The yard signs have been uprooted. The campaign ads have ceased to saturate the airwaves, for now. And Barack Obama settles into a second term as President of the United States. This last week has been a time of jubilation for Democrats, a time of confusion and frustration for Republicans, and a time of shifting gears from soothsaying the election to soothsaying the next four years for the American pundit class.
I remember how I felt when Obama was first elected in 2008. I had spent endless hours on the campaign trail, canvassing neighborhoods across the border in Iowa, phone banking for Hope and Change, furiously getting out the vote on Election Day. When the news came in the evening of November 4, 2008 that Obama had won, my friends and I were reduced to puddles. We had just helped elect the first African American president. We were part of something historic that night.
This time around, my mood is a rather more ambivalent. On the one hand, I’m relieved that America rejected the candidate who ran on an unambiguously anti-woman, anti-poor, anti-gay, anti-minority, anti-science, pro-rich, pro-White, pro-male platform. But I am simultaneously worried, worried that Obama’s next term will just be four more years of defending questionable policies from even more questionable policies, while every day America hurtles faster and faster toward the brink of environmental and economic collapse.
As pleased as I may be to see Mitt Romney go down to defeat, this much at least could have been said for a Romney presidency: it would have galvanized the American left. And as Romney’s neoliberal class warfare broke the backs of more and more working Americans, the left would have found more and more support for systemic change among moderates (in which category I count most Democrats).
Of course, a Romney presidency would also have meant a hastening of devastating climate change, a massive cession of democratic power to the capitalist class, and unquantifiable human suffering under the insane politics of simultaneous domestic austerity and imperial expansion. Even if Obama isn’t perfect, at least we won’t be returning to a state of affairs where 50 million Americans are still uninsured under the world’s most expensive health insurance system.
What I’m afraid will happen over the next four years, though, is that, content with their recent victory and convinced that “The best is yet to come,” many progressives will lose their drive for change, sit back, and wait for Obama to deliver, just as they did in 2008. Or, as happened in Wisconsin in 2011, they will funnel their creative energies into the next round of elections rather than trying to alter the state of American politics in any real, meaningful way.
Most Democrats I know (not to mention Libertarians and points further left) are deeply uncomfortable with Obama’s continuing drone wars in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, or his administration’s official policy of simply not talking about climate change. These are serious issues. Indeed, the latter might just be the single biggest issue facing the world today: a much-quoted report recently estimated that as many as 100 million people could die by 2030 as a result climate change.
We’re talking about a global catastrophe here. But you didn’t hear much about it on the campaign trail.
Perhaps things will change as Obama enters his new term. Perhaps without the Damoclean Sword of reelection hanging over his head, he’ll be empowered to take a more progressive stance on those issues progressives wished he would’ve taken more a progressive stance on the first time around.
My gut tells me he won’t though. A glance through Obama’s portfolio of presidential accomplishments reveals no true progressive, but rather a moderate centrist who continued the bank bailouts of George W. Bush’s last few months, failed to pursue systemic reform of the finance sector, and based his health care plan on the Massachusetts model that his Republican opponent signed into law. Indeed, Obama is in some ways more classically Republican than anyone in the present-day Republican Party.
Rocky Anderson, the Justice Party’s candidate for President, put it succinctly: “There were people pushing from the left during the beginning of the Obama administration and his chief of staff was telling them to all just shut up and get in line. And unfortunately that’s what much of the Democratic Party and most of their members did.”
My fear is precisely this: that for the next for years, progressive energies will be spent defending Democratic policies against the right, leaving, in the heat of the perpetual American election, little room for critique of those policies.
I wish President Obama only the best in his second term in office. He fought hard for it, and all things considered, I’m glad he won – the alternative was pretty dire. I hope he will use his reelection as a mandate to courageously confront the challenges facing America today.
But I also know that politicians often need a bit of prodding to do the right thing. That is why the time has come—in truth it came four years ago—for the American people to put Barack Obama’s feet to the fire, to hold him to his promises, indeed, to push him beyond them. The election may be over, but the real work is just getting started.
–Tom Emanuel is the executive director of the South Dakota Peace & Justice Center