Should You Vote for Barack Obama?

If you were to judge them against the records of previous Democratic presidents, it’s clear that President Obama is the most liberal president since Lyndon Johnson. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act prevented a second Great Depression and invested billions in education, clean energy, and future technologies. The Affordable Care Act has put the United States on the path toward universal health coverage, and a more sustainable health care system. Dodd-Frank is the most important piece of financial regulation in a generation. It’s not perfect, but—all things considered—it’s pretty good.

National security is a different story. Obama campaigned as someone who push back against the civil liberties abuses of the Bush era. As president, he has doubled-down on them. The drone war in Pakistan, expanded by the Obama administration, has claimed hundreds of innocent lives, and is conducted under a veil of secrecy. The “militants” targeted by the United States are often just military-aged men who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Obama’s kill list–his program of extrajudicial killings, directed at American citizens suspected of terrorism—is an affront to the values of the Constitution, and a huge blemish on his record. The same goes for his failure to prosecute Bush-era tortue abuses, as well as his zeal for whistleblower prosecutions.

For The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, Obama’s terrible record on national security is a deal-breaker; absent a promise to completely reverse course, Friedersdorf cannot vote to give Obama a second term. But, because the Republican Party has gone even further down the road of belligerence, supporting Romney isn’t an option either. Instead, Friedersdorf will give his vote to Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico turned Libertarian candidate who opposes the bipartisan consensus on national security. Conor knows Johnson can’t win, but he supports him anyway because he “ought to.”

Why make a protest vote? He explains:

Sometimes a policy is so reckless or immoral that supporting its backer as “the lesser of two evils” is unacceptable. If enough people start refusing to support any candidate who needlessly terrorizes innocents, perpetrates radical assaults on civil liberties, goes to war without Congress, or persecutes whistleblowers, among other misdeeds, post–9/11 excesses will be reined in.

I admire Conor’s desire for change, and I have a lot of sympathy for his refusal to set his moral values aside when making an electoral choice. But, I have a few quibbles.

For as much as they have a huge effect on the direction of the country, presidential elections are not the place where meaningful change occurs.

Take President Obama. He was the catalyst for health care reform—in the sense that it was part of his agenda—but it didn’t happen because Obama was elected. The push for universal health care was a decades-long process that involved efforts at the elite and grassroots levels. Experts had to be trained, politicians had to be elected, and liberals who supported reform had to reach key positions within the Democratic Party. Obama’s decision to run with health care reform was the culmination of that effort, not the beginning.

By itself, voting for Gary Johnson won’t move the parties away their consensus on national security. Indeed, Conor’s scenario—where the two parties change in response to a third—requires the outright collapse of the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as an incredibly successful third-party candidacy. This isn’t likely. Tthe most successful third-party candidacy in American history happened before the age of strong parties, and was run by a popular former president—Theodore Roosevelt—who led a major faction of the GOP. It’s hard to imagine any similar scenario repeating itself.

If you want the American political system to become more responsive to the concerns of civil libertarians, you have to make it more responsive. And you do that by utilizing the tremendous influence available to dedicated interests within the system. The two parties aren’t particularly centralized—they draw their talent and resources from smaller state parties, who in turn draw from local and county parties. It’s possible for a dedicated group of people to take control of a local party, field a candidate, win, and expand outwards.

It’s hard work—and a lot of time and persuasion—but it can happen. Moreover, it can be translated to influence on a presidential scale. In five years, opposition to the Iraq War went from a minority position in the Democratic Party, to a litmus test for the party’s nomination. It’s when you’ve built a strong constituency for your interests, and shaped the contours of the debate, that you can shape the conduct of a presidency.

Which gets to my second quibble with Conor’s piece: This idea that President Obama—or any executive—is acting with complete autonomy when it comes to national security. In a literal sense, this is true. There are few—if any—constraints on Obama’s ability to conduct war. But, if this were offensive to the public, we would have heard something. American voters don’t care about the drone war. And insofar that they care, it’s because the government has seemingly developed a way to kill “terrorists” without risking American lives. Put another way, if there is a bipartisan consensus around national security, it’s at least partly because the voters have pushed the parties in that direction, by rewarding the belligerent and punishing the reticient. Civil libertarians have to shift public opinion in their direction before they can expect to see politicians respond to their concerns. This is hard work, but it’s possible (see: the push for same-sex marriage).

One last thing. Friedersdorf refuses to vote for a “lesser evil,” but the fact of the matter is that Gary Johnson is also a “lesser evil.” Johnson supports immediate austerity and a move to balanced budgets for the 2013 fiscal year. He would cut 43 percent from the federal budget in all areas, and call for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. He supports “sound money”—which is code for tight monetary policy—and opposes entitlement spending, and most functions of the welfare state. He opposes Roe v. Wade—thus making him an effective opponent of abortion rights—and does not believe that health care is a right.

A world where Johnson could be elected president—which, Conor says, would be a good outcome—is a world where these things are possible. His domestic policies would throw millions into hardship, and his hugely contractionary economic policies would plunge the country—and the globe—into a recession.

Whether he sees it or not, Friedersdorf is making a moral calculus by supporting Johnson. For him, the terrible effects of Johnsons’ policies on ordinary people—recession, increased joblessness, increased homelessness—is worth a world where the United States does not conduct drone strikes. I disagree, but unlike Friedersdorf—who sees the similar calculus among liberals as evidence of willful blindness to the consequences of drone strikes—I don’t think this makes him indifferent to the concern of poor people.


"If you were to judge them against the records of previous Democratic presidents, it’s clear that President Obama is the most liberal president since Lyndon Johnson.... National security is a different story."

So, on national security he's the least liberal Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson?

One last thing. Friedersdorf refuses to vote for a “lesser evil,” but the fact of the matter is that Gary Johnson is also a “lesser evil.”

It's something of a conceit to believe that any vote isn't going to be, at some level, for the "lesser evil". I suspect that the thing that makes a vote for Johnson "different" in Friedersdorf's eyes is that he expects Johnson to lose. But if that's the case, he's effectively casting 0.5 votes for the candidate he believes to be the greater evil, the difference between an actual vote for the lesser evil and the "wash" that results from voting for Johnson.

Simply put, don't vote for the Stench (Paul Ryan's nickname for Mitt).


Romney's plan reduces his own taxes to 1% I have read. Looking at the new State of Working America, Table 2.4 on income sources and distribution, the top 1% received 19.9% of all income which about the same amount as the lower-earning 50% of households. And their income sources break down to 31.4% from capital gains and 12.1% in interest and dividends --- that's over half their income. Wages is about 1/4 of the income of the top 1%. In 1979 the income of the top 1% was about 8% of total income, in 2007 it was about 17% (post-tax and post-transfer according to the CBO report Historical Trends in Income Distribution between 1997 - 2007). Romney's plan is ridiculous -- verges on treason? if you believe deficit spending is a high crime. Doesn't the have an essay on his plan stating that 70% cuts in non-defense discretionary spending would result over 10 years in 2022? That's with the passage of the balanced budget amendment and the 20% of GDP revenue cap. That's my recollection.

Simply put, don't vote for the Stench (Paul Ryan's nickname for Mitt).


"President Obama is the most liberal president since Lyndon Johnson."

LBJ killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, and over 50,000 American kids for a pointless ideological cause. If killing brown-skinned people is liberal, then Obama matches Johnson's record well, though he has not accounted for as many deaths of innocents. Maybe he needs another four years to accomplish this.

"The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act prevented a second Great Depression and invested billions in education, clean energy, and future technologies."

The ARRA's effects on the economy have been debated by many scholars and there is no clear consensus on its effect. We do know that the recovery from the recession has been a jobless one, that many of the energy/tech investments turned out to be boondoggles (Solyndra, Fiskar, and many others), and the investments in education were essentially paying for an extra year or two of teachers' salaries while state and local governments got their ducks in a row. (There is strong evidence that class size does not matter for most subject matter and for most grade levels.) The education investment was a pay back to the NEA and teachers' unions in general. Meanwhile, national test scores continue to slide or are stagnant. The investments in GM and Chrysler resulted in taxpayers being on the hook for $25-35 billion dollars (stock price changes make the final figure uncertain). Obama also did nothing to prosecute wrongdoing in the financial industry, sending a signal that wrongdoing is tolerated among the elite (a message he also sent by not prosecuting Bush and company for war crimes).

"The Affordable Care Act has put the United States on the path toward universal health coverage, and a more sustainable health care system."

There is no evidence that the ACA reformed anything about the system. It did expand coverage, but it is not clear who, ultimately, will foot the bill. Health care analysts are in consensus that there is precious little in the ACA that will change the cost curve downwards. Watch the Democrats run away from the individual mandate when the first bills start arriving. Remember, the ACA was supported by the AMA, Pharma, hospitals -- all the vested interests who saw that it would increase demand for health care without forcing them to reform from within -- i.e., they will continue to profit at the same high rate as before.

Obama has been a negative force with regards to our nation's economy. When he had the majority in both houses he did nothing to reform the tax code, for example. He said during the campaign that he would get rid of worthless domestic programs -- name one that he has eliminated. His stepping up of the War on Drugs has wasted lives and money -- and resulted in the incarceration of thousands of minorities, who are most often victimized by unnecessary drug enforcement policy.

A protest vote is a vote for Romney. Romney will appoint at least one Supreme Court justice. He has already said he will appoint justices in the mold of Clarence Thomas etc. who invented the "Money is speech" idea that resulted in Citizens United. That way lies the end of US elections. They will be owned by the richest 1% for no one else will be able to afford one.

GARY JOHNSON IS A LIBERTARIAN!!! Libertarians are the stupidest morons in the universe. They want to eliminate the FDA, among other things. If you vote libertarian, you might as well shoot yourself in the head, and please do it before you vote.

Is this article snark?

Not only is a vote for Johnson possible the stupidest fu-ck-ing choice in this election, but it would absolutely DESTROY the economy. Don't listen to me, listen to Krugman (Nobel) and Steiglitz (Nobel) who both are very clear - austerity is the road to the destruction of the US economy. The author is an absolute ignoramus and idiot.

Death or indefinate detention on the whim of a death committee is not acceptable, nor is perpetual contractor-feeding war. Gary Johnson is it for anyone who cares about civil rights. A Jill Stein/Gary Johnson debate should happen, moderated by Jon Stewart of some equally intelligent person. There should be a debate for people who do not want to vote for a Goldman Sachs-owned candidate.

POed Lib,

You really don't know much about life or economics do you? You are comparing an ideology to a political party. That is like saying that Democrats want everyone to be poor, because it gives power to the big government agenda.

The fiscal cliff is coming and borrowing a crap ton of money to pay for toys now will not prevent the cliff. We can slam on our brakes, use what resources we have to fix the fundamental problems with our economy, and end up in a better spot in 20 years.

QE4, QE15 won't change the fact that the American Dream is dying. Krugman and Steiglitz are failures, and that type of economics has run way beyond the bounds of what should be possible.

The problem with austerity as it has been done in Europe is that the population is used to the government teet. We aren't used to it yet in the US, so the process will be much less painful. Why else will it be less painful? Our military budget makes up such a huge proportion of our federal government budget. Very easy target to cut. Would you rather have a bunch of new weapons or healthcare for citizens? You can't have both.

I don't see how any logical person sees the defecit financing model as an OK system of economics. At a basic level this is like going to a payday loan office because you think you are going to get a raise at work in a few months. What happens if you don't get the raise? What happens if you do this for 50 years and are 42 raises short of paying off your loan? At some point you have to cut back and pay the loan back or go bankrupt.

I agree that not much can be done in this Presidential election, but I think this analysis is naive on changing the corporate-controlled parties. I believe the establishment parties can and will thwart efforts to remove them from control byt Wall Street and the military-industrial complex. Witness the blatant ignoring of actual votes from the floor at both national conventions this year.

The "national security consensus" does not include the people. For example, polls clearly show that a huge majority of Americans (including majorities of both self-identified Democrats and self-identified Republicans) believe we should be out of Afghanistan now, but neither establishment party cares what the people think. They always nominate militaristic candidates despite survey after survey showing that's not where the majority of the people stand.

I also don't support Gary Johnson, but that's somewhat irrelevant to the argument of whether or not to vote for one of the corporatist candidates. In fact, at this point I don't think it's that important which alternative you vote for. The significant thing will be how many total votes go for candidates other than Obamney. The goal should be to make that high enough to get some media attention at the dissatisfaction with the extra-Constitutional 2-party system.

Well, as for me I just wish he'd get us out of there. As for the rest, you're just picking nits I don't care about, at all. Obama has my vote, this time, just as he did last time.

I disagree with this on every point. Obama is the most liberal president since Bush. For the most part he has doubled down on every Bush policy. AHCA was written by corporations, the bailout benefited the rich the most while prolonging the recession and driving up the price of goods. His assessment of Johnson suffers from exaggeration and selective use of facts. Johnson stated in a GOP DEBATE that while he would have signed a ban on late term abortion he would not otherwise restrict a woman's right to choose. He also said he would bring the troops home and cut the DEFENSE BUDGET by 40% (still a big chunk of the overall budget.) He would also submit a balanced budget and refuse to sign a budget that was not balanced. Those are things he did as governor. Let's face facts, deficit spending hasn't helped under Obama just like it didn't work under Bush and Reagan.

Why no mention of the war on drugs or NDAA? Maybe because Obama falls on the unpopular and not-so-liberal side of those arguments while Johnson does not? How convenient to leave those issues out.

So his argument boils down to "Vote for Obama because nobody really cares about civil rights and war anymore."

I do appreciate the writer's comparison of Obama to the Lyndon Johnson. That Johnson is also known for his escalation of the war in Vietnam. So much for the peace party.
This goes to show the Democratic Party cares about war just like the Republican Party cares about the budget. It's important only when the other side is in power.

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