Like every two-person race, Romney vs. Obama has four major narratives: pro-Romney, anti-Romney, pro-Obama, and anti-Obama. So far both sides have focused mainly on the anti narratives: You shouldn’t vote for Romney because he’s out of touch with the middle class; his policies harm women, gays, immigrants, and the poor; he brazenly makes up his own facts; he has no defense or foreign-policy experience; his proposals have no details and their numbers don’t add up; his only firm conviction is that he should be president. And so on.
Conversely, you shouldn’t vote for Obama because he hasn’t gotten the economy on track; he isn’t sufficiently pro-Israel or anti-Iran; he “apologizes for America” and projects a weak image to both our allies and enemies; he has increased the national debt by trillions of dollars; he favors Big Government and wants to enlarge the class of government dependents; and there’s just something generally suspicious about him that you can’t quite put your finger on (but it can’t possibly have anything to do with him being black, because you’re not a racist).
All I can say is that it will be a sad day for America if we elect a president entirely on a negative narrative, because he wasn’t the other guy.
I suspect we will never hear a serious pro-Romney case; his campaign doesn’t seem to be laying the groundwork for one. (I may be wrong, but I suspect “Obama Isn’t Working” is the first example of a presidential campaign’s main slogan containing the opponent’s name rather than the candidate’s. Remember “All the Way with LBJ” and “Nixon’s the One”?) If Romney is elected, I’ll hang on every word of his inaugural address, because it will be the first real indication of what his administration intends to do.
However, I’ve been predicting for a while that (after spending the summer defining the otherwise vacuous Romney) the Obama campaign will end on a positive note. Republicans have been saying that Obama has gone negative because he can’t defend his record or provide a convincing plan for the future. But I think they’re wrong. We began to hear some of the pro-Obama narrative during the Democratic Convention, and I think we’ll hear more of it as Election Day approaches.
This is my version of Obama’s positive case:
The stimulus, auto bailout, and other emergency measures of 2009 ended the crash.
It’s amazing how quickly the panic that gripped the nation in January, 2009 has been forgotten. Bankruptcies were dominoing: Across the country, apparently healthy companies were discovering that their accounts receivable were worthless because their customers couldn’t pay. And so they were now bankrupt too and couldn’t pay the next company down the line.
Giant enterprises like General Motors and giant states like California couldn’t pay their bills. If those debts went bad, how many other employers would go down? Then how many local shops and restaurants would fail when their customers lost their jobs?
In the pre-Obama era, a stimulus was an uncontroversial response to a recession. President Bush passed a stimulus in 2002 and again in 2008, both times without significant protest from congressional Republicans. Liberal and conservative economists alike were calling for a stimulus in 2009. Republicans had their own 2009 stimulus proposal – a mere $713 billion and weighted more towards tax cuts, but nonetheless a stimulus.
Obama’s proposal was designed to be centrist: A third of the $800 billion total was tax cuts. Another big chunk was aid to the states (to prevent massive layoffs of teachers and construction workers). Another chunk extended unemployment benefits (which made sense given that there were no jobs for the unemployed to find). The remainder was also pretty well spent on a variety of infrastructure and social-investment projects. The definitive analysis is in The New New Deal by Michael Grunwald.
Obama’s critics have made a big deal of his administration’s projection (they incorrectly call it a “promise”) that the stimulus would keep unemployment below 8%. The mistake here had nothing to do with the effect of the stimulus: In early 2009, everyone was still underestimating the number of jobs that had already been lost in the 4th quarter of 2008.
Obama focused on Al Qaeda (hasta la vista, Osama), ended the Iraq War, is winding down the Afghanistan War, and – best of all! – didn’t start any new wars.
In the 1950s, critics of President Eisenhower said he was a do-nothing president. In retrospect, some of Eisenhower’s not-doings look wise, like not sending troops to Vietnam after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. We can only wish Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had maintained Ike’s standards of military idleness.
By Bush standards, Obama has been a do-nothing president in the Muslim world. He hasn’t bombed Iran, he didn’t prop up the Egyptian dictator Mubarak, and he has kept our troops out of Libya and Syria. Let’s keep them out.
The Affordable Care Act is a major step towards health security for all Americans.
Universal health care has been a goal of every Democratic president since Truman, and Republicans like Nixon have also had ambitions in that direction. The Affordable Care Act did not get all the way there, but it gets us closer than we’ve ever been.
Currently, 48.6 million Americans are uninsured – most of them in red states like Texas. The ACA was projected to drop that number below 20 million, though now that a partisan Supreme Court has nixed the Medicaid expansion (and Republican governors like Texas’ Perry are threatening not to take the federal money to expand Medicaid), no one can estimate the exact number.
The ACA does not completely take effect until 2014, but you may already be benefitting if you are old (it closed the “donut hole” in Medicare drug coverage), young (parents’ insurance can cover their children up to age 26), or sick (you can’t be denied coverage for a pre-existing condition). It might even have gotten you a refund from your health insurance company.
Like the stimulus, the ACA is a centrist program that has been smeared as radical: It mimicks RomneyCare in Massachusetts, which was designed by the conservative Heritage Foundation. The ideas behind it only became “socialist” and “unconstitutional” when Obama adopted them.
Obama’s Supreme Court appointments kept the corporatist and theocratic agendas at bay.
Obama got to replace two liberal justices with two slightly-less-liberal justices, so that Justice Kennedy remains the swing vote. (Though Roberts was the swing vote on the ACA decision.) If President McCain had instead appointed two justices resembling Alito or Thomas, the Court would have only two liberals, so even convincing Kennedy and Roberts wouldn’t be enough. The swing vote would be Scalia, believe it or not.
The main theme of the Roberts Court was summed up in 2010 by Al Franken:
What conservative legal activists are really interested in is this question: What individual rights are so basic and so important that they should be protected above a corporation’s right to profit?
And their preferred answer is: None of them. Zero.
That may sound like an exaggeration, but the rest of Franken’s speech backs it up.
Without Obama’s appointments, decisions would be even more pro-corporate, and you could add Christian supremacy to that agenda.
And of course Roe v. Wade would be toast.
He defended women’s right to equal pay, which the Roberts Court had gutted.
The first bill Obama signed was the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. And what other women’s rights will be gutted if the Roberts Court gets conservative reinforcements?
He stopped deporting good kids who know no country other than this one.
Naively, Obama assumed that Republicans (like John McCain) who had publicly supported immigration reform in the past would continue to support it. Instead, Republicans have unified against their own previous proposals and blocked any progress on immigration, including the DREAM Act (which Orrin Hatch co-sponsored and then voted against) and even Mario Rubio’s watered-down version of the DREAM Act.
President Obama has gone about as far as he can without Congress’ cooperation: He has suspended deportations of undocumented teen-agers who were brought here as small children and are on their way to becoming Americans we can be proud of.
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is history, and the country has turned the corner on gay rights.
President Obama hasn’t been a crusader for gay rights, but he did manage to tip-toe through the minefield of gays in the military.
It’s worth noting that the DADT repeal has caused virtually no problems. Remember how unit cohesion was going to collapse, recruitment would plummet, and chaplains would resign in droves once the Pentagon de-institutionalized bigotry against gays and lesbians? None of it happened. (But I’ll bet none of the false prophets in the pundit class lost their jobs for being wrong. They never do.)
Obama’s personal support for same-sex marriage has no direct impact, but it did seem to be a tipping point in public opinion. His refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court may help get rid of that unjust law (though not if President Romney gets to appoint some Supreme Court judges first).
This fall we may start seeing anti-gay referendums lose. Increasingly, gay rights has become a why-not issue rather than a why issue. Expect Obama to continue to ride the public-opinion wave rather than lead it or block it.
In short: Regardless of who the Other Guy is, Barack Obama has been a good president in tough times. He deserves re-election.