By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Yes, the U.S. is divided almost equally between Democrats and Republicans. As a result, over the past four years, gridlock frequently stalled meaningful action in the U.S. Congress. Nevertheless, the popular vote as well as the quirky American electoral college have decided: a second term for Obama. If there should be ugly court battles over improper demands for photo ID or other irregularities in this precinct or that as a result of the voting process, the overall legitimacy of the results are beyond question. Obama won. Period.
Some critics during a grueling, too long, too expensive electoral contest took pleasure in minimizing the accomplishments of Obama’s first term. Stalemates over the budget and the deficit notwithstanding, Obama achieved a great deal. Some of the most important achievements involved what didn’t happen. Here are just some of the things that he will be building on during term two:
Foreign policy first:
Israel will not call the shots when it comes to U.S. Middle East policy during a second Obama term. Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Natanyahu did his country no favors when he went out of his way to undermine an American president during an address to the U.S. Congress, a great honor which most foreign leaders would have approached with more respect and even a bit of humility. The whole world knows that no American president will tolerate a gratuitous, out-of-the-blue attack on Israel, but no Israeli leader can or should expect the U.S. to support gratuitous bellicosity on the part of Israel either. President Obama will continue the policy of countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions through ever tighter sanctions in cooperation with the international community.
Elsewhere in the Middle East Obama will continue to support, but in no way insist on dominating genuine revolutions. He will work with any legitimately elected government, Islamist or not. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya will be encouraged to continue building democracy in consonance with their own cultural norms, with this caveat: the U.S. will continue to champion women’s rights as not inconsistent with those norms. While encouraging and assisting anti-Assad forces in Syria, the U.S. will not attempt to displace allies like Turkey. There will be no delusions that a U.S.-led coalition's attempt to transform Syria would be any more successful than the Bush administration’s fantasy of creating U.S. clones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ditto in Mali where Al Qaeda types have seized an enormous amount of territory.
Obama, for good or for ill, will continue to deploy drones and special forces against terrorists who threaten U.S. citizens or U.S. territory from protected areas in countries whose leaders are unable or unwilling to eliminate the threat. Some really bad actors will be eliminated, but innocent people will also be killed, and anger against the U.S. will, of course, be generated. Meanwhile, sooner or later, as is the case with all armaments, countries hostile to the U.S. will eventually gain equivalent drone capacity. It is not too soon to call for an international conference to determine the legitimate use of drones in warfare. Cyber warfare will also intensify under the second Obama administration, and American civil libertarians will continue to be disappointed with his performance on issues which seem to compromise important Constitutional guarantees and human rights norms.
The American Constitution subordinates the military to civilian authorities. The duly elected president is the commander-in-chief of all military forces. Obama, having risen to the occasion in the case of Afghanistan-based Brigadier General Stanley A. McCrystal, a case which focused on an incident of public disrespect rising to the level of insubordination, will continue to ensure civilian dominance vis-à-vis the military. Not only was McCrystal forced to resign, the too popular, public relations-oriented General David Petraeus was, in due course, kicked upstairs into a civilian slot as CIA Director. In addition, despite continued resistance from the Marine high command, Obama brought an end to discrimination against Gays and Lesbians serving openly in the military. Meanwhile, he ensured the good will of the troops by insisting on better medical care for the wounded, including those disabled by traumatic stress syndrome. President Bill Clinton, by contrast, had never dared to face down the military.
On to domestic issues:
The Affordable Health Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, a major accomplishment during Barack Obama’s first term, will not be rescinded. Individual states may refuse to join in for a time, as is their right, but sooner or later non-participation will become a political liability for ultra-conservative state leaders.
Social Security will not be privatized. Benefits may be massaged or delayed, to accord better with Americans’ greater longevity, but old people will not be forced to negotiate individually with a Wall Street that wants their money but couldn’t care less about senior citizens reduced to beggary by poor choices they didn’t—and couldn’t—understand. Who can?
With Obama filling likely Supreme Court vacancies, Roe vs. Wade will not be overturned. Women’s reproductive choices will not be worsened by Justices who disapprove of birth control, who believe that pregnancies from rape result from the victim’s enjoyment of the violation or who think a mother’s health or survival is of no importance. Most likely, the Court’s tendency to favor states’ rights and business over other concerns will be moderated. Affirmative action will survive.
Wall Street will not escape unscathed and unchanged from its undeniable role in the severe recession that has ravaged country for the past ten years. (Is this one reason why the Dow plunged today?) The Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation will not be nullified by toothless regulations. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau it enabled will build on its encouraging beginnings, especially since Elizabeth Warren has now been elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. Warren would have been the Agency’s first director if Republicans hadn’t threatened a filibuster.
Here’s the tough one:
In the next few months the hard negotiating over deficits and tax policy will resume. President Obama’s hand will have been strengthened by his having been re-elected and by his freedom from having to worry about re-election. That’s a double-whammy for the President: endorsement to push strongly for Democratic ideals—and room to settle for an honorable compromise with Republicans. It’s also possible that the Republicans will be a bit less demanding. The Tea Party’s results in this election don't reinforce the idea that they're the irresistible wave of the future, and the Occupy movement seems to have energized the 99% to vote in impressive numbers. The issues of income disparity and privilege—once disparaged as class warfare—have been legitimized.
If Obama pulls off a sound compromise on fiscal policy, his place in history will be truly assured. It’s all very well to be the first African-American President. It’s far more impressive to be the President who achieved the grand compromise that allowed the U.S. to move from fiscal stalemate toward robust economic progress in today’s bitterly contested political terrain. The former says something about U.S. demographics. The latter would say something about Obama himself.