Students cheer as President Barack Obama makes a point during campaign stop on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. endorsed John Kennedy over Richard Nixon in 1960, it wasn’t because Kennedy was a powerful champion of civil rights, but because he represented the better option. Deepak Bhargava is right to ground his case for “lean[ing] into this election without ambivalence” on the threat posed by a victory by Romney and the moneyed right. And he correctly argues for building an independent movement that is ready to challenge the “elite austerity consensus” after the election. The tension between those two positions is demonstrated by what Bhargava intimates but does not say: in the fundamental struggle over the “dark politics of austerity,” a re-elected President Obama will likely lead the wrong side.
Bhargava’s fair-minded list of triumphs and disappointments from Obama’s first term omits the greatest calamity: the president turned toward austerity—and gave us Simpson-Bowles—in the midst of mass unemployment, rising poverty and declining wages. He joined the “elite consensus” on austerity early and has shown that he’s ready to put Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid “on the table.” He has touted his budget for cutting domestic spending to levels not seen since Eisenhower. And though he’s been bold in advocating increased taxes on the wealthy, his is a very modest version of progressive tax reform, returning top-end taxes to their Clinton-era levels and insisting that billionaires shouldn’t pay a lower rate than their secretaries. It’s a stark contrast to the trickle-down offerings of Romney/Ryan, but for addressing the nation’s needs, it isn’t even close.
The fight over austerity will be defining. To turn now to getting our books in order is to accept the current levels of joblessness, poverty and insecurity as the new normal. That is simply unacceptable. To focus on deficit reduction and not on how to revive an economy that works for working people is an ignoble retreat for a reform president.
Here, the successes of the movements for gay and immigrant rights or the fight over healthcare offer little precedent. And the coming struggle won’t be similar to the citizens’ lobbying effort for the public option within the president’s health reforms. This struggle requires a citizen mobilization that upends the “table” at which the president sits and demands bold action on jobs.
Here the president will not only be a reluctant warrior; he’ll be wearing the wrong jersey. A win by Romney in November would be catastrophic, but Obama’s victory will not be the triumph of hope; it will be the defeat of fear. The president increasingly defines himself as separate, if not antagonistic, to the movement he inspired. In 2008, it was “Yes, we can.” In 2012, “The election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you.” This is, as Bhargava notes, “resonant” but not for the reasons he suggests. After November, progressives will fight the next determining battle not only without the president, but also most likely against him. And the movement he helped inspire will succeed only if it moves far beyond the limits of his politics and policies.
Other Replies to Deepak Bhargava’s “Why Obama?”
Dorian T. Warren: “Go for the Jugular”
Frances Fox Piven and Lorraine C. Minnite: “Movements Need Politicians—and Vice Versa”
Saket Soni: “We Need More than a New President”
Bill Fletcher Jr.: “Defeat the Reactionary White Elite”
Tom Hayden: “Obama’s Legacy is Our Leverage”
Ai-Jen Poo: “A Politics of Love”
Ilyse Hogue: “Time to Rewire”
And this web-only article:
Michael Brune: “For the Climate, Obama Needs Another Four Years”