Sometime over the summer, I made a promise to myself: stop fighting with my progressive friends about whether they should vote for President Obama on November 6. Frankly, I had grown weary of the strident, even silly arguments some of my friends were making, mostly that “there’s no difference” between Obama and the Democrats and Romney and the Republicans, that this election amounts to nothing more than a choice between the “lesser of two evils.” That may have been true at certain points in our recent political history. Not so in 2012.
The Left has made these arguments before. Every election cycle, it seems, we seize the occasion to wail and gnash our teeth in public, to lament the fact that Democrats have failed us in any one of a number of ways. It’s as much a national ritual as our four-year election cycle. Of course, now as in the past, there is ample justification for such disappointment and dissent. Historically, America’s two-party political system has more often than not constrained our political choices, to say nothing of our progressive aspirations. In the twenty years since I cast my first Presidential ballot (for Bill Clinton), I have often made these arguments—especially in 1996 and 2000, when my disaffection from the Democratic Party led me to vote enthusiastically, and unapologetically, for Ralph Nader, and in 2004, when my disgust over Democratic cowardice in the wake of two manufactured wars reached a fever pitch (I ended up voting for John Kerry nonetheless). In my adult lifetime, it has been a rare thing for me to vote for a national Democratic candidate without holding my nose. In an ideal world, we would have more than two viable political parties, and a much broader range of options, to choose from. But alas, we live in the real world even as so many of us struggle to change it.
My intention here is not to lambast the Left. There is more than enough of that going around these days—from the war on workers and women to the scapegoating of immigrants and the poor, from the caricature of public school teachers and college professors to the crackdown on Occupy and other forms of radical dissent. Given this wholesale conservative assault, I am as proud as I’ve ever been to stand firmly on the left. But given the enormously high stakes of this year’s election—and the GOP’s increasingly zealous crusade to dismantle everything that is decent and just about this country—I need to break my summertime promise and make a strong case to my progressive brothers and sisters that it is in our collective interest to get out to vote and give President Obama a second term and a Congress he can work with in November. If we don’t deliver, Mitt Romney and his mendacious band of right-wing plutocrats will deliver us back to the Stone Ages.
Just for the record, though I don’t always vote for Democrats, I always vote—in primaries and general elections, for everything from City Council to President. As a historian, I appreciate the fact that too many people have died in the global struggle for democracy and universal suffrage for me to ever take this right for granted. In fact, voting is still a privilege—or worse, a dream deferred—in too many parts of the world, including parts of the United States where GOP-sponsored voter ID laws have been enacted with the intention and hope of disenfranchising segments of the Democratic base. While I understand anyone’s choice not to vote, in a world where access to the ballot and political self-determination are routinely denied, I will never agree with this decision.
Now, let me say two things about President Obama: first, he is far from perfect, and second, he is far better than the alternative—even more so in 2012 than in 2008 (Sarah Palin was but a horrifying harbinger of things to come). As a nation, we still remember election night nearly four years ago, the teary celebrations and cathartic redemption millions of us experienced when the nation finally elected a black man to hold the highest political office in the land. While many of those emotions have receded—most of the positive ones, anyway—only hopeless partisans or racist bigots are incapable of understanding and appreciating that historic moment and its far-reaching significance for the country. That said, few of us—left, right, or center—are fully satisfied with the President’s work or the current state of the union. There are many issues—war and foreign policy, immigration and education, civil liberties and civil rights, energy and the environment, tax reform and financial regulation, health care and human rights—where President Obama could and should have expended far more political capital, notwithstanding the fierce Republican opposition he’s encountered since he took the oath of office. As progressive citizens, it is our job, as it were, to speak truth to power, and that includes not only the GOP but President Obama and the Democrats as well.
More to the point, it would be misguided for any of us, even those of us on the left who happily voted for Barack Obama in 2008, to confuse the President for a social movement leader. Too many of us have been guilty of this, in part, because the Obama campaign felt so much like a social movement—the creative grassroots organizing; the aspirational mantra of “hope” and “change”; the winning coalition of youth, people of color, workers and women; the candidate’s own humble and “unlikely” background; and the thrilling prospect of undoing nearly a decade of war-mongering and more than twice that of growing inequality between the “have mores” and “have nots.” For its part, the 2008 Obama campaign did a strikingly good job of blurring the lines of distinction between mainstream party politics and progressive social movements, but we should never allow ourselves to be confused about the real differences that exist between people in power and the power of the people. There have been many times throughout our history where progressive social movements have had a profound impact on our social, political and economic systems—abolitionism in the Civil War era, socialism during the Progressive era, feminism during World War I, communism and labor during the Great Depression, the civil rights, student, and anti-war movements of the 1960s, and so on—but in these moments of sweeping change, even the best of our presidents dragged their feet as followers before they rose to the occasion as leaders. In other words, people make presidents, not the other way around.
Barack Obama is not altogether different. And yet this is clearly another one of those moments of potentially sweeping political transformation, a time of great moral reckoning in American history where, as Jesse Jackson once put it, an “energized electorate” can influence the policies of an “enlightened leader.” After all, there is too much at stake, which is precisely why we must continue to demand that President Obama be a better ally rather than a bitter adversary. To that point, there is not a single issue on which President Obama is not more progressive than Mitt Romney, America’s most expensive empty suit, and Paul Ryan, his dishonest, right-wing sidekick. A Romney-Ryan administration would be disastrous for the vast majority of people in the United States, a clear setback to every major progressive struggle in the last half-century. I, for one, would much rather be struggling for justice in Obama’s America than fighting for my life in Romneyworld.
As opposed as I am to everything the current GOP stands for, I still think it’s important to make a positive case for President Obama, not just a negative case against Mitt Romney. For our part, historians tend to judge the “success” of presidents by four main criteria: (1) whether they lead effectively in times of national crisis; (2) whether they win and/or end a war; (3) whether they pass significant pieces of domestic legislation; and (4) whether they work to extend the civil rights of previously disempowered groups. Let's look at President Obama’s record from his first term. With the rescue of the auto industry and other forms of economic stimulus, he has prevented a deep recession from becoming a second great depression (Check One). He kept his campaign promise to end the Iraq War and has pledged to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014 (Check Two). By signing into law the Affordable Care Act, he became the first President in generations to pass sweeping health care reform (Check Three). With the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and the repeal of the military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, he has significantly advanced equal rights for women and LGBT people (Check Four). From a left perspective, of course, none of these achievements go far enough: no bank should ever be “too big to fail”; the war in Afghanistan—and the illegal drone strikes in Pakistan—should end immediately; universal, single-payer health care should be a fundamental human right; and we have a long way to go before women and queer folks are full and equal citizens. We have hardly arrived at the Promised Land, but only a fool could deny that we have made clear progress on a variety of fronts in the last three and a half years. Keeping in mind, too, the fact that Barack Obama is the only President in American history to inherit a failed economy and two major wars, it is impossible to argue, without being disingenuous or dishonest, that his is a failed Presidency. Disagree with him, sure, but do not dismiss or discount him. Whether historians and citizens will ultimately consider Barack Obama a “great” President remains to be seen, but there is simply no question that he has been a successful President based on a whole series of measures, many of them progressive.
Before closing, let me address the elephant in the room insofar as the President is concerned: he’s black (in case you haven’t noticed). Since the moment of his election—and even before—Barack Obama has been subjected to a relentless barrage of racist attacks, from more recent dog whistle claims that he is “the best food stamp President in American history” to the more persistent questioning of his citizenship by the so-called “birther” movement. According to recent polls, a solid majority of registered Republican voters still doubts that President Obama was born in the United States. These attempts to portray the President as somehow “foreign,” or “other,” are familiar to anyone who knows anything about the history of race and racism, especially the long “tradition” of discrimination—all of it vicious, much of it violent—against African-Americans in this country. To his credit, President Obama has responded to these 21st century manifestations of white supremacy with remarkable patience and grace. No doubt, some of this has to do with his “cool,” No-Drama-Obama temperament, but it also has much to do with the fact that he knows his political career would be foreclosed immediately if he ever allowed himself to be caricatured as an “angry black man.” Hell, he couldn’t even state the obvious—that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon Martin”—without being attacked by the worst angels of our nation for playing the “race card” and being “divisive.” Given these realities, which fly in the face of any claim that America has become a “post-racial” society, supporting Barack Obama in this day and age amounts to an anti-racist act. That so many of my left friends—especially the white folks among them—do not fully appreciate this strikes me as not only disappointing but tragic, a different kind of color-blindness. Differences and disagreements aside, progressives should be able to agree that it’s vitally important—symbolically and substantively—that America’s first black President be a success.
So friends: let’s get out to the ballot box and vote for President Obama and other Democratic and progressive candidates on November 6. Then let’s get back into the streets and protest. There is no reason we can’t do both. Progressives always have, and hopefully, we always will.