As the election approaches, I’ve found myself waffling among various choices:
- voting to re-elect President Obama
- voting “none of the above”
- voting “Foreign Policy: Ron Paul; Economic Policy: Paul Krugman; Social Policy: Barney Frank”
- (lastly, voting for Tom Brady)
You’ll notice “vote for Romney” is not present anywhere on that list. Strange as this may sound, during the Republican primaries, I honestly believed the whole “Romney is out of touch with the average voter” meme was simply on-point messaging from a well-oiled Democratic PR machine. But it turned out that the spin was a lot closer to the truth than I’d initially imagined (either that or the Democratic PR team is even better than I’d thought). I wouldn’t have voted for him anyway, as I think Obama’s a far better choice. But my “unfavorable” (to borrow polling terminology) impression of him has greatly increased in recent months.
That said, I hardly think Obama has come out smelling like roses. The Atlantic recently published an essay by Conor Friedersdorf (currently the most popular article on its site) titled “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama.” In it, Friedersdorf identifies three key disappointments in the Obama administration: drone strikes in Pakistan, extrajudicial assassinations of American citizens, and a conflict in Libya that was not approved by Congress:
In different ways, each of these transgressions run contrary to candidate Obama’s 2008 campaign. (To cite just one more example among many, Obama has done more than any modern executive to wage war on whistleblowers. In fact, under Obama, Bush-era lawbreakers, including literal torturers, have been subject to fewer and less draconian attempts at punishment them than some of the people who conscientiously came forward to report on their misdeeds.) Obama ran in the proud American tradition of reformers taking office when wartime excesses threatened to permanently change the nature of the country. But instead of ending those excesses, protecting civil liberties, rolling back executive power, and reasserting core American values, Obama acted contrary to his mandate. The particulars of his actions are disqualifying in themselves. But taken together, they put us on a course where policies Democrats once viewed as radical post-9/11 excesses are made permanent parts of American life.
There is a candidate on the ballot in at least 47 states, and probably in all 50, who regularly speaks out against that post-9/11 trend, and all the individual policies that compose it. His name is Gary Johnson, and he won’t win. I am supporting him because he ought to. Liberals and progressives care so little about having critiques of the aforementioned policies aired that vanishingly few will even urge that he be included in the upcoming presidential debates. If I vote, it will be for Johnson. What about the assertion that Romney will be even worse than Obama has been on these issues? It is quite possible, though not nearly as inevitable as Democrats seem to think. It isn’t as though they accurately predicted the abysmal behavior of Obama during his first term, after all. And how do you get worse than having set a precedent for the extrajudicial assassination of American citizens? By actually carrying out such a killing? Obama did that too. Would Romney? I honestly don’t know. I can imagine he’d kill more Americans without trial and in secret, or that he wouldn’t kill any. I can imagine that he’d kill more innocent Pakistani kids or fewer. His rhetoric suggests he would be worse. I agree with that. Then again, Romney revels in bellicosity; Obama soothes with rhetoric and kills people in secret.
To hell with them both.
I not only sympathize with Friedersdorf’s thesis. I am nearly convinced by it. In fact, maybe I already am. (I’m still not sure how I’ll vote, although I’m fairly certain it won’t be for Tom Brady.) But I recently fell upon an equally arresting argument for the opposite position, and from the unlikeliest of sources: comedian and Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman (perhaps best known for playing the clunky PC in those then-ubiquitous “I’m a Mac” commercials).
On a web site called 90 Days, 90 Reasons, which describes its mission as compelling “a wide range of cultural figures to explain why they’re voting for Obama in 2012, in the hopes that this might re-inspire the grassroots army that got Obama elected in the first place,” Hodgman does so in hilarious yet eloquent fashion:
Like many, I first heard of Barack Obama when he spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Though I lived at that time on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I was listening to him on the radio at our summer house in the five college area of Western Massachusetts. I say this to set the scene, and also to re-assert my credentials as an elite, affluent, northeastern liberal, and thus, at that time, a non-American. In case you had forgotten.
Listening to Obama, I realized I agreed with him on most issues, but mostly I was electrified by the premise of the speech, which was essentially that we are all part of the same country, but which I took to mean “people in blue states are actual humans as well.” There weren’t many people saying this in 2004. Not even many Democrats. And while I was instantly thralled by this on a purely selfish level, I also liked that the sentiment flowed in reverse as well. I have disagreements with, but no need to demonize, conservative America, as indeed many of them are my family, even right here in supposedly liberal Massachusetts. We are all one, he said in 2004, and I was so excited. This guy is going to lose so BEAUTIFULLY, I thought.
But it didn’t happen that way. I can place the moment I knew I was wrong. In July of 2008, I was driving past the empty hole where the new World Trade Center had STILL not been built, and I heard on the radio (I LOVE PUBLIC RADIO, REMEMBER) that Obama had reversed his position on the update of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and would agree with a compromise that would grant telecom companies immunity from prosecution for cooperating with warrantless wiretaps. I had to look all that up, because I honestly forgot what the specific issue was at the time. All I remember was that knife twist in my gut of deep disappointment. I learned then that Obama was going to disappoint; that his ideals were tempered by a kind of rough pragmatism; and that he would be willing to personally alienate ME. ME OF ALL PEOPLE. The one person who knew best about how to run a presidential campaign and ranked Obama’s performance as a candidate solely upon his adherence to a few very specific positions that I cared most about. HOW COULD HE WIN THIS ELECTION WITHOUT ME? And then I realized: Oh. How can he win the election WITH an asshole like me?
Now that I’ve looked it up, I still disagree with his decision on the FISA update. But what I remember is this: not only would I have to get used to that knife twist of disappointment, I would have to learn to enjoy it. Because that’s the moment that I realized that Obama actually intended to win…
And of course, the cost of losing is very high. As a supporter of health care reform, same sex marriage, women’s rights, tax fairness, a domestic policy responsive to the realities of the present day as opposed to toxic nostalgia, and an international policy that punishes our enemies more than it rewards our private contractors, I may not always agree with the speed or execution of Obama’s policies. But I know that a loss this year would not be seen as a noble failure. It would be seen as a repudiation of these values for a long time to come. Losses transform ideals into irrelevant fantasy, and idealists into weepy self-pitiers, like old-school Red Sox fans and Tea Partiers and people who really believe some day that Firefly might come back.
There’s more, of course, and it’s definitely worth reading the whole thing. As for me, I remain undecided but, like the U.S. as a whole, leaning Obama.