NOW we know that the presidential election will be a contest between Barack Obama and his GOP rival Mitt Romney. Already liberal pundits, activists in the Democratic Party, and the AFL-CIO leadership are claiming that this is the most important election of our lifetime and that it is vital for progressives to back the president. But just how much difference is there really between the candidates?
In May, Foreign Policy magazine published an article titled “Barack O’Romney” comparing—what else—the foreign policies of Obama and Romney. The author was Aaron David Miller, a longtime Washington insider who, according to his Wikipedia biography, has served as an adviser to six secretaries of state, in both Democratic and Republican administrations. The subtitle of Miller’s article told his readers to “Ignore what the candidates say they’ll do differently on foreign policy. They’re basically the same man.”
“If Barack Obama is reelected,” wrote Miller, “he ought to consider making Mitt Romney his new secretary of state…. I raise the idea to drive home a broader point. Despite his campaign rhetoric, Romney would be quite comfortable carrying out President Obama’s foreign policy because it accords so closely with his own.”
My only disagreement with Miller’s general description is what he goes on to write in his next paragraph. There he notes what he calls the “extraordinary fact” that “[w]hat has emerged in the second decade after 9/11 is a remarkable consensus among Democrats and Republicans on a core approach to the nation’s foreign policy.” And he continues, “While Americans may be divided, polarized and dysfunctional about issues closer to home, we are really quite united in how we see the world and what we should do about it.”
In the first place, substantial agreement on foreign policy issues by the two mainstream political parties is hardly something extraordinary. Despite differences in emphasis and detail, the operating assumption for many years has been that “politics should stop at the water’s edge,” as Republican Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg put it in 1947, when the GOP lined up behind Truman at the beginning of the Cold War. In fact, if anything, Democrats in the White House have tended to be more hawkish than Republicans. The only twentieth-century Democratic president not to start or continue a major war was Jimmy Carter in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of the United States in Vietnam.
In the second place, when Miller talks about America being united in terms of “how we see the world and what we should do about it,” what he says is true only of American elites. In the population at large, there is typically no consensus, or the consensus is at odds with elite policy, as is presently the case with Afghanistan, for example, where the vast majority of Americans would like to see the war ended sooner rather than later, while the US ruling class has decided to dig in for the long haul.
But Miller goes on to correctly note that George W. Bush’s “use of special forces, drone attacks, aggressive use of intelligence, and more effective cooperation among agencies now forms a virtually unassailable bipartisan consensus.” In fact, far from retreating from these policies, Obama has accelerated them, becoming, according to Miller, “Bush on steroids.”
The continuities between Bush and Obama were emphasized by the latter’s decision to keep Robert Gates as defense secretary after the last presidential election. Obama has wound down Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq, but only in accordance with the timetable that Bush himself was following. At the same time, he escalated the war in Afghanistan, which by now has simply become an effort in face-saving. Long gone is the idea that the United States will leave a functioning democracy in a rebuilt Afghanistan if and when it finally leaves. Now the policy goal for Afghanistan has become “Afghan good enough,” meaning good enough for Washington not to appear totally defeated as it begins to draw down its troop levels again.
Miller points out that whatever Romney’s rhetoric on the campaign trail, he is in basic agreement with this approach, and with the underlying principles that guide Obama’s foreign policy. What unites them is a commitment to maintaining and extending the US global empire in the most effective manner possible.
But the similarities between Obama and Romney extend much further than foreign affairs. Just as Obama has continued and in some cases extended Bush’s foreign policy, he has greatly accelerated attacks on civil liberties and the power of the imperial presidency. Alternet contributor Stephen Rosenfeld recently summed up Obama’s record as “a civil libertarian’s nightmare: a supposedly liberal president who instead has expanded and fortified many of the Bush administration’s worst policies, lending bipartisan support for a more intrusive and authoritarian federal government.”
Obama has granted himself the power to place US citizens in other countries on a “kill list” if the executive branch decides that they are terrorists—a power that he has already used. The constitutional guarantee of due process has been abandoned, since the only review of such decisions is by the executive branch itself. Obama was elected on the promise of closing down the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, where suspects are held in indefinite detention without trial, often on the flimsiest of evidence or on evidence that has subsequently been shown to be false, but “Gitmo” remains open. And the National Defense Authorization Act, which he signed into law earlier this year, now permits the president to indefinitely detain citizens arrested in the United States if they are charged with the vague crime of assisting terrorists.
Meanwhile domestic surveillance is at record levels. Obama’s Department of Homeland Security has coordinated extensive spying on the Occupy movement around the country since the fall of last year, using the FBI and highly militarized local police forces to harass and sometimes preemptively arrest political activists. The FBI in particular has engaged in numerous cases of entrapment, in which informants encourage activists to engage in illegal activity, provide them with dummy weapons or explosive devices, and then tell the Feds when to move in. This model, which began with several cases involving young Muslim men, has now been extended to political activists more generally.
Obama’s record on aggressively prosecuting whistleblowers, including most notably Bradley Manning (accused of giving classified documents revealing US war crimes to Wikileaks) is again worse than Bush. At the same time, Rosenfeld points out that “the administration has stonewalled Freedom of Information Act requests, particularly the Justice Department, which has issued the secret wartime memos” permitting US citizens to be assassinated.
Then there is Obama’s record on immigration. A Los Angeles Times analysis of a major speech the president gave on the subject in July 2010 was headlined “Obama’s immigration speech echoes Bush in policy, rhetoric.” Former Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer told the Times in an e-mail, “this speech could almost word for word have been delivered by George W. Bush on the exact same subject. Do they just copy our old speeches?”
But it’s not just rhetoric. By the end of 2011, Obama had deported well over one million undocumented immigrants and was on track to carry out more deportations in four years than Bush did in eight. The arrests and deportations are often carried out in the most brutal ways, separate parents from children, and send detainees back to countries where they have not lived since they were very young and where they do not even speak the local language. There is virtually no meaningful judicial review of the process, which has even resulted in some cases of US citizens being deported.
Or take the question of education policy. Romney has recently claimed that there are significant differences between him and Obama, but an analysis of their positions by the Washington Post published in May concluded that the two politicians are “education twins.” The Post story reported that, “Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have been happily copying each other since a group of Democratic governors (including Bill Clinton) started the school accountability movement in the 1980s and several Republican governors (including George W. Bush) joined in.”
What the “accountability” movement is really about is blaming teachers for the problems in US schools, and ignoring the real issues of poverty, racism, and the lack of resources. On this issue Obama and Romney stand together, as they do on the question of public charter schools, which increase teachers’ already excessive workloads and weaken their unions. On this issue, according to the Post, “Romney and the president are soulmates.” Indeed it is Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel who, as mayor of Chicago, is now leading the attack on his city’s teachers.
There are, of course, other important policy areas to examine, including the economy, environment, and energy. In terms of economic policy, Obama has been willing to bail out Wall Street without demanding any kind of serious regulation in return—a massive public subsidy to private banks and their vastly overpaid executives at taxpayer expense, which has not addressed the underlying problems. Obama’s policies are so business friendly that the vulture capitalists at Romney’s old company Bain Capital, which has a history of hostile takeovers, layoffs, and asset stripping, have contributed more money to Obama and the Democrats than to their former colleague and his GOP cronies.
In terms of the environment and energy, Obama has ignored the threat of global warming while promoting nuclear power, offshore oil drilling (despite the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf), and fracking for natural gas. The New York Times revealed in May that Obama was personally involved in fast-tracking permits for Shell to start drilling in the Arctic.
While environmental activists use the slogan “reduce our dependence on foreign oil” to mean a move toward sustainable energy and green jobs, Big Oil has appropriated it to mean drill everywhere in North America. And environmental journalist Subhankar Banerjee, in an article headlined “How ‘Drill, Baby, Drill’ and ‘Yes We Can’ Got Married,” notes that “the Obama administration is going along with all those projects (and there is fracking also). That is ‘Yes We Can’ drill everywhere.”
Are there differences between Obama and Romney? Of course—but they are swamped by the enormous similarities. And the differences are not all in Obama’s favor. While his position on women’s and LGBT rights is certainly better than Romney’s, it is also true that Obama can get away with policies like assassination that would have provoked much greater opposition if they had been attempted buy Bush or Romney.
The truth is that Obama and Romney are both candidates of the 1%. Whoever wins in November, we’ll need the biggest and most militant social movements on the ground to fight their policies, but when activists get sucked into support for the Democrats the movements are weakened and sometimes destroyed. One only has to look at the events in Wisconsin over the past eighteen months for confirmation of this truth.
In 1964, when the Republicans nominated the anticommunist fanatic Barry Goldwater as their candidate, antiwar activists thought they could go “Half the way with LBJ.” But as the late Hal Draper remarked in a classic article on the politics of “lesser evilism”:
You know all the people who convinced themselves that Lyndon Johnson was the lesser evil as against Goldwater, who was going to do Horrible Things in Vietnam, like defoliating the jungles. Many of them have since realized that the spiked boot was on the other foot; and they lacerate themselves with the thought that the man they voted for “actually carried out Goldwater’s policy.”
“So who was really the Lesser Evil in 1964?” asked Draper. “The point is that it is the question which is a disaster, not the answer. In setups where the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice.” The same is true in 2012. The most liberal administration of the past forty years was led by Republican Richard Nixon, who was forced to respond to ghetto rebellions, wildcat strikes, and radical social movements. But the historic role of the Democrats has been to muzzle such movements. If we choose Obama over Romney, we make it more difficult to do the only thing that ever makes a difference for our side—building movements on the ground.