U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally in Denver, Colorado October 4, 2012. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
Much—perhaps too much—has been said about the president and the shortcomings and accomplishments of his administration over the past four years. The record is more mixed than either his cheerleaders or fiercest critics would like to admit.
On the positive side, under this administration we achieved healthcare reform that will provide coverage to 35 million uninsured people; a Recovery Act that represents the largest expansion of anti-poverty programs in more than forty years; financial reform; student loan reform; the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; landmark executive action to protect more than 1 million immigrant youths from deportation; and an end to the war in Iraq.
On the downside, there were the failures to hold Wall Street accountable for crashing the economy; to do right by millions of homeowners facing foreclosure; to reverse the erosion of civil liberties in the “war on terror”; to halt an alarming increase in deportations; and to take bold action on climate change. Perhaps greatest of all was the failure to convey a compelling alternative to market fundamentalism—an ideology that, notwithstanding its disastrous track record, continues to dominate policy-making and the public dialogue at all levels.
Progressives may evaluate the success of Obama’s first term differently depending on how much weight they assign to each of these issues. But however we judge the past four years, it is crucial that we lean into this election without ambivalence, knowing that while an Obama victory will not solve all or even most of our problems, defeat will be catastrophic for the progressive agenda and movement.
We confront a conservative movement that is apocalyptic in its worldview and revolutionary in its aspirations. It is not an exaggeration to say that this movement wants to roll back the great progressive gains of the twentieth century—from voting rights to women’s rights, from basic regulations on corporate behavior to progressive taxation, from the great pillars of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to the basic rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. After the emergence of the Tea Party, the 2010 elections, the extreme Paul Ryan budget proposal and the 2011 state legislative sessions (which featured voter suppression, nativism, attacks on reproductive rights and vicious anti-unionism), there can be no doubting the seriousness or the ferocity of our opponents. It is also important to note the deep racialized underpinnings of this movement, which seeks to entrench the power of an older, wealthier white constituency and prevent an emerging majority of color from finding its voice. The battles over the role and size of government, taxes, the safety net, immigration and voter suppression have become proxies for this underlying demographic tension. Should Obama lose this election, we can expect a ruthless effort to dismantle the social contract—including efforts to use state power to decimate sources of resistance by further restricting the franchise, destroying unions and attacking any remaining centers of power for communities of color and workers. All of this was clear even before, in a leaked video, Mitt Romney made plain his contempt for nearly half of the American people.
Immediately after the election, we will face one of the most important social policy debates of our generation. Before the end of this year, President Obama and Congress must confront the so-called fiscal cliff—the deep automatic cuts in defense and domestic spending that have been mandated by the last debt deal unless a new budget framework can be reached. This discussion of mounting debts and deficits will take place as the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire, setting the stage for a clash of ideologies from which the victor will enjoy the spoils for years to come. Winning the elections does not guarantee a progressive outcome to this debate—far from it—but losing certainly means that the dark politics of austerity will dominate the country, resulting in misery on a scale we can’t now imagine.