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The Great Repudiation and the Return to Normalcy: Prospects for Obama’s Second Term

I’ve been contemplating the notion of a graduated return to normalcy for about a year. A few days from election, with Obama’s chances having dimmed considerably, would seem to be the most perilous time to put this idea forward, but I’ll go ahead and propose anyway that a slow but definite return to normalcy has been under way for a while, and that if Obama is reelected, this countertendency is likely to pick up steam in the next four years.

I assert this because before Mitt Romney chose the first debate to unveil his etch-a-sketch moment—very smart, because it left little time for the obvious deceit to be exposed, and because he’d already signaled his allegiance to the extreme right for much of the campaign—he was headed for a historic loss. If Romney has any chance in the election, it’s only because he’s temporarily assumed the posture of a Massachusetts moderate, a persona relatively low-information voters partly bought into, as he repudiated every single extremist policy position of his, both domestic and international, over the course of three debates.

Romney and the Republicans, it was clear by October 3, could not win on their terms; the Romney-Ryan agenda was dead in the water, if it was going to be presented for what it really was. Voucherization of Medicare is a loser, as is ending abortion in cases of rape and incest, or self-deportation for “illegals.”  

Well-informed voters understood Romney’s chameleon act (which would last only until election day), but a lot of voters only saw a former governor of a liberal state advocating a pragmatic rescue for the middle-class. Romney disavowed his radical tax cut aimed for the wealthiest. He—and Ryan—overnight became spokesmen for Medicare, Social Security, education, healthcare, the auto industry, and opportunity for the middle class. In other words, they adopted the Democratic agenda, because this was the only way they could salvage the election. A month more, and this disguise would have been thoroughly exposed, so the unveiling of the transformation at such a late moment was strategically brilliant.

Romney’s adoption of a “humble” international posture in the third debate was particularly evocative of George W. Bush’s similar attitude in the second debate in 2000, but memories are short, and all people care about now, in an environment where the Republicans are playing down the economy (just as they did in 2000), is that there is an alternative leadership to Obama that promises to break gridlock. Of course, it’s Republicans themselves who have created gridlock, especially over the debt ceiling and the impending fiscal cliff, and by not passing Obama’s jobs bill or any further stimulus, but the average person doesn’t understand the machinations in Washington. If Romney stood with the actual Republican line on any of these issues, he would go down in flames.

I’ve always been doubtful when it comes to the belief that demography is destiny. I was openly skeptical when Ruy Teixeira and John Judis, a decade ago, presented the most cogent argument to date that demographics favored a long-term Democratic ascendancy. Latinos, Asians, other minorities, gays, suburban women, affluent professionals, these were all natural democratic groups, according to Teixeira and Judis. Yes, but. I thought Republicans had a real opportunity—had they presented an optimistic economic and social program, a la Reagan—to get these constituencies over to their side. They not only failed—the Republican rejection of Bush’s immigration reform proposal was probably the turning point—but continue to profoundly alienate these voting blocs with their premodern ideas on rape and abortion, their opposition to the most minimal humanity on immigration, and their demonization of everyone who doesn’t fit the Randian abstraction of the completely self-sufficient, white small-business owner who doesn’t want government and shouldn’t have to pay taxes.

It should be up to Democrats to expose this agenda for the cover it provides to policies that actually hurt the poor and middle-class, but obstacles to ideological clarity remain, partly due to the nature of the post-Clinton centrist Democratic party, partly due to Obama’s personal limitations, and partly due to the degree to which toxic ideas from the Bush era retain a hold. But the overall advantage accrues to Democrats—and looking beyond the party, to the larger progressive movement—barring a Romney election, which would set things back calamitously. Romney would take credit for the slow but steady economic recovery already underway (his promised 12 million jobs would be created anyway), and the obsession with deficit reduction would suddenly recede. The Republicans would again manage to throttle the voices of progressive change.

Of course, Obama’s caution—some would say outright collusion with the wrong members of the wrong party—for his first two and a half years was maddening. Again and again he threw away the Democrats’ natural advantages in domestic policy because he blurred the language of policy to gain bipartisan consensus, which was never attainable anyway. Thus he legitimized the deficit discourse which has taken priority over full employment, when he could have articulated a convincing case for staggered Keynesian stimulus, based on economic conditions year to year. As early as the first debate with John McCain in 2008, he chose to back off a convincing rationale for Keynesian policy—such as Bill Clinton could easily have made—and went on to pass the bank bailout almost by stealth, as though no one would notice, which then created the opening for the Tea Party.

After the debt ceiling impasse in the summer of 2011, however, Obama chose to reformulate his language. Unfortunately, instead of a truly progressive agenda the middle-class could get behind, he chose the language of populism. Populism is always a loser in American politics. It’s not really redistributive so it generates insufficient enthusiasm among liberals, but at the same time it leaves itself open to charges of class warfare by right-wingers, and swing voters are likely to buy into that accusation. This is the Bob Shrum strategy, which cost Al Gore the 2000 election. Don’t say you’re going to fight for the middle-class, then offer small-bore policies, do something real. The language of populism, with shades of protectionism, turns off Wall Street, without gaining enough of a payoff from voters. It costs Democrats elections every time, because it blurs distinctions, and lets Republicans off the hook.

After the summer of 2011, Obama decided on his campaign rhetoric for the duration. It wasn’t going to be bragging about a debt deal with Republicans—the grand bargain which would have cut Social Security and Medicare in return for modest tax increases on the rich—but instead it would be a series of trivial populist measures, familiar from past campaigns. The latest incarnation is Obama’s “new economic patriotism,” part of which assails corporations for shipping jobs overseas, a familiar nostrum. This is meant to appeal to the undecided voter in Ohio, but it is not a message, it is not a philosophy, it is not a policy, and it is not a winning strategy. Obama never campaigned whole-heartedly for his 2011 jobs bill; that was always intended as an eventual campaign issue, though he hasn’t made much mention of it in the campaign anyway.

Another initiative, from earlier this year, is minimal concessions on student loans, making them a little more affordable, when what is needed is a large-scale reform of higher education, undoing its ability to scalp unsuspecting students, just as was true of the mortgage industry prior to the collapse. Such tiny measures are fine as far as they go, and they help real people, but they leave a palpable sense of absence of message, so that a shape-shifting Romney, newly turned moderate, can easily step in and claim the mantle of leadership.

This year, Obama had to be dragged kicking and screaming into acknowledgment of gay rights after Biden jumped the gun. What happened afterward, did the skies fall? Even in North Carolina, where it was supposed to hurt Obama the most, electoral victory was in sight until Romney’s latter-day conversion. But it was partly an election year gambit, to secure funding from liberal coastal elites, rather than the vigorous campaign for human rights, framed in the right context, that it should have been.

When it looked like Marco Rubio was going to outsmart him by proposing a modified Dream Act in the senate, Obama allowed temporary deferments to some young undocumented immigrants who had arrived as children. Compared to the scale of inhumanity in the immigration system—where millions of people suffer in limbo due to no fault of their own—the concession amounted to pulling a few precious items out of a burning house.

Yet did the skies fall after that? In fact, as Obama acknowledges, if he does pull out this election, it will in no small part be due to Hispanic support, which will make the difference in Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. Obama, however, never got behind immigration reform in his entire term. When Congressman Gutierrez of Illinois presented a humane plan early on, there was complete silence. It’s all too little, too late, yet because it is something substantial—a small down payment on the Dream Act, through administrative measures—it is translating into real electoral gains.

What would be the future for Virginia, Florida, Arizona, Georgia, and many Midwestern states too, if Obama ever had the nerve to get behind a humane immigration policy? Even rhetorically he took a pass, never speaking up for immigration in principle. For the first three years of his administration, Obama did nothing but deport people at higher rates—as Janet Napolitano boasted—than even George W. Bush, at a time when net immigration was rapidly declining.

And mocking Republican extremism on abortion, contraception, and rape is fine and necessary, but as Clinton showed with his DNC speech which shifted poll numbers, women, like everyone else, respond to bare knuckles policies that actually alleviate poverty, a visionary economic philosophy that goes beyond day-to-day skirmishes. Clinton had such a philosophy, although a sustained critique of his neoliberal tendencies is certainly possible. Romney pretends to have one and gets away with it. Obama, at the last moment, in danger of losing, cobbles together a booklet, and gives an “off the record” interview to the Des Moines Register, where the grand bargain on debt—the one that already failed—and a compromise on immigration are presented as the thrust of his second-term agenda seeking common ground.

Still, Obama was forthright when he told Univision that change comes from outside Washington. The partial Dream Act compromise was due to the lasting effects of the campaign immigrant rights activists mounted a few years ago, and the electoral necessity of winning over this bloc. Obama is clearly telling us that he won’t go to bat for progressive causes unless the pressure is so great that personal risk for his legacy is minimized. That’s an honest admission.

Here the failure of the Occupy movement is palpable in terms of not offering any policy agenda to hang onto. I’m a political junkie, yet I can’t tell you anything about what Occupy wants. Maybe I have to go to certain websites to find out? But if that’s the case, then the failure of their message to break through media noise speaks for itself. I should know, in a few bullet points, like with the Tea Party, what policy measures Occupy stands for. Personally, I would opt for a $15 living wage (that seems about right to me, given 2012 conditions), massive student debt forgiveness, and general lenience toward indebtedness of all kinds. That would seem to be a positive start. Absent such a message, we’re back to deficit reduction as the default.

Despite the caveats I’ve listed above, I still say that the turf being contested now is all Democratic, everything favors progressive causes, and we seem to be returning—the 2011 Occupy movement and the 1999 Seattle protests have close parallels—about where we were on the eve of the Bush presidency. The war on terror meme can be easily reactivated at any time, however, and it is the biggest threat for progressives, because it gives license to every kind of economic injustice. If Romney becomes president the war on terror meme would be back in full swing, and all bets would be off. There would be perpetual noise about war preparations, and once again we would be living in a “war presidency,” as the war in Afghanistan, for one, would continue unabated, and perhaps new wars would start as soon as the economic situation permitted.

However, let’s give Obama credit where he deserves it. The 10th anniversary of September 11 seemed to me a turning point, a brake on active mourning, a signal to move forward. The eleventh anniversary was much more muted than I expected. This shows clear progress.

I would hazard that the fundamental reason the economy collapsed—more than financial shenanigans, which to some extent always go on—is that we became a security-oriented nation, and innovation and productive investment, made possible by tolerance and optimism, were crushed, as policy became hostage to risk-aversion.

Obama’s first act as president should have been restoration of civil liberties, but within the first few days there was tremendous pushback on such initiatives and he backed off for good. The pushback against the closure of Guantanamo and the trial of terror defendants on American soil put an end to that chapter. A possible advantage of a second Obama term would be a gradual return to normalcy on these fronts, if enough outside pressure is applied. Without the end of the terror climate, there will be no real return to sustained economic growth.

The constraints on Obama—both real and self-imposed—are great. Much has been made of Romney’s 47 percent secret video, but Obama’s fundraisers, like any presidential contender’s, are full of kowtowing to his donors. David Samuels’s recent Harper’s article is very revealing on this count, showing that Obama realizes the firm checks on his Middle Eastern policy. Obama’s hawkishness in the foreign policy debate was so extreme that all Romney had to do was agree. Over his entire presidency, Obama has continued the informant-driven foiled domestic “terror conspiracies,” to keep fears inflamed, and thus satisfy the security apparatus.

The Benghazi episode clearly reveals the push and pull. The administration at first correctly downplayed it rather than inflaming the situation. Focusing on the role of the offensive movie was the right course of action. But then pushback began, until now we’ve reached a position where it has been framed as al-Qaeda terrorism, exactly as the national security bureaucracy would like it. In a Romney presidency, this would have been the starting position. On this, as on so many security-related issues, Obama has little support from the media, from the intelligentsia, from any prominent voice. He cannot fight these battles alone.

There has never been a rational discussion of the costs of terrorism. No American politician can concede that a single life can ever be lost to terrorism even if it means that we squander our entire GDP to defend against imagined monsters. If engagement with Afghanistan substantially declines, and if Obama ever lets up on his drone war in Pakistan, perhaps there can be a discussion about the tragedy of permanent war. That would suck the air out of the Rand Paul “libertarians.”

I planned this as an accounting of the various ways I want to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, but it has turned into what sounds like a post-mortem. The best we can hope for is that the economy will continue its moderate recovery—although a more aggressive response, such as preventing government layoffs, and helping people with underwater mortgages and crushing student debt, would accelerate it—and that this will create space for a different discourse to substitute for the one we’ve lived with for the last dozen years. It’s a small hope, yet at the same time it’s very great, because the alternative, the silencing of the emerging discourse of normalcy, is so frightening.

The extremists are desperate to win this election because demographics are again asserting their natural tendencies. Had Republicans not managed to shut down immigration and drive so many people underground, the demographic impact, by 2012, would have been even greater, but still it’s being felt in swing states.

What gives me reason for hope is that Obama struck me in the first debate—though of course he should have been more aggressive in countering Romney’s lies—as presenting his liberal side for the first time since early 2008, and that this sharpening of contrasts continued in the next two debates. He’s taken a firm stand on not extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, whereas Clinton probably would have compromised. It is up to people outside Washington to push him farther, but the chance of being able to do that, and extending the debate to more fundamental reasons why positive change is blocked at every point—such as the campaign finance structure—makes all the difference in the world. Normalcy is always contingent, given the cloud of terror we still live under. It can be swept away at a moment’s notice.

Here are the facts. The majority does not want war, it does not want unnecessary intrusions, and it wants to be humane toward the poor and sick and immigrants and gays. The other side is running out of angry white men to win elections. If this historic election goes to Obama, then the Republicans will never again mount a campaign based on such extremism, because the limited electoral appeal of this repressive ideology will have been exposed. If even conditions of economic distress (though they’re much exaggerated by the Republicans) can’t secure a national election, then the Tea Party will be dead, extremism will be dead, and the Republicans might start contemplating moderation again, a la Jeb Bush or Jon Huntsman. They will pull back from the brink of extinction.

This is why the first debate was so excruciating, because pulling North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and Colorado into the Democratic orbit would surely have been the death knell of the abnormal politics that has been inflicted on us for more than a decade. It feels eerily like 2000 all over again. We’ll soon find out if we’ll make the same mistake again and choose fear and lies over a clear path forward.  

The halting but undoubted return to normalcy over the last four years, which has permitted discussion of economic justice, is no mean accomplishment for Obama. He deserves to be rewarded.

Anis Shivani’s debut novel, Karachi Raj, will be published in 2013. His other books are My Tranquil War and Other Poems (2012), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009).   

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