In 2008, my vote for President effectively didn’t matter – Wisconsin was a bright-blue state that then-Senator Obama won by 13.9%. I don’t live in Ohio, so there’s a good chance my vote won’t matter this year regardless, but the polls are extremely close in Colorado, with Nate Silver’s aggregate giving President Obama a 1.2% lead. Whatever the case, I went to my early voting location in Denver, and voted for President Obama. Here’s why.
The question to ask about this past term isn’t “Did President Obama do as well as I thought he would on the economy/health care/foreign policy/immigration/climate change/deficit reduction/etc.?;” it’s “Given the state of things as they were, how did President Obama do?” And based on my assessment of the state of things, he did really, really well.
The last four years have undoubtedly been disappointing to many. A tepid recovery has kept far too many from working, and unemployment is much too high; partisan gridlock makes a farce of representative democracy at times, eroding confidence in our public officials and institutions; laws that made it through Congress feel compromised (in the bad sense) and never seem to live up to the high expectations of their supporters; and issues that will have a significant, negative impact on our future went unremarked upon and were seemingly forgotten (I’m thinking about climate change here, though immigration legislation fits in, too). The soaring rhetoric of Inauguration Day in January, 2009 gave way to blistering attacks, petty insults, and the realities of passing legislation in a divided, hyper-partisan Congress; few would say our representatives “put aside childish things” and acted on the better angels of their nature.
With that said, I don’t think there’s a strong case to be made that the majority of this resulted from the singular failure of the Obama administration. The recession was far, far worse than anyone predicted at the time – GDP growth was -8.9% in the fourth quarter of 2009, not the -6.3% the administration and independent economists guessed; recoveries from financial crises are painstakingly slow, as the country collectively de-leverages and reverts to the “new normal.” Partisan gridlock was also far worse than the Obama administration predicted – when the minority party’s main goal is to block any bill that could potentially make the administration look good, it’s difficult to pass much of anything. Here, early on, was a key inflection point for the administration – it could either push the policies that President Obama campaigned on, or it could work to mend fences and achieve some semblance of bipartisanship and civility; in other words, the “hopey-changey” piece of what President Obama campaigned on. In my assessment, they chose the right path given the circumstances, and Obama’s first-term will go down as one of the more consequential legislatively successful periods in American history. The health reform bill – the signature legislative achievement of the Obama administration – brings America closer to universal insurance than ever before, allowing tens of millions of Americans to purchase affordable insurance against the risk of catastrophic medical costs, while piloting myriad projects designed to reduce health care costs. Multiple rounds of stimulus have created millions of jobs; even more important, economic freefall was averted, thanks to unprecedented, politically brave action. Race to the Top was an extremely inexpensive way to promote the types of reforms that will improve America’s education system, and is slowly pushing schools and teachers unions to improve. Dodd-Frank, Lily Ledbetter, and more – while none of these bills are perfect, they are steps in the right direction that will provide the scaffolding for future improvements. Of course, some major promises were left unfulfilled – cap-and-trade was made impossible by a recalcitrant minority, and the DREAM Act was denied a chance to improve America’s immigration policy, even slightly – but we have to look at what was feasible, not what was ideal.
We also need to think about the next four years and what the candidates are likely to push for. While each election is always “the most important election of our lifetime” to the campaigns and the media, this year it’s arguably true – there are significant philosophical differences between Governor Romney and President Obama on the proper role of government. Both have been relatively sparse on the details – I’ve been particularly disappointed by President Obama’s failure to articulate the positive case for his reelection – but from what they have released, President Obama hews much closer to what I believe.
On the economy, Governor Romney has promised to create 12 million jobs and fundamentally reform the tax code, slashing taxes and removing loopholes from a cluttered, convoluted system. Independent groups have looked at what little he was made public for his plan and filled in the gaps with extremely generous assumptions, and the verdict is clear: his math doesn’t add up. Arithmetically and politically, it’s a non-starter. Governor Romney talks a big game on deficit reduction, but without being willing to accept any tax increases – not even at the absurd ratio of 1:10 increases to spending cuts – it’s hard to make the case he’s actually serious about it.
With respect to health care, Governor Romney vows to repeal the health reform bill, reducing insurance coverage for tens of millions of Americans. His plan for Medicare is to restructure it into a voucher-based system known as “premium support” by health wonks; the gist is that the elderly would receive a set amount of money to spend on health insurance in an exchange full of private insurers, with the set amount growing slower than the historical rate of health care costs. Prima facie, premium support isn’t a bad idea – something similar is the backbone of the health reform bill’s state exchanges – but the devil is in the details, and his plan is likely to shift the risk (read: costs) of health insurance from the federal government to the elderly. His Medicaid plan is much, much more severe (as I’ve written about here) – each state would receive a set amount of money from the federal government, and would be free to structure its health coverage in any way it sees fit. This amount of money would grow much slower than the current growth rate, leading to significant cuts in funding; a study I reference in that linked post shows a cut of about 32% – a prohibitive cut to a program that is already significantly under-funded. The human cost of Governor Romney’s plans for Medicaid could be stultifying.
On government spending, Governor Romney wants to increase defense spending from 3% of GDP to 4% – an amount that is much higher than the Department of Defense is even asking for. Meanwhile, he refuses to touch Medicare or Social Security while still vowing to cut total government spending to 20% of GDP; in order to accomplish all of this, every other program must be cut by, on average, 32% in 2016. Many of these areas – think Medicaid, food stamps, and education – disproportionately benefit the poor; a 32% cut in any of these programs would have a significant human cost, mostly on the poor and disabled. It strikes me as immoral to disproportionately hit the poor and disabled while leaving the best off relatively unscathed.
While I think all of the above should be considered “social issues” – they define how we as a society treat our worst off in a profound way – on the “typical” social issues of abortion, gay rights, and more, Governor Romney has aligned himself with the far-right. While these issues are certainly difficult to grapple with, and I refuse to denigrate those that hold differing viewpoints, I fundamentally disagree with curtailing them, and believe in the right to choose – both whom to marry and whether or not to have a child.
All in all, it seems to me that President Obama would do more to increase equality of opportunity for the worst off; promote policies that increase social mobility; and uphold the social compact that allows for risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and innovation. In a second term, I expect that he’ll find a way to promote fundamental tax reform, a smarter immigration policy, and a cap-and-trade program that taxes the negative externalities of carbon emissions. None of this is guaranteed – if anything, his first term has thoroughly debunked the “Great Man” theory of the Presidency, and it is all contingent on the make-up of Congress – but I think a second-term President Obama has a better chance to nudge America in a positive direction.
All of which is to say: vote for whomever you think is best for the future of this country, domestically and internationally. I did, and that’s why I voted for President Obama.