Volumes have been written already about what Obama promised as a candidate and what he actually delivered as president. The cases are often myriad and confusing because there are so many broken promises and the multiple effects of his disastrous policies are too numerous to sum up in an “elevator speech” that is both concise and convincing. That is part of the reason Mitt Romney is still running close with Obama; he has not wanted to use the central issue of character to articulate a broad, simple argument for why Obama must go.
There are likely reasons for that, including that Romney is a decent man who wants to win on his own merits. But the greater reason, I think, is that he doesn’t know how to articulate this argument in terms a liberal-leaning electorate can understand. That’s because he is not actually liberal.
Matt Stoller has no such barriers to his communication of the central issue this election: Obama’s character. Because he has been inside the machine of evolving Democratic politics, he has a clearer understanding of just why Obama is so offensive to both traditional and actual progressive Democrats. I use the modifier “actual” in relation to progressives because we are well aware of how the hagiography that Obama has deliberately provoked among that group has corrupted them and distorted their worldview.
In an article published Saturday at Salon, of all places, Stoller makes the case for why Democrats, progressive Democrats in particular, should not vote for Obama, not even in swing states. Rather than basing it on the civil liberties angle so many of the more intellectually consistent progressives have used, he makes his case on Obama having delivered the antithesis of the kind of fundamentally transformed policies he promised as a candidate.
The civil liberties/antiwar case was made eloquently a few weeks ago by libertarian Conor Friedersdorf, who wrote a well-cited blog post on why he could not, in good conscience, vote for Obama. While his arguments have tremendous merit, there is an equally powerful case against Obama on the grounds of economic and social equity. That case needs to be made.
So why oppose Obama? Simply, it is the shape of the society Obama is crafting that I oppose, and I intend to hold him responsible, such as I can, for his actions in creating it.
The above is a chart of corporate profits against the main store of savings for most Americans who have savings — home equity. Notice that after the crisis, after the Obama inflection point, corporate profits recovered dramatically and surpassed previous highs, whereas home equity levels have remained static. That $5-7 trillion of lost savings did not come back, whereas financial assets and corporate profits did. Also notice that this is unprecedented in postwar history. Home equity levels and corporate profits have simply never diverged in this way; what was good for GM had always, until recently, been good, if not for America, for the balance sheet of homeowners. Obama’s policies severed this link, completely.
This split represents more than money. It represents a new kind of politics, one where Obama, and yes, he did this, officially enshrined rights for the elite in our constitutional order and removed rights from everyone else (see “The Housing Crash and the End of American Citizenship” in the Fordham Urban Law Journal for a more complete discussion of the problem). The bailouts and the associated Federal Reserve actions were not primarily shifts of funds to bankers; they were a guarantee that property rights for a certain class of creditors were immune from challenge or market forces. The foreclosure crisis, with its rampant criminality, predatory lending, and document forgeries, represents the flip side.
The policy continuity with Bush is a stark contrast to what Obama offered as a candidate.
While life has never been fair, the chart above shows that, since World War II, this level of official legal, political and economic inequity for the broad mass of the public is new (though obviously for subgroups, like African-Americans, it was not new). It is as if America’s traditional racial segregationist tendencies have been reorganized, and the tools and tactics of that system have been repurposed for a multicultural elite colonizing a multicultural population.
This is the shape of the system Obama has designed. It is intentional, it is the modern American order, and it has a certain equilibrium, the kind we identify in Middle Eastern resource extraction based economies.
This argument, it seems to me, is true. While we have spent much time and had much fun mocking the idiocy of Occupy Wall Street, who, let me be clear, deserved righteously that mockery, the core of their argument is true, if not the math. I have been making this same argument for a couple of years, in far less offensive terms and without the stupidity of horizontal movement dynamics.
The nature of a free market is that, from time to time, the balance of powers that it is designed to promote becomes imbalanced. Almost always this happens via the mechanism of regulatory capture and business-governmental incest. These two entities are supposed to have a sibling relationship, not a marital one. When they become bedfellows, as happened at the height of the industrial age, and as has happened in the last few decades, the result is disaster and calamity for the middle and/or lower class citizens.
But therein lies the strength of our republican democracy. It has always given the broad middle the greater say via the mechanism of voting. After the capture of government at the hands of monied industrialists in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the folly of this relationship revealed itself in the Great Depression, we, the people, were able to yank the entire nation back from that dangerous precipice by electing Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Roosevelt understood the fundamental dangers of the time, and though he didn’t often do it in democratic terms, he was determined to make the oligarchy of that time understand that they destroyed the lower classes at their own peril. What made him unique was that he was of the rich, but not for them. Yet he was not against them, either. He understood the rising tide lifted all boats, and that the roiling imbalance of the turbulent financial sea threatened a tsunami that would drown us all. He restored the balance. His greatest folly was expecting that future generations of Democrats and Republicans would pay back what had to be borrowed to restore that balance.
We are at that precipice again, and it is not Obama’s fault solely that we find ourselves here. He is the symptom, not the disease. But if that symptom is left untreated, that disease will seat itself in our body politic more firmly, and will be that much more costly and difficult to defeat. Stoller is no fan of Mitt Romney, and because he is still blinded by his own partisanship and still believes so much of what he hears in the media about him–but not, notably, Obama–he can’t see that Romney offers America something similar to what FDR offered us.
But Romney, like FDR, is a rich man who understands the underpinnings and mechanisms of that world, and how it is the middle class and working class that provides the solid foundation for the success that few achieve. That ability to succeed wildly, though it is limited, ultimately has the power to raise the standards of living for the many, creating cycles of prosperity throughout the system. It is the promise of the marriage of democracy and capitalism, and it has been born out when balanced for more than 230 years. Romney, in contrast with FDR, believes that the free market–were it actually to be free, and were it forced to pay the consequences for its own bad choices–can restore that balance. Roosevelt believed that only government could do that, and perhaps in his time he was right.
We live in a different time, a time when we are saddled with the realities of what Roosevelt himself, I believe unintentionally, wrought. The government is no longer in any position to help, and we must rely on different approaches to solve our generations’ unique problems. We can’t sustain the imbalance of debt any more than we can sustain the imbalance of prosperity. Just as those generations did, we will have to bail ourselves out and restore our own balance. Because we are Americans, we can and will do this. We have always believed in the promise of manifesting our own destinies; it is the very reason we continue to hopefully cast our votes. Thus, not only should Democrats not vote for Obama, especially in swing states, they should eschew that third party temptation and cast their equalizing vote for Mitt Romney. Nothing less than the life of the country as we know it is at stake.