If Obama wins, there will be a collective sigh of relief that Romney has been defeated but probably not much excitement over a meandering and uninspiring campaign’s victory. But if Obama loses there will be a great debate among Democrats as to what went wrong. Some will say that Obama went too far to the left, others to the right. But inevitably, the Left will be blamed for not being sufficiently supportive– not recognizing his achievements, saving us from another Great Depression, achieving health care and banking reform, supporting women’s rights, etc., etc. For me, Obama needed nothing so much as an independent, critical Left, but if he fails to gain reelection the failure will be his. Consider the record:
1-The Budget: Since 1933 the Right has had one mantra: cut government spending; balance the budget. In one way or another Democratic politicians have had to finesse this issue for the simple reason that the government’s budget is not the same as a household, and the government can run a deficit for such ends as wars or to make social advances. As to entitlements, they are called that for a reason. They were instituted to counterbalance the permanent inequities that the market brings.
Obama’s first great failure is that he has allowed the Republicans to define his agenda for him, by falling into their trap of conceding that the budget was the number one problem facing us. Its Obama that appointed Bowles-Simpson, that agreed to sequestration, that has made cutting government spending THE inevitable issue for the next decade or so. This is one huge reason for his failure, if he fails.
2- Health Care: The health care issue is left over from the New Deal reforms. Health care is a right, an entitlement, just as good public schools and safe streets and roads are rights. Obama’s second great failure was to redefine health care as a cost-cutting issue. Reforms don’t speak for themselves. Of course if the Republicans win, they will gut health care, but even if they lose we are in for a series of fights centered on cutting health care costs. Let us never forget, it was Obama who first raised the issue of how much money we were spending on people in the last six months of their life. In doing so, he let the Republicans pose as the defenders of Medicare, his second disastrous mistake.
3- Unions: Under Obama we have seen union rights rolled back drastically, teachers and policemen fired, services cut in state after state. In all of this Obama NEVER said one word about the need for unions. He stayed out of Wisconsin, for example. This is the third great reason that working people do not see him as their advocate.
4- Afghanistan: Obama’s supporters are few but powerful. In essence, they are apologists and it is from them that the left can expect to be blamed. One of their greatest distortions has been their claim that Obama was forced to expand the war in Afghanistan because of his original campaign statement that it was a “good war.” Many people, both American and Afghan died because Obama did not have the gumption to resist the pressures from the military, who know only one thing: more killing. His decision to launch this wasteful, pointless war was one of the many ways in which he validated Bush’s Iraq war, and the destruction of civil liberties, which he supposedly ran against.
5- China: American’s ignorance of Asia is so vast, that no one has even noticed that Obama referred to China as our adversary in the last debate. The US-China agreement, beginning in the late nineteen sixties to avoid war, is one of the cornerstones of global order. Obama is threatening this, for no reason other than his inability to resist the Generals, and his desire to score politically. Historically, his China policy may turn out to far more consequential than it seems today.
6- Israel: Obama has completely subordinated America’s interests, not to mention social justice, to Netanyahu. The idea that he is preventing Israel from launching a strike against Iran is a ridiculous piece of theatre. Such a strike would be folly and everyone knows this. Obama has empowered the Israeli right, way beyond anything Bush ever dreamt of, just as he has empowered the Japanese right through his Asia policies. The heart of the matter is Israeli racism toward Arabs, and everyone in the Arab world knows this.
Conclusion: Obama’s biggest failure is none of the above. His biggest failure is to have discounted the hopes he raised in 2008. Electing the first African-American President was a fantastic achievement, and because it coincided with the discrediting of Bush’s economic and foreign policies, it opened terrific possibilities for a new path. Obama has not only not moved in a new direction, he has subtly encouraged the idea that those hopes were overstated, and that the obstacles he faced were structural, overwhelming, etc– a series of vacuous excuses. I for one want to reaffirm the hopes I had in 2008– the desire to break with neo-liberalism both domestically and in foreign policy. Obama’s refusal to attempt such a break is the main reason for his weak electoral position today.
Eli Zaretsky is the author of Why America Needs a Left.