assert that his mere presence in the Republican debates is important for the very fact that his message is reaching an audience that would otherwise solely hear candidates regurgitate bellicose, chauvinistic, and militaristic bluster.

Nonetheless, Paul is far from the progressive answer. He is against the Civil Rights Act, which should in and of itself arrest any modicum of an inclination to support him. Moreover, he has a long history of troublesome and racist remarks, many of which his campaign says cannot be attributed to him because they were not written by him. They were just in his newsletter… called the Ron Paul Newsletter. He wants to abolish the Federal Reserve and return to the gold standard. He thinks private charity should be the mechanism for addressing the massive structural inequalities of society. So while there are overwhelming reasons that Paul cannot be considered by progressives and leftists, we can still be glad that there is one person on the right with a sensible and circumspect foreign policy and move on from there.

What should progressives and leftists do? It is clear now that the symbolism of Obama’s presidency is much less important than many, including myself, originally held it to be. The election of an African-American president was touted by many as proof of the greatness of America, that we had overcome the deep and painful legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and malignant institutional racism. However, what we truly needed in the White House was a President willing to challenge the prevailing neoliberal economic orthodoxy and the bipartisan imperialist consensus. The symbolism of Obama’s election, while still important, is dramatically less meaningful three years on. The most important civil rights issue of our day is economic inequality and Obama is either unwilling or incapable of addressing it in a structural way. Given the current structure of American politics and the wider mainstream cultural discourse, progressives, and leftists will never have an ideal candidate. Nonetheless, we must hold our leaders accountable and, as such, I find it difficult to personally justify voting for President Obama in the fall.

As the Arab uprisings and the Occupy movement have saliently evidenced, there are other, arguably more important, outlets to express our grievances and demand redress. Despite what the media or the two party establishment may want the public to believe, donating to political parties, candidates, or Super PACs and voting are not the only methods of political action. So next November when we will all be faced with a choice of two candidates, we shouldn’t feel as though we have no choice but to vote for the lesser of two evils. If you cannot vote for President Obama in good conscience, then simply do not vote. It is high time that progressives and leftists more resoundingly demonstrated that the Democratic Party can no longer reflexively count on our vote while they stomp on our beliefs.


  • K E

    The answer is yes.

  • AgeofMastery

    And you would suggest they vote for who instead? For Romney? Or some third party candidate with no hope in hell of winning, in essence voting for Romney.

    Just brilliant, put a Republican in the White House as a protest….

  • Alice Yatabe

    I know your posit is a so-called rhetorical question, but you really have got to be kidding. Why not ask instead who in their right mind would vote republican for any office in coming elections?

  • WoodGas1
  • Steve R.

    I was with you right up until you suggested not voting. When you don’t vote, you signal that your vote is unavailable. I’m going to vote for Rocky Anderson, or Jill Stein, or hell anybody that’s more progressive than Obama. It doesn’t matter to me that they can’t win. The idea is to send the message that, “my vote IS available, but you’ll have to earn it”. Now if that causes Romney to become President, so be it. We will survive it. Start thinking about 2016, 2018, 2020 and beyond.

  • rtb61

    The answer is if you can’t replace them with better, you can still fire them. Keep firing them and eventually you’ll end up with one that betrays them instead of betraying us.
    If turning hope and change into trapped in despair is not enough for a jolly good firing I don’t know what is.
    In four years time then it will be Mitt Romney’s turn to face the axe and the Democrats will have wised up to just dumping a betrayer on everyone during the primaries, they had a chance and they could have ran a challenger against Obama during the primaries instead they sent a jolly big screw you to the real progressives and real liberals, well guess who is going to get fired now.


Adam Gallagher is a doctoral student in Political Science at George Mason University. He has a BA in Political Science and Philosophy from Ohio Northern University. His research interests include US foreign policy in the Middle East, labor and social movements, and Marxian political economy and philosophy. He is a contributor to the academic blog Tropics of Meta.





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