The Reluctant Vote
I hear you. No, I don’t really want to vote for Obama, either. He flies drones into the heart of Middle East battles that are antiseptic from the American point of view—they avoid troop losses and even pilot losses—but kill a lot of innocents. He has joined the argument to deny habeas corpus to those merely alleged as terrorist. He takes free speech so lightly it seems everyone is now bugged. The NYPD tapes us as we walk down the street, and then decides what to keep in its archives. When I was a kid we were scared to death by stories of how the Russian commies had a mike in every house in Moscow.
On the home front, he got the main domestic problem wrong—and still does, to some degree. It is not a deficit we must worry about, it is a jobs and wages emergency—in sum, a weak economy. But he began preaching the deficit scare early in his terms, appointed two right-wing people, one a Democrat and the other a charming extreme right wing Republican, to devise a budget balancing plan he himself was wise enough not to accept fully.
But others are using it as a model of good sense, like New York Times columnist Bill Keller, former executive editor of the paper. It calls for holding federal expenditures to 21 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, the average for the last forty years. But in those forty years, people have aged, rising Social Security benefits; Medicare has had to bear aging but also rapidly rising healthcare costs; inequality has soared and the level of poverty has not improved; and after a brief interregnum when military costs fell after the end of the Cold War, new wars have cost America a ton. So holding the budget to 21 percent would mean sharp cuts in future social programs. It is an extremist plan, as the Center for Budget Policy Priorities has written.
Indeed, Obama seems frighteningly willing to cut key social programs, already offering compromises on Medicare such as agreeing to raise the eligibility age to 67 from 65. Who at 66 will be able to afford a private healthcare plan after having retired—and now many are forced to retire? And why did he fail to promise not to cut Social Security during his convention speech in Charlotte?
The sad fact is that Obama continues to buy into the austerity myth. Perhaps he is following the opinion surveys. Americans generally rank the deficit as their great concern. But that is circular reasoning. Obama has reinforced that by claiming it is so.
Cutting government spending now will likely lead us into another recession. We must delay any such efforts to reduce the deficit until the economy is back on track. Yet we face a fiscal cliff before the end of the year. Spending will be cut automatically and taxes broadly raised. Many believe Congress and the president will compromise. But how? Will Social Security be thrown to the wolves? Or at least a bit of it?
Even when he does do the admirable thing, such as his $800 billion stimulus in early 2009, he failed to follow it up. The stimulus worked to stop the collapse in jobs and perhaps save the U.S. from full-fledged depression. But Obama then almost never talked about it as a victory. He seemed to fear it would give Republicans something to pick on publicly.
He valiantly cobbled together a healthcare plan. It did not go after the health insurance giants, but anyone who understands the history of healthcare reform in America knows that compromise is the only path. Many of us right-thinking want a single-payer system similar to some in Europe, where government pays for all and controls provider payments, but we won’t get it in my lifetime, though maybe yours.
Obama’s bill would have covered some 30 million uninsured Americans, about two thirds of those with no insurance. But then Obama did not fight for his bill in Congress, letting Republicans and Democrats duke it out. He lost some quite wonderful provisions in the process, like making Medicare available to all over 55, but perhaps that was a no-win, anyway. And even the Affordable Care Act passed—here’s the killer—he didn’t boast about its good points to the American people, hiding it under a bushel so that Republicans, who had mounted an effective propagandistic anti-Obamacare campaign, didn’t have more fuel for their fire.
So why vote for Obama? Let me count the ways. For all my criticism, I think he’s done okay in an environment where okay warrants a grade of A-. The Republican right-wing is extremist and obstructionist. The success of the filibuster has made a Democratic majority in the Senate meaningless. His budget will create some jobs in 2013, if not enough. He has put money into meaningful public investments, from wind energy to transportation infrastructure.
And the fact is that Obamacare is on balance one darned good piece of legislation. It allows anyone up to 26 to stay on their parents’ plan; it ends yearly and lifetime caps on reimbursements, it forces insurance companies to pay 80 percent to 85 percent of the premiums they collect out to beneficiaries for claims, as opposed to the average 70 percent or so; it provides full reimbursement for some kinds of preventive care for the elderly and women; and it closes the so-called doughnut hole for elderly prescription drugs, which place a heavy burden on the old.
Most important, it will cover those 30 million. It is less than ideal that millions will be forced to take a healthcare plan, but they will be subsidized. On the other hand, 15 million poor will now qualify for Medicaid when they didn’t before. I take benefits to 15 million people quite seriously.
Obama also passed a financial re-regulation bill, known as Dodd-Frank. This has done some good but not nearly enough,. It is being weakened almost everyday by strong financial lobbying efforts. And Obama did not do enough to work down the mortgage debt of those whose houses are underwater.
So not bad, given the staunch opposition, and I must say a biased and unthinking press. And in summary, here are the reasons to vote for Obama. The first three are the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court. Someone will leave the court in the next four years give several are over 70. We can’t abide—the nation cannot abide—another conservative appointment. It could truly undermine democracy.
After that, Mitt Romney as president would try to overthrow Obamacare. He would also do his best to reverse much of Dodd-Frank and replace it with nothing. Wall Street run wild is essentially his motto. Why shouldn’t it be? That’s how he made so much money. Romney will cut Medicare benefits and some Social Security benefits. Obama may do some of that himself, but far less. He will make those cuts in order to give large tax cuts to the rich. This is the same policy as followed by George W. Bush. Job growth under Bush, not even including the 2008 recession was the slowest in post-World War II history.
As for foreign policy, Obama did some things well. I think he handled Libya pretty well, thinking before acting. The same is true with the very difficult circumstances in Syria. He has tried to restrain Israel’s threats to go to war with Iran, a certain disaster. By contrast, Romney talks like the Cold War hawks of the 1950s and 1960s and he would use drones far more aggressively and perhaps even attack Iran.
If you think the Presidency doesn’t matter, you are wrong. Think how much damage George W. Bush did as president. And there is no ideal to take anyone’s place. I do not know exactly what Obama will do in his next terms, and that bothers me. But if people begin to like Obamacare, and the economy makes something of a comeback, Americans may have faith in future government programs and maybe even substantial increases in taxes down the road to pay for what we so badly need—decent education, more transportation infrastructure, jobs programs for the poor, and on. Wouldn’t that be lovely? Maybe odds are slim, but they are zero if Romney wins.