In a speech before Congress on September 8, 2011, Barack Obama outlined what the Times called a “robust and far-reaching” plan for action on jobs and the economy. And you could almost hear the Republicans thinking, “But if we do that, the economy might get better, and we’ll lose the election.”
One good reason to vote for Barack Obama is that nobody should win with a strategy like that.
But a better reason is that nobody since, certainly not Mitt Romney or his running mate, has come up with an alternative plan that’s even remotely plausible.
I think it’s relatively easy to agree on the challenges we face. We have unacceptably high levels of unemployment and a rising deficit adding to a potentially crippling debt. Less mentioned, at least by Republicans, are surging poverty levels, the increasing concentration of wealth at the upper levels of society, and an infrastructure that risks falling behind our competitors both intellectually (education, research) and physically (roads, bridges, high-speed rail, green energy).
The idea that you’re going to fix all that by cutting taxes and slashing spending seems not just unworkable, but suicidal, a recipe for widening the wealth gap and compromising our infrastructure even further. Why would we want to be a third-world country? Even Brazil isn’t Brazil anymore.
It’s been a strange four years. I’m pretty pessimistic about human rationality in general (including my own), but I was still thrown by much of what went on. Half the country seemed to enter a phantasmagoric dream state where the president was born in Kenya no matter what those stupid people in Hawaii said; where end-of-life counseling for the aged and terminally ill amounted to “death panels”; where a lachrymose paranoiac soared Beale-like in the ratings by diagramming ever wilder conspiracy theories on a chalkboard, thus becoming a hero to people who went around in tri-corner hats because apparently the fifties were not far enough back in time to take the country; where a slightly left-of-center, business-friendly president who structured the country’s much-belated healthcare reform around the insurance industry was a socialist. (Not just a socialist but, in the preferred term of the lachrymose paranoiac television personality, a Maoist!) It was as if a nightmare version of America had devoted itself full-time to fantasizing a nightmare version of America.
And all this was before the Dance of the Demagogues, the carnivalesque Republican primary season in which one shameless, reality-challenged, hopelessly unqualified candidate after another shot ahead in the polls.
What were these people thinking? And by these people, I don’t just mean the tri-corner hat types who gave (for instance) a wild-eyed, Muslim-chasing Christian Dominionist with a pray-the-gay-away husband a brief moment as the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. I mean the people who egged them on. The Koch brothers and Fox News and the current Republican nominee.
A long time ago, a friend of mine gave me a book called When Prophecy Fails, on which I eventually based a screenplay. I describe the book elsewhere on this site, but its main thesis is that when a belief is dramatically “disconfirmed” the believers will become only the more convinced. And, in their anxiety to remain convinced, they will aggressively seek out new converts. By the end of 2008, a certain world view—a certain belief system—had taken some devastating hits. There was Iraq. There was Katrina. There was the worldwide financial meltdown. And then, as if to ratify the catastrophic failure of the belief system, some black guy got elected president. Lately I’ve been wondering if much of the craziness of the last few years is the result of a bunch of wealthy, influential people trying not to face up to the fact that they destroyed the livelihoods of millions of people worldwide. Nothing else accounts for the virulence with which they’ve tried to convince everyone that the problem is really the black guy. (Maintaining a death-grip on their influence and wealth probably has something do with it, too.)
I have to say the distortions weren’t limited to the right. On the left, I kept hearing that Obama was a “sell-out.” He “betrayed” us. He was the “disappointer-in-chief.” The result was a bizarre stereophonic dissonance. In one ear you heard “socialist” and in the other “corporate hack.” And, in both cases, I kept feeling that the world being described didn’t actually exist, or at least it was a world from which a great deal of context had been removed.
Obama has made mistakes, but he’s had to make complex political and policy calculations under very difficult circumstances. Among those circumstances has been the same scorched-earth opposition that made the jobs bill such a non-starter. If you or I might have calculated some of his decisions differently, then they’re legitimate occasions for critique, dissent, engaged discussion, but it’s hard for me to imagine anybody else—any specific, electable person—doing much better.
And the “disappointer-in-chief” crowd often elides his actual accomplishments which you can browse freely here.
Obama has been called a transformative figure which, of course, is part of why he’s so threatening to certain elements. But it also gets him in trouble among his supporters, who perhaps mistook the transformation as one promised instead of one ratified. To me, he’s always stood for something we’re becoming, not something he’s making us: a pluralistic, multi-racial, open-minded society able to have adult discussions about complex issues. (Remember the speech on race?) It’s no accident that same-sex marriage achieved majority support during his tenure, and no accident either that his role was not to promote that support but to validate it once it had arrived.
My own vote for Obama was and will be based on a conviction that he represents the country I want to live in. He’s a flawed man (can we just note that that’s a redundancy?) who’s made some mistakes and done some things I disagree with. I’m pretty sure, though, that there hasn’t been a better man occupying the office of president in my lifetime.
Vote for him.