Regardless of whether or not this presidential election is a referendum or a choice, President Barack Obama deserves to be reelected on both counts. On the economy and foreign affairs, the Democrat has shown himself to be a better candidate than any of Mitt Romney’s public personas.
The first issue of Barack Obama’s presidency was his handling of the economic collapse which is also his strongest case for reelection. The crisis left a classic liquidity trap in which demand had dropped to very low levels and interest rates had already been lowered to the minimum. This required an immediate Keynesian approach.
By passing the Recovery Act and injecting $787 billion into the American economy only three weeks after his inauguration, the president stopped the ongoing hemorrhaging and quickly stabilized the markets. Despite near unanimous Republican political stonewalling, the president got billions of dollars into green energy investment, health information technology, middle-class tax relief and more.
Investigators found minimal fraud and waste and given the impact it had on the economy, both short and long-term, the spending in sum appears to have been worth it: The economy rebounded with the stimulus saving or creating around two and a half million jobs. The recovery only really slowed down once governors began to institute austerity at the state level and Congress refused to renew any form of stimulus because of the perceived failure of the first round as well as its large impact on the deficit.
However, the Recovery Act was uncommonly large because the slump was too — and it turns out more massive than the stimulus. The oft cited “promise” that unemployment would be at 6 percent right now is a canard, citing a projection, not a promise, by the transition team based on the belief that gross domestic product loss in late 2008 was 5.4 percent. It turned out that the contraction rate was 8.9 percent — unheard of since the Great Depression. Thus, a larger stimulus was economically necessary, though politically impossible.
Having no stimulus? That would have resulted in a Second Great Depression, permanently less revenue and a larger weight in the safety net — much worse for the deficit than temporary spending.
We know this because countercyclical spending has been economic orthodoxy since the 1930s. Democratic and Republican presidents alike have always spent money in some form to juice a down economy. When they haven’t, it has stagnated. This creates a natural deficit but that’s okay — interest rates are low during liquidity traps and are historically so right now.
(Given that the task of economic stimulus is evidently incomplete, pursuing it or not remains the choice for the future.)
Other issues are dwarfed by the president’s averting of economic catastrophe, yet still have large importance — especially in contrast to the plans of Mitt Romney and the congressional Republicans.
On health care, the president passed a law that reduces the deficit, insures more people, drives down costs and increases the lifespan of Medicare. The Republican alternative: Repeal Obamacare without replacing it and turn Medicare into a voucher program, fundamentally transforming its guarantee for seniors.
On financial reform, the president fought for the tightest regulations on the banks (that caused the collapse) since the 1930s. The bill is imperfect but Mitt Romney and Republicans in Congress would repeal it, allowing Wall Street to run the show again. They’d reduce regulations in other places too, claiming that Obama’s regulations are “killing jobs.” Never mind that President Obama has finalized fewer regulations than his two predecessors did at this point in their presidencies.
On the wars, President Obama has also kept his promises. He’s ended the war in Iraq, is winding down the war in Afghanistan and has restored America’s image around the world as much as was realistically possible. He has stood up for American realist and idealist interests where possible (Libya) and done it with minimal (though tragic) casualties and costs to the taxpayer (compare trillions on Afghanistan and Iraq with $1.3 billion on Libya).
He’s stood by Israel and put crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy to dissuade them from pursuing their nuclear program, thus causing their economy to hemorrhage instead of the United States’. The Iranian currency has lost 80 percent of its value in the last two years. Romney doesn’t say what he would do differently other than “show more strength” — worrisome given how many of his foreign-policy advisors are Bush era neoconservatives.
President Obama has reinstated the START Treaty and improved relations with Russia. By contrast, Mitt Romney has said that Russia — not Al Qaeda, China or Iran — is the United States’ number one geopolitical foe, eliciting a direct rebuke from the Kremlin.
On the issue of Osama bin Laden, Mitt Romney said it “wasn’t worth moving heaven and Earth” to find and kill the man responsible for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Obama disagreed and killed Bin Laden by reinstating the CIA department tasked with finding him — the one George W. Bush shut down in 2005. Obama ordered the risky operation knowing that the political consequences of failure would be disastrous and his alone. He’s also taken out over two dozen top Al Qaeda leaders, decimating their ranks. With their leadership gone, the group has largely been absent from the Arab Spring.
The future is a choice between a continuation of these policies and trends and Mitt Romney’s sketchy, hard to pin down economics. He claims he’ll cut taxes (mostly on the rich) and raise defense spending dramatically without increasing the deficit or adding to middle-class Americans’ tax burden. He backs this claim up with studies from ultraconservative think tanks, blog posts and op-eds written by his own economic advisors.
Of course, there is the issue of extreme partisanship, something Obama promised to fix and quite evidently has not.
But it takes two to tango. It was Republicans who decided not to play ball and they decided this on inauguration night at a meeting with former House speaker Newt Gingrich. The thinking was that if Republicans stood in the way, it would be a win-win outcome for them — Obama’s success would mean a good economy which would help them by virtue of incumbency. People would forget who supported what. If Obama failed and the economy did too, they could point the finger and blame the situation on him.
In both cases, they’d shout that they were being handled roughly and that the president was hardly the unifier he claimed he would be. In such a case, the media, craving balance, would blame it on both parties. And that’s exactly what happened.
Given their intransigence and President Obama’s lack of a supermajority for more than a few weeks, it’s no surprise that his administration made no headway on a variety of issues he promised to tackle. When you have to get sixty votes in the Senate for literally everything, it’s impossible to get anything done when the other party finds it politically advantageous to not cooperate. Add in the very real specter of primary challenges for the right and sitting on one’s hands became a matter of political survival.
So in the sense that after the debt crisis and the sparring on the American Jobs Act — legislation that included ideas Republicans had previous supported or proposed — President Obama realized there was literally no utility in trying to be bipartisan, he hasn’t been. That’s not an argument to give the keys back to the Republicans.
It’s not as simple as repeating the last four years or not. To validate Republicans for their embrace of radical politics is deleterious to the health of the American political system. A defeat of Mitt Romney will force the Republicans to come to the table.