Barack Obama is running up against a lot of unrealistic expectations in 2012, from the starry visions of his most fervid supporters to the myth that any president can, through persuasiveness or fiat, produce exactly the economic results that he desires. He’s also battling an opponent who’s creating unrealistic expectations of his own, remaking himself to satisfy whichever opportunity arises.
In such an atmosphere, Obama can’t argue too strongly for himself; he mustn’t sound as if he’s telling Americans to be satisfied with where the country is now. And his supporters must acknowledge that the economic recovery is coming slowly. But such a mixed assessment isn’t the proper verdict on a presidency that began with the nation on the verge of a depression. Nor does it capture the promise of his second term.
A fresh mandate in November would help to free Obama from a congressional Republican leadership that made his destruction its top priority. It would open the door to a balanced solution to the nation’s fiscal problems. It would clear the way for desperately needed improvements in education and infrastructure. It would give new impetus to a president whose thoughtful engagement with the world has ended wars, disrupted terrorist networks, and rebuilt alliances. It would put America on a sustainable path, with an economy built on human capital, not financial engineering.
Obama’s reelection would also curb the growing power of special interests, who so often hide their self-serving agendas behind a facade of fist-in-the-air patriotism and promises of low taxes. Anyone who lived through the crash of 2008, and now sees Republicans in Congress seeking to thwart the Dodd-Frank law’s protections, should sense the true impetus behind all the pronouncements about unleashing the job creators. The Supreme Court’s wrongheaded Citizens United decision, granting corporations unlimited power to influence campaigns, provided yet another weapon for the powerful to deploy against the general interest.
Obama is both the key to a brighter future and the bulwark against a return to the chaos of the Bush years. He stands between the divides in American society, so some say he must therefore be the source of division. But as president, Obama has reached out repeatedly to Republicans and shied away from the I’m-the-decider pronouncements of his predecessor. He’s been diligent and responsible — to a fault. If anything, he’s been too little of a politician, not enough of a persuader. But he’s built a record of major accomplishments in the face of intense pressures, and fully deserves reelection.
The crisis that confronted Obama wasn’t some downturn in the business cycle; it was an epic collapse. As Obama was taking the oath on Jan. 20, 2009, the economy was losing a whopping 818,000 jobs in that month alone, with almost as many to follow in each of the next two months. Soon, Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package stopped the hemorrhage, and the still-bruised labor market has added jobs fitfully ever since.
The stimulus bill wasn’t an economic strategy in itself; it was a tourniquet to prevent further bleeding. About a third of the money was aid to states, which are constitutionally prevented from running deficits, to halt layoffs. Another third was tax cuts to working families to prevent a disastrous contraction in consumer spending. The final third was for education, infrastructure, clean energy, and extension of unemployment benefits. While people might argue about some provisions, the Republican depiction of the bill as useless spending is ludicrous.
Obama also brought an honorable end to a war that once seemed destined to divide America for a generation. Obama’s opponents make his withdrawal from Iraq seem as easy as turning a light switch; but anyone who remembers how Presidents Johnson and Nixon agonized for years without bringing troops home from Vietnam should understand that Obama’s courage saved America years of pain. Instead of starting wars, as Bush did, Obama has turned nations like Yemen into partners against Al Qaeda; the terrorist network has lost more than half its leadership on his watch, and the United States is vastly safer.
Then there’s health care. Without adding to the deficit, Obama cleared the way to cover 30 million more people, ended the denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions, kept young adults on their parents’ policies, and established “best practices” boards to eliminate unnecessary procedures. As with the stimulus bill, the Republicans offer no realistic alternatives, only cynical, poll-tested talking points like citing the number of pages or declaring it a government takeover. The middle class is much more secure because of Obamacare.
Somewhere in the Republican presidential nominee is the sensible, data-driven moderate that the Bay State knew as governor. But it may also be that Massachusetts didn’t know Mitt Romney very well, after all. Stuck in a party far to his right, Romney made a fateful bargain to adopt sharply conservative positions, and then start clawing back. Now, voters have no way of knowing what kind of president he’d be.
Romney touted his health plan as a national model, then claimed that states should devise their own solutions. Lately, he’s talked about another federal plan.
In the primaries, Romney catered to the right by promising to cut income-tax rates by an extra 20 percent beyond the extension of the Bush cuts. Now, he cagily claims he’d pay for it by cutting loopholes that don’t strike the middle class, which is mathematically impossible; this additional tax cut, far larger than Bush’s, should erase any notion that Romney is a fiscal conservative. His “moral” pledge to cut the debt is worth nothing without a workable plan.
On foreign policy, voters should worry about the bellicose tone Romney struck for most of the campaign, about his history of offending allies such as Great Britain, and his promise of “no daylight” between him and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has beat the drum too strongly for war with Iran. Yet voters should also worry about Romney’s abrupt shift away from many of the positions he held quite recently. During the foreign-policy debate last week, Romney was suddenly hard-pressed to identify any serious differences with Obama.
Identifying the real Romney on any major issue — social, economic, or foreign — is impossible. But a president this vulnerable within his party, needing to satisfy a conservative Congress, could never make good on his moderate commitments. Whichever Romney shows up, the Romney years would end up looking a lot like the Bush years.
It shouldn’t happen. Obama set a trap for himself with his “hope and change” campaign of 2008, allowing supporters to look beyond his actual promises — which have been mostly fulfilled — and project their own gauzy expectations onto him. Obama hasn’t been the Moses-like character some imagined. Instead, he’s worked tirelessly to undo a series of disasters that preceded him, while pushing forward on health and education. If he’s reelected, amid signs of new life in the job and housing markets, Obama can again be the transformative figure that Washington so desperately needs.