Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Obama's re-election "a matter of great urgency"

By J. Kingston Pierce

"The choice is clear," The New Yorker concludes in its October 29 endorsement of Democratic incumbent Barack Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney in this year's presidential race. The editorial is a long and thorough critique of Obama's first term in the White House, and will probably prove more influential because it's so detailed and articulate.

It begins by recalling the daunting challenges that faced the 44th president when he first took office in January 2009:

Obama succeeded George W. Bush, a two-term President whose misbegotten legacy, measured in the money it squandered and the misery it inflicted, has become only more evident with time. Bush left behind an America in dire condition and with a degraded reputation. On Inauguration Day, the United States was in a downward financial spiral brought on by predatory lending, legally sanctioned greed and pyramid schemes, an economic policy geared to the priorities and the comforts of what soon came to be called “the one per cent,” and deregulation that began before the Bush Presidency. In 2008 alone, more than two and a half million jobs were lost--up to three-quarters of a million jobs a month. The gross domestic product was shrinking at a rate of nine per cent. Housing prices collapsed. Credit markets collapsed. The stock market collapsed--and, with it, the retirement prospects of millions. Foreclosures and evictions were ubiquitous; whole neighborhoods and towns emptied. The automobile industry appeared to be headed for bankruptcy. Banks as large as Lehman Brothers were dead, and other banks were foundering. It was a crisis of historic dimensions and global ramifications. However skillful the management in Washington, the slump was bound to last longer than any since the Great Depression.

Although the magazine acknowledges that Obama has "disappointed some of his most ardent supporters" (which is partly "a reflection of the fantastical expectations that attached to him"), it adds that "[t]he President has achieved a run of ambitious legislative, social, and foreign-policy successes that relieved a large measure of the human suffering and national shame inflicted by the Bush Administration. Obama has renewed the honor of the office he holds":

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 -- the $787-billion stimulus package -- was well short of what some economists, including Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, thought the crisis demanded. But it was larger in real dollars than any one of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal measures. It reversed the job-loss trend -- according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as many as 3.6 million private-sector jobs have been created since June, 2009 -- and helped reset the course of the economy. It also represented the largest public investment in infrastructure since President Eisenhower's interstate-highway program...

Obama's most significant legislative achievement was a vast reform of the national health-care system. Five Presidents since the end of the Second World War have tried to pass legislation that would insure universal access to medical care, but all were defeated by deeply entrenched opposition. Obama -- bolstered by the political cunning of the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi -- succeeded. Some critics urged the President to press for a single-payer system -- Medicare for all. Despite its ample merits, such a system had no chance of winning congressional backing. Obama achieved the achievable. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is the single greatest expansion of the social safety net since the advent of Medicaid and Medicare, in 1965. Not one Republican voted for it.

This editorial goes on to praise President Obama for his commitment to civil rights, as well as his steady hand as commander-in-chief and his determination to withdraw American troops from Iraq. But it also makes the case that, because of his flip-flops, extremist economic and social commitments, and determination to once more outlaw abortion in the United States, Romney is the wrong man to replace Obama in the Oval Office:

Romney has embraced the values and the priorities of a Republican Party that has grown increasingly reactionary and rigid in its social vision. It is a party dominated by those who despise government and see no value in public efforts aimed at ameliorating the immense and rapidly increasing inequalities in American society. A visitor to the F.D.R. Memorial, in Washington, is confronted by these words from Roosevelt’s second Inaugural Address, etched in stone: "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide for those who have too little." Romney and the leaders of the contemporary G.O.P. would consider this a call to class warfare. Their effort to disenfranchise poor, black, Hispanic, and student voters in many states deepens the impression that Romney's remarks about the "forty-seven per cent" were a matter not of "inelegant" expression, as he later protested, but of genuine conviction.

Romney's conviction is that the broad swath of citizens who do not pay federal income tax -- a category that includes pensioners, soldiers, low-income workers, and those who have lost their jobs -- are parasites, too far gone in sloth and dependency to be worth the breath one might spend asking for their votes. His descent to this cynical view -- further evidenced by his selection of a running mate, Paul Ryan, who is the epitome of the contemporary radical Republican -- has been dishearteningly smooth. He in essence renounced his greatest achievement in public life -- the Massachusetts health-care law -- because its national manifestation, Obamacare, is anathema to the Tea Party and to the G.O.P. in general. He has tacked to the hard right on abortion, immigration, gun laws, climate change, stem-cell research, gay rights, the Bush tax cuts, and a host of foreign-policy issues. He has signed the Grover Norquist no-tax-hike pledge and endorsed Ryan's winner-take-all economics.

But what is most disquieting is Romney's larger political vision. When he said that Obama "takes his political inspiration from Europe, and from the socialist democrats in Europe," he was not only signalling Obama's "otherness" to one kind of conservative voter; he was suggesting that Obama's liberalism is in conflict with a uniquely American strain of individualism. The theme recurred when Romney and his allies jumped on Obama's observation that no entrepreneur creates a business entirely alone ("You didn't build that"). The Republicans continue to insist on the "Atlas Shrugged" fantasy of the solitary entrepreneurial genius who creates jobs and wealth with no assistance at all from government or society.

In its way, this is an old-fashioned variety of editorial -- impassioned, well-reasoned, bereft of equivocation, and, ultimately, inspiring:

The choice is clear. The Romney-Ryan ticket represents a constricted and backward-looking vision of America: the privatization of the public good. In contrast, the sort of public investment championed by Obama -- and exemplified by both the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act -- takes to heart the old civil-rights motto "Lifting as we climb." That effort cannot, by itself, reverse the rise of inequality that has been under way for at least three decades. But we've already seen the future that Romney represents, and it doesn't work.

The reëlection of Barack Obama is a matter of great urgency. Not only are we in broad agreement with his policy directions; we also see in him what is absent in Mitt Romney -- a first-rate political temperament and a deep sense of fairness and integrity. A two-term Obama Administration will leave an enduringly positive imprint on political life. It will bolster the ideal of good governance and a social vision that tempers individualism with a concern for community. Every Presidential election involves a contest over the idea of America. Obama's America -- one that progresses, however falteringly, toward social justice, tolerance, and equality -- represents the future that this country deserves.

You will find the full New Yorker endorsement here.

(Cross-posted at Limbo.)

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