[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
The November presidential election is still five-and-a-half months away, which means there is still plenty of time for me to change my mind, and then change my mind again. About the likely outcome, of course (though given that I still think, seven months after my last prediction, that Mitt Romney is likely to win the election, I’d have to see some pretty convincing data to change my mind), but more relevantly about what I personally have to say about it. In 2008 I voted, despite some reservations, for Barack Obama to be our president, in part because I had real hopes that his presidency could bring a greater emphasis on democracy, community, and equality to the table, but probably mostly because I just couldn’t stand the idea of even implicitly endorsing, by declining to support Obama, what his Republican opponent would bring, and what his election, in the face of the historic breakthrough which Obama’s candidacy represented, would have meant. Today, in 2012, as cliche as it may be to admit to it, I confess: those hopes of mine have been, to a significant degree, crowded out by four years of reflection and reality. I get e-mails from MoveOn and Michelle Obama’s website and other fundraisers and re-election operations almost daily, and I’ve long since given up on reading them. I won’t say I don’t care if Obama is re-elected or not (though I don’t think he will be), because I do care–I’m pretty confident that, by any number of measures important to me at least, a second term for this president would be better for our country than a first term for Romney (especially with the Congress he will almost certainly have on Capitol Hill waiting for him). But as I sit here today, towards the end of May, and contemplate pushing the button on the touch-screen for Obama…well, I can think of at least five reasons why I find that hard.
1) The fact that I live in Kansas. We have six electoral college votes, and they aren’t distributed the way our neighbors to the north in Nebraska do, following election returns along congressional district lines, but rather in a winner-take-all fashion, as is typical throughout the United States. And given that Kansas is a red state, by some measurements the most red state in the whole country, the odds that my vote could be the decisive one enabling the Democrats to capture Kansas and put it in the blue column this November are so ridiculously remote that I don’t know enough math to be able to even begin to figure them. In other words, Obama will lose here in Kansas in November. Now I don’t think there’s anything wrong with voting for sure losers; I’ve done so a couple of times before myself, and given that voting is at least as much an expressive act as a strategic one, there might be good arguments for doing so. But at the very least, knowing that I almost certainly couldn’t help re-elect Obama with my vote in November even if I wanted to, allows me a little more intellectual space to determine if I do, in fact, want to. And as of today, part of me doesn’t. Why?
2) The treatment of Bradley Manning, and the Obama administration’s whole approach to the supposedly-ending-but-not-really-hey-let’s-just-use-drones “war on terror” and civil liberties in general. I have no doubts that President Obama, and the people around him, are far less captivated by the neo-conservative, “clash of civilizations,” unitary-executive-trust-the-decider Kool-Aid which President Bush apparently imbibed, or at least encouraged those around him to imbibe, in great quantities. This White House is clearly a more rational, more responsible, more civil and careful place than the last one was. But that just makes my frustrations stronger. One of the very few areas in which an American president can act with significant freedom and authority is the shaping of foreign policy, and this presidency, for the most part, has treated the collateral damage which comes along with his power as commander-in-chief–which in many ways he has used far more effectively and intelligently than Bush ever did–in a frustratingly, sometimes infuriatingly, antiseptic and professorial way. I’m just not happy with using my vote to signify support for putting such significant power in the hands of a man who is apparently comfortable with, not just targeting American citizens accused of terrorist activities with arbitrary assassination, but also claiming the prerogative to indefinitely detain American citizens so accused without trial–even though he implies to us that he “never intends to use” the latter power. I’d like to think that my meaningless vote this November is worth more than that.
3) The contraception coverage mandate which the president endorsed as part of the Affordable Care Act. Yes, I know that essentially everyone uses birth control, no matter what their religious identification, which makes the whole controversy in some ways rather strange. Yes, I know that the imposition of a nation-wide standard of providing insurance coverage which includes contraception, including through Catholic hospitals and church-run orphanages and other religious organizations which may have theological objections to providing birth control, is arguably central to both the whole point of the ACA (which I support, despite disliking its philosophical foundations) and to respecting the rights of the women who actually make up the majority of those employed by these institutions. And yes, I know that most states already have locally imposed just such mandates upon the insurers (though with significant variety in the exceptions allowed), and yes, I know that Obama and his people have tried to work out a compromise here as well (though both the economics and the morality of the administration’s “accommodation” are rather dubious). But I have to say all that doesn’t change my mind–whatever gets worked out on the state level, it remains the case that the national government has both the position and the power to set the direction of American law and policy, and as one who strongly endorses the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (and thinks the the Supreme Court did real harm to this country with its overly broad decisions in Employment Division v. Smith and City of Bourne v. Flores), I really don’t like seeing the national government involving itself in acts which compromise the ability of voluntary religious bodies (and to a lesser but still important degree their individual adherents) to fully define and govern themselves. No, this does not mean I’m fully on board with paranoid, historically uninformed cries about the HHS’s threat to “religious freedom”, nor with those 43 religious universities, groups, and organizations which have filed suit against the Obama administration over the mandate; my dislike for judicial decisions replacing democratic legislation remains strong, and so I, like some liberal Catholics, would have liked to see political pressure and negotiation continue to do their work before turning to lawsuits. (The left-leaning Catholic Michael Sean Winters, who has fiercely–and rightly–attacked the administration for supporting the mandate, recommends just such an approach here.). But if there is a point upon which I am generally willing to see courts act against popular majorities, it is to protect the limited, but vital, sovereignty of churches and church organizations; such a freedom is one of the few ways in which I agree with otherwise simplistic bromides about American exceptionalism. Ours is a country which, as Doug Kmiec rightly, if reluctantly, argues, deserves better than the sort of “episodic presidential aloofness” which we have gotten regarding religion from President Obama (remember: “above my pay grade”)–and unfortunately, I don’t see him changing anytime soon.
4) The profound unwillingness of President Obama, despite his occasional talk otherwise, to embrace anything other than deeply compromised, traditional liberal, economic-expansion-will-fund-the-welfare-state strategies, in the face of the most comprehensive crisis of capitalism which the industrialized world has seen in more than 75 years. Look, I know Obama and his people are basically Wall Street-friendly liberals, mostly a bunch of technology-friendly managers; at best, they might be called Rawlsians who are happy with our economic order so long as it can be made redistributive enough. I had no delusions that, whatever other hopes I had for him, he was suddenly going to come out of the closet as a populist, a socialist, or even a social democrat. But even allowing for the terrible legislative hand he was dealt after 2010, his approach to the systemic crisis which the dominance of the finance industry has wrought upon global markets has been, for the most part, very weak stuff. Where’s the moral condemnation of the rapacious, exploitative system we have allowed to emerge around us, and where’s the vision of what might replace it? Sure, I’d love a populist or socialist (or localist, or all three!) vision, one which exposed undemocratic, disempowering forces opposed to equality today. But failing that, how about at least a robust, pro-active defense of the progressive compromises which made what little American egalitarianism there is strong? Progressive liberals have never liked this weakness in our president’s political rhetoric, because they think Republican intransigence requires a president more strongly committed to the left. And I confess that, as time has gone by, I’ve come to agree that they have the stronger arguments on their side: they can look at the economic data, and they see that the financial meltdown of 2008 contributed to a gap between the rich and the poor, a level of inequality in America, greater than it has been in more than a century; they can look at the outright criminality which enabled that meltdown on Wall Street, and they see no prosecutions, and no truly serious reforms (though that is at least as much Congress’s fault as the administration’s); they can look at the posturing over the debt-ceiling crisis, and note how we’re going to play that stupid game again in 2013, even as Europe’s economic house is falling apart. In any case, in the end, there is just this: I may know perfectly well that politics in the art of the possible, and achieving the kind of reforms needed simply weren’t possible for Obama in the present legislative and political environment…but at least I’d like to see him say so. It is one thing to vote for a person who wants to continue to compromise and trust in civil discourse in the face of possible catastrophe; it is another thing to choose to support someone whose inability to see or acknowledge alternatives, and who thus keeps compromising over the same things, again and again, begins to sound a little like fiddling while Rome burns
5) His essentially non-existent, do-nothing, “post-racialist” position on the continuing war on drugs and America’s transformation into a segregated, mass incarceration state. I’ve written too much already, so I’ll let me give you links to a couple of smarter, funnier people, to complete my explanation of the difficulty I’m having with the idea of casting a symbolic vote here in Kansas to re-elect President Obama in November. First, Penn Jillette, whose contempt for Obama almost–but not quite!–gets in the way of the solid class point he’s making; and second, Michelle Alexander, who seriously wants to believe that the election of an African-American president ought to mean real changes in the way aggressive, invasive drug war policies have politically devastated a whole class of American citizens…but, on the basis of the evidence, just can’t.
As I said at the beginning, there’s still more than enough time for me to change my mind about all this. But for now, as I think about the current occupant of the White House, I realize two things: one, that I think he’s better than his probable replacement, and two, that I nonetheless don’t know if I support him enough to wave his flag with my vote this November. But we’ll see.