Is Obama both entirely powerless and utterly essential?

Matt Stoller asks: What is gained by not supporting Obama for reelection? Simply put, there is power in resistance. Organized people that distrust and constrain their political leaders can have a significant impact on policymaking.

The President does not sit in the Oval Office and play a video game where he governs the country. The Presidency is constrained by the various checks and balances in our governance system, notably a partisan opposition and public opinion. Under Obama, that partisan opposition has been a right-wing Republican force buttressed by well-funded Tea Party activists. This has made it far easier for Obama to implement conservative policies. Under Mitt Romney, the Democrats will be far more likely to oppose Romney from the left, and the public will be much more likely, as it was under Bush, to mistrust its President and demand social justice.

One of the more intriguing arguments in this line came from a Canadian UAW member, Joe Emersberger, who actually tried measuring the difference between recent Republican and Democratic Presidents. He noted that Ronald Reagan was the worst President for life expectancy growth, income growth of the top one percent, deunionization, and closing the racial gap in life expectancy. But the second worst – for deunionization and share of income going to the top one percent – was actually Bill Clinton, followed by Barack Obama. George Bush did substantially better than those two on these measures, and surpassed Clinton in closing the racial life expectancy gap. This is quite possibly accurate – Clinton’s changed the country with NAFTA, a policy nearly as hostile to labor rights as Reagan’s embrace of union busting. George W. Bush though faced a hostile public and a partisan Democratic opposition. Certainly, this is not conclusive evidence, and I’m sure political scientist Larry Bartels would lay out different data. But it’s worth considering the power of this “resistance effect”. Partisan opposition isn’t worth nothing, and there’s no sense pretending it doesn’t matter.

In other words, as Glen Ford put it, Obama is not necessarily the lesser of two evils, he may be the “more effective evil”. He puts the left to sleep (whether by defunding progressive groups or allowing the destruction of Occupy encampments), and the left is where the resistance to imperial tendencies currently resides. It is this problem, of how to organize large groups of people into a political force for justice, that should concern us. [Continue reading…]

I have my doubts about the assumption that a President Romney would serve as the trigger of a “resistance effect.”

Firstly, let’s not overestimate how much resistance George W Bush provoked. Opposition to the war in Iraq accomplished very little — neither should we forget that Obama didn’t bring the troops home, the Iraqis told them to leave.

Romney will, I have no doubt, have learned plenty of useful lessons from Bush’s failures and far from being a figure who unintentionally mobilizes the left, I don’t find it difficult to see him bumbling through two terms without generating any large waves of opposition. (I don’t think, for instance, that the risk of him starting a war with Iran is as great as is feared. He would probably be more loyal to the Pentagon than Israel and the Pentagon’s opposition to such a war has been made crystal clear.)

However, he would also quite likely end up doing something of particularly long-lasting and damaging consequence: appoint as many as four Supreme Court justices, determining the political complexion of the court for as much as the next twenty-five years.

Where does the Supreme Court fit into Stoller’s argument? It doesn’t.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 thoughts on “Is Obama both entirely powerless and utterly essential?

  1. Steve Zerger

    We hear progressive activists (e.g. Daniel Ellsberg, Rebecca Solnit) arguing that we should go out and vote for the lesser evil in spite of our severe disappointment with Obama. However, a few progressives are couseling the opposite, and this is not unreasonable. They intuitively grasp a well-known principle of system dynamics. There is no stasis in a complex system, and overshoot tends to be followed by undershoot as negative feedback kicks in following a variable interval of delay. The negative feedback can often be a more powerful force than the force which sets it in motion. One advantage of putting Republicans in power is that the glaring internal contradictions of their ideology and policy prescriptions would be vividly on display for all to see.

  2. Paul Woodward

    Be that as it may, let’s not forget: as I said, this isn’t just about who sits in the White House for the next four years. It’s also very likely about who sits on the Supreme Court for the next 25 years or more.

Comments are closed.