I’m not voting for Barack Obama and You Shouldn’t Either: Ideological and Strategic Reasons for Voting against the President

So I figured that if I was going to return to the blogosphere, I might as well do so with a bombshell  as the election comes closer and join the longstanding blowup on the internets about President Obama’s progressive bonafides.

I’ve been pretty open about my disdain for President Obama as well as Governor Romney, though I’ve hesitated to actually endorse anyone. Yet with the election coming close—and a lot of time to think about what to say thanks to Hurricane Sandy and a full week without students to teach—I thought I might as well discuss why, as a progressive voter and registered Democrat, I am not voting for the President in this election.

A few things to start with. Firstly, I do think that President Obama has a few quite noteworthy accomplishments to his name. He is certainly the most pro-gay rights president we’ve ever had. The auto bailout and the Economic Recovery Act preserved many jobs that might have vanished in the economic crisis. Many of his policies as President have been good. But not good enough. Not good enough for the times we are in, and not good enough to justify a second term.

Secondly, I voted for then-Senator Obama in 2008, both in the Democratic Primary and the Presidential Election. I actually volunteered for his campaign. I remember standing in a college auditorium and counting down the clock to 11, when Wolf Blitzer called California, Oregon, and Washington for Obama and calling him the winner of the 2008 campaign. I sensed the weight of the moment and still do. This was our first African American president, and a move away from the bluster and incompetence of the Bush Administration.

I went into President Obama’s term with a great deal of hope. But also a strong sense of the reality of who this man was. I believe I went into 2009 with no illusions that President Obama would be the firebrand progressive I wanted him to be. He was a moderate technocrat, one of the most conservative—along with Hillary Clinton—candidates in the Democratic primary. When he voted in favor of shielding telecom companies from punishment for sharing private information of their consumers, illegally, with the federal government, I still supported him, believing that his general commitment to civil liberties would be maintained. When he ridiculed then-Senator Clinton’s support of the Iraq War, I trusted that he would be a wiser president on the issue of how and when we use force. I trusted that he would stand with working people as the economic crisis spiraled out of control. I trusted that he would keep his promise to maintain an open government.

I expected compromises, and I expected periodic disappointments, but even so, I expected that in general, Obama would hold to the promises of his campaign.

I say all of this, because I feel it is essential that you understand who I am, so that you can understand why I am choosing to vote the way I am. I do not come to this decision lightly, nor do I come to it as a longtime radical—no disrespect to radicals—or naïve fool. I come to this decision, because I grew up in the Bush years, persistently terrified for four reasons:

1.)    Our civil liberties were being routinely violated by a growing national security state.

2.)    We as a nation were being dragged into a state of perpetual war around the world, though particularly in Iraq. Our government, as a result, was making us less safe while killing thousands of our soldiers and—at least—tens of thousands of innocent civilians around the world. All the while, the President took on these tasks without getting proper consultation from Congress.

3.)    Our government was doing nothing to address the effects of climate change, which have been on full display this year in the form of droughts, wildfires, and unprecedented hurricanes.

4.)    Our society was growing increasingly unequal, as tax cuts were being extended to the wealthiest Americans while services were being cut for everyone else.

It is on these issues that I became politically aware and active during the years of the Bush Administration, and on these issues I expected real change from the Obama Administration. Contrary to what Democrats may want to believe, we have not gotten the change we deserve on any of these issues. And so I am taking this moment to say that President Obama has had his chance, but with respect, I am looking elsewhere for that change.

So let’s go through all of these issues.

1.)    Civil Liberties: An atrocious record.

On civil liberties, there can be no doubt that President Obama is every bit as bad as President Bush, and in some cases worse. Under President Obama, the Patriot Act was extended, Section 1021 of NDAA guaranteed  the right of the government to detain any U.S. citizen on U.S. soil without due process, extraordinary rendition has continued, and warrantless wiretapping has continued. Meanwhile, President Obama has claimed for himself the right to not only detain U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism, but have such citizens assassinated by his order without any form of due process. Meanwhile, President Obama has locked up the White House more tightly than ever, effectively declaring war on whistleblowers in every branch of the gov’t, the most notorious examples being Bradley Manning (at one point locked in solitary confinement for months on end for no apparent reason) and Julian Assange (currently fighting extradition to Sweden, which could likely lead to extradition to the United States under the espionage charges, or as the New York Times would call it if they did it, journalism).

2.)    Foreign Policy: The state of war continues, and perhaps more frighteningly, the power of the executive branch to make war has expanded under President Obama, most notably in the case of Libya.

President Obama has been able to run on the argument that Libya was a success. Yet I think we should all be concerned that Obama so easily claimed for himself the power to support an expansive conflict in another nation with no backing—or even a vote—from the Congress. This precedent could have dangerous consequences for the future.  For its part, it’s not at all clear that we are any safer for having intervened in Libya, nor is it clear that Libya will turn into a democratic nation at any time in the future.

President Obama has received great credit for ending the war in Iraq, yet few have discussed the fact that Obama wanted to continue the military presence in Iraq. It was only after Iraq itself refused to allow the U.S. military to stay in the country, that President Obama announced we were leaving.

Credit due to President Obama for starting to remove troops from Afghanistan, though I am withholding judgment on this issue. After all, President Obama has set an arbitrary deadline of 2014, which was pushed back from 2011, and may be pushed back again, all while following the so-called “Vietnamization” policy that failed so miserably 40 years ago.

And meanwhile, President Obama has drastically expanded the policy of drone warfare to not just Afghanistan but Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, a policy which has killed far more civilians—often children—than any actual, potential terrorist. Under President Obama, the military has carried out a policy of killing anyone in the vicinity of a suspected terrorist—classifying anyone killed above the age of 17 as a militant—and then killing anyone who arrives on the scene as a first responder.

Put together, all of this should say one thing, which is that philosophically, President Obama is no different from President Bush. He is perhaps more competent than Bush was—and perhaps more competent than a President Romney—but at its core, President Obama’s foreign policy is not one that will make us a safer or more moral country. In essence, Bush, Obama, and Romney share one guiding philosophy: There should be no limits on U.S. power to make war where and when it chooses.

I am voting for Jill Stein, because she is not choosing to make that critique, and frankly, we will not be truly much safer as a nation unless we recognize that that critique applies equally to both major parties.

3.)    Environmental policy President Obama’s record is mixed at best.

President Obama’s support of environmentalism has been half-hearted at best. At his worst, he has been supportive of the disastrous policies of off shore drilling and “clean” coal under what he euphemistically calls an “all of the above” policy.  He has already supported the southern section of the Keystone Pipeline, which leaves little reason to trust that he won’t approve the rest of the pipeline once he is elected, a pipeline expected to cause massive environmental damage and encourage our addiction to oil instead of real alternative solutions. He provided minimal support for an actual cap ‘n’ trade program despite having support from a prominent Republican Lindsey Graham and Independent Joseph Lieberman to get the bill passed.

4.)    Economic policy On this issue we need to go back to the moment of Obama’s election and what that demanded and what many of us expected to vote for.

With the economy in free-fall, unemployment rising, and the country in the midst of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, it was clear we needed a New Deal. One which, like the last one, would include recovery for the people (in this case, that meant debt relief for those deeply in debt because of this crisis), economic stimulation (a massive push for jobs), and strong financial reforms. (Rebuilding the Glass-Steagall reforms that had protected the economy for so long.)

On each of these points, President Obama failed to fully grasp the importance of the moment, half-assing actions that required clear and immediate action and siding with the financial elites over the larger mass of middle and working class Americans he should have been supporting. A number of writers, smarter  than I, have made this larger point. Here’s an excerpt from Matt Stoller’s excellent piece on Salon:

Many will claim that Obama was stymied by a Republican Congress. But the primary policy framework Obama put in place – the bailouts, took place during the transition and the immediate months after the election, when Obama had enormous leverage over the Bush administration and then a dominant Democratic Party in Congress. In fact, during the transition itself, Bush’s Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson offered a deal to Barney Frank, to force banks to write down mortgages and stem foreclosures if Barney would speed up the release of TARP money. Paulson demanded, as a condition of the deal, that Obama sign off on it. Barney said fine, but to his surprise, the incoming president vetoed the deal. Yup, you heard that right — the Bush administration was willing to write down mortgages in response to Democratic pressure, but it was Obama who said no, we want a foreclosure crisis. And with Neil Barofsky’s book ”Bailout,” we see why. Tim Geithner said, in private meetings, that the foreclosure mitigation programs were not meant to mitigate foreclosures, but to spread out pain for the banks, the famous “foam the runway” comment. This central lie is key to the entire Obama economic strategy. It is not that Obama was stymied by Congress, or was up against a system, or faced a massive crisis, which led to the shape of the economy we see today. Rather, Obama had a handshake deal to help the middle class offered to him by Paulson, and Obama said no. He was not constrained by anything but his own policy instincts. And the reflation of corporate profits and financial assets and death of the middle class were the predictable results.

Here’s economist Robert E. Prasch noting the flaws in Obama’s advisers and strategy in the wake of his first election:

The reason underlying this monumental failure is not hard to find.  President-Elect Obama and his inner circle fundamentally misjudged the political moment.  The nation was clearly demanding significant change – so much so that they were willing to elect an unseasoned—Black—politician (remarkable given the U.S.’s unflinching history of racism).  Yet Obama and his inner circle somehow convinced themselves that recycling the tired old idea of “triangulation” from the Clinton first term would be their best play.  To that end, Barack Obama and his senior advisors immediately set about alienating their core supporters.  Within two weeks of election day, the Administration announced that Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner–the individuals whose previous records individually and collectively defined what it meant to be monumental failures as public servants–would be placed in charge of the economic recovery.  Their appointments indicated, and their performances amply confirmed, that whatever “hope and change” meant as a slogan, it would in no way apply to the president’s economic policies.  They have, without a doubt, restored Wall Street’s fortunes – what they have not done is restore the fortunes of anyone else.

In short, President Obama showed, through his advisers and early actions as President, that he was interested in recovery for financial elites while average people remained a secondary priority.

We see this in the actions he took: His healthcare plan, as shown in this interview between Bill Moyers and the health care activist, Dr. Marcia Angell, was a subsidy for health insurance companies with minimal price protections that would benefit us as consumers. The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill that was meant to place regulations on banks was so riddled with regulations as to be functionally irrelevant. His stimulus bill—according to Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman—was half the size it needed to be to actually solve the crisis. Meanwhile, American wages are stagnant, the economy has been slow to rise, and income inequality is on the rise, far greater, in fact, than it was under the Bush administration. The various causes of the financial crisis before us remain unaddressed. And President Obama has failed to demonstrate that he has the political will to address these problems.

Moreover, there’s great reason to be concerned that a second term of President Obama will make these problems worse. Last year, President Obama offered to make cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t attempt those same cuts next year.

So to reiterate: I am a progressive, and I voted for President Obama, because I believed he would move us toward a progressive vision of America, toward a government that would support average Americans, protect civil liberties, and move us away from endless war. I did not expect perfection from President Obama, but I did not expect this.  I did not expect drone warfare, rampant persecution of government whistleblowers, or skyrocketing profits for large banks while working class people struggled with minimal hope that their government would assist. And so, as a matter of principle, I am moving my business elsewhere.

These are my ideological arguments for voting against Obama. All this, and I haven’t even discussed education, though see my earlier post for my thoughts on that topic.

Okay so what are my options?

Dr. Jill Stein is representing the Green Party this election, and has taken strong stances in opposition to President Obama on each of the above issues. In particular, her stance on economic and environmental issues is particularly strong. She has proposed ambitious and sweeping solutions to the economic and environmental crises through the Green New Deal. She is the only candidate who has taken the lessons of the Great Depression to heart, and proposed a jobs program to match the current crisis.

Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party is on the ballot in some states and is a write in option in most states. Anderson is an impressive speaker with political experience as mayor of Salt Lake City, who has made opposition to President Obama’s civil liberties and foreign policy positions a central plank of his campaign. To see both of these candidates and how they compare to the major party candidates, check out this special on the first presidential debate on Democracy Now. A search of their website also shows their responses to the other debates. (The second one is fun, as it features Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode. It can be interesting to compare the objections of the bases of each of the major parties. Check out this debate if you want to see Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.)

My inclination is to vote for Jill Stein. Her party and campaign is the most prominent and organized of the various progressive parties, and she has a longstanding history in progressive activism. And I do think that leftists have much more weight when they can speak in one voice.

Really, though, what matters here, is that you as a progressive voter officially demonstrate your discontent with the leadership of the Democratic Party. I’m going to say this a couple times, but let’s be clear: the only way that progressives can regain power and really jumpstart a movement is when they get over the fear that prevents action.

I’m going back to Mr. Prasch to make this point:

Anyone who has ever gone shopping knows that their bargaining power depends ultimately upon his/her willingness to walk away.  The ability to walk away explains why the service we get from our local dry cleaner is significantly better than what most of us get from our local cable provider.  When you have a choice, and demonstrate a willing to take that choice, you become empowered as consumer (I might add that the same is true of labor markets, which explains why most employers prefer a higher level of unemployment than their employees).  Right now, a deeply cynical reelection campaign is betting that progressives will be too afraid of Romney to seek to empower themselves.  This, let us remember, has been the strategy pursued by an increasingly right-wing Democratic National Committee for close to thirty years.  Every four years we are asked to vote for the lesser evil.  In a couple of weeks we will all learn if this plea will pay off again.  The question is, will we learn?  Will we learn to bargain with a faithless leadership of the Democratic Party?  If not this election, then when?

So what would happen if we chose to walk away? If that was a real threat that Democrats needed to worry about? Well suddenly, Democrats would have to take us as seriously as the wishy-washy swing voters that they generally go after. They would have to really persuade us they are worth voting for by presenting a coherent, ambitious vision for how they will change America.

American history has shown that all reform movements must make this choice at one point or another. Fighting for reform means that you have to do more than compromise from within the system. You have to consciously oppose the system, fight it and move it in your direction. The abolition movement of the mid-1800s, the progressive movement of the early 20th century, labor unions and activists, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s openly fought the establishments of the major parties, not by guaranteeing their votes to whichever party was slightly better.

I’m going to come back to this, but let’s address common arguments against voting third party.

Yea, but Obama isn’t perfect. He had a weak Democratic leadership in Congress, Republicans blocked everything he tried to do, yet still did good things. So let’s give him some credit.

Re-read my post. Many of the most odious actions President Obama took were on issues entirely in his control, such as national security or foreign policy. In other cases (e.g. healthcare, the deficit) he gave away the game to Republicans before even negotiating.  But moreover, President Obama, when he believes something is a priority, will absolutely push it through. He pushed through the auto bailout, the second piece of the bank bailout (with no instructions as to where the money was supposed to go), the repeal of DADT, and his nuclear treaty. He’s only weak and powerless when it’s convenient to the argument to say so.

Romney will be worse. (Particularly on women’s rights.)

Unquestionably. How much worse is up for some discussion. They are virtually identical on foreign policy issues, they both want to cut the deficit dramatically (specifically by cutting social programs), and Romney wrote President Obama’s health care bill. Certainly, Romney has demonstrated he is a principle-less amoral sociopath, but with Democratic control of the Senate, it’s uncertain how much power he will have to carry out the conservative vision he supposedly believes in. Margaret Kimberley, meanwhile, makes a persuasive case that there’s little reason to believe Romney will make things much worse than Obama has or will on issues such as foreign policy and health care, in particular. Falguni A. Sheth makes a persuasive argument that, on women’s rights, our narrow focus on Roe v. Wade has actually harmed the effort to build abortion rights and women’s rights in this country.

All of this, by the way, is irrelevant to the vast majority of progressive voters, who live in states that have already been decided for President Obama. (I’ll address that later.)

Voting third party will cost the “lesser of two evils” the election. That’s what happened in 2000 when Al Gore lost to George W. Bush. Lots of progressives voted for Nader, so Gore lost.

First of all, this is not true, and has never been true, according to CNN exit polls.

Second of all, this sort of thinking is odious in that it excuses our Democratic leadership when they run horrible campaigns. Many don’t remember this, but Al Gore ran a horrendous campaign in 2000. The reason people thought there was no meaningful difference between him and Governor Bush? Al Gore did not demonstrate that there was a meaningful difference between him and Governor Bush!

Thirdly, even with that campaign, he still won Florida. Anyone who brings up Florida needs to address the incredible corruption on display in that election, from the voter suppression efforts of their Republican governor, Jeb Bush, and secretary of state all the way up to a Supreme Court that voted their guy into power against all precedent and reason.

Still not convinced? Fine, but please consider this question.

What would you do if a Democrat ran for president who was pro-life? Who was in favor of overturning the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act? Who advocated war with Iran? Who favored fracking or denied climate change?

At what point would you be willing to walk away from the Democrats?

You need to decide this, because if you don’t, you will always be ignored by your party. If your stance on any of these issues is, “Whatever, just be slightly better than the Republicans,” then you will never gain the attention of the Democratic leadership. Democrats will always walk on you, over you, or around you to get votes elsewhere. And that means that the nation will continue to be moved further and further to the right. Not by conservative Republicans who propose horrific ideas, but by Democrats who capitulate to them. This is why Barack Obama is a conservative president, more conservative than Nixon, as conservative on some issues as Reagan was, and more conservative on some issues than Bush was.

In short, if you are not willing to walk away, if you are okay with the erosion of your civil liberties, the erosion of our middle class and a foreign policy that includes indiscriminate killing of civilians by drone bombs, then to paraphrase Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Presidential debate, “your choice is clear.”

If not, then might I suggest you look over Jill Stein’s campaign platform and make a different type of decision this coming Tuesday.

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