October Issue 2012
Battle for the White House
Were some of the elder statesmen of Americana to have their way, the re-election of Barack Obama would be a slam dunk.
“I’m dreaming of a white president/Just like the ones we’ve always had,” Randy Newman declares in a song offered as a free download last month. “A real live white man/Who knows the score/How to handle money or start a war/Wouldn’t even have to tell me what we were fighting for/He’d be the right man…”
What lends credence to Newman’s satire is that all too many of his compatriots do think along those lines.
“It’s time to turn things around, trickle up not trickle down,” Bruce Springsteen sings on the opening track of A More Perfect Union, a recent album by Pete Seeger and Lorre Wyatt. It was Springsteen who took up cudgels some three decades ago against his hit song Born in the USA being misused as a patriotic hymn by campaigners for Ronald Reagan. He is unlikely to protest against the Obama campaign’s use of We Take Care of Our Own, even though the song, released at the start of the year, is more of a lament than a celebration.
No one is likely to take such liberties with any of the tracks on Ry Cooder’s latest album, Election Special, a bunch of exquisitely rendered blues that, by and large, raise the prospect of extremely dire consequences in the event of a Republican triumph on November 6.
Somewhat ominously, both Cooder and Newman project their distaste for a society that cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as post-racial.
Obama’s clear-cut victory in 2008 was undoubtedly a crucial landmark for the United States. The Reverend Jesse Jackson wasn’t by any means the only one who couldn’t stem his tears at the momentousness of the occasion. George W. Bush’s first secretary of state, Colin Powell, himself once deemed to be presidential material, had pledged his support for Obama relatively early, but even the ideologue Condoleezza Rice failed to hide her emotions at the election result.
Many observers had, before 2008, broadly viewed the prospect of the first non-white presidency in the light of the likelihood that it would be a conservative one. Obama, however, succeeded despite holding out the prospect of change and the promise of progress. In the light of the preceding eight years, it wasn’t all that hard to project a vague glimmer of hope, couched in eloquent but largely empty rhetoric.
He benefited, of course, not just from the Bush legacy — poisonous on both the international and domestic fronts — but also from the follies of his opponents. John McCain faced a tough enough task in convincing the electorate that his presidency would be a break from the Bush years. He then went on to compound his woes by picking Sarah Palin as a running mate — making it easy for a substantial proportion of non-partisan voters to see the alternative option, Obama and Joe Biden, as a no-brainer.
Mitt Romney, in his quest for the Republican nomination, initially faced a tough time convincing the faithful that he was sufficiently conservative. After all, his record as the governor of Massachusetts, did not exactly speak for itself in that context. For instance, his state healthcare plan bore a close resemblance to what Obama attempted to implement nationwide — inciting a Republican backlash frequently based on the purest ignorance.
It was, therefore, perhaps logical for Romney to pick a running mate who appeals to the crazies among the Republican constituency: Paul Ryan is an unabashed adherent of the Ayn Rand school of free-market extremism. It may have been equally logical for Romney to choose a moderate who could have helped to rally the undecided centrists.
It is important to remember, though, that notions of left, right and centre in American politics are still somewhat at variance with the way these concepts are interpreted elsewhere — even though the rest of the world has been trying to catch up in recent decades. Viewed from the outside, the American political scene looks like a contest between the right and the far right, with neither wing offering more than the prospect of tinkering with the status quo.
It, therefore, never made much sense to see the advent of Obama as a substantial break from the past in terms of either domestic economics or international politics.
In the latter context, it was hardly a problem for Bush’s successor to come across as less strident and more reasonable than Dubya. Obama more or less consistently opposed the conflict in Iraq, not because he considered international military intervention by his nation as morally repugnant in most cases, but because he saw it as a dumb war. He cannot unequivocally take credit for ending it, though, because the process of withdrawal was already in place. The precarious state of affairs in post-war Iraq can hardly be glorified as a gift from America, hence the US role there rarely rates a mention domestically.
Stranger still, the ongoing war in Afghanistan has not been a campaign issue. In 2008, Obama embellished the myth of it being a worthwhile intervention and sanctioned a surge in troops. That surge effectively ended last month, almost at the same time as Nato suspended joint patrols with Afghan forces after one too many instances of Afghans in uniform turning their weapons on foreign troops. A foreign withdrawal by 2014 is on the cards, but no one dares to predict the state of Afghanistan at that point, let alone thereafter.
Nor is it clear whether the supposed cut-off date will also mark the cessation of drone attacks on Pakistani territory, which increased dramatically under Obama – notwithstanding consistent reports of civilian casualties, and a recent American academic assessment that the drone flights are having an extremely deleterious effect on Pakistanis in the free-fly zones. Last year’s successful targeting of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad continues to sporadically be highlighted as a high-water mark of of what was once known as “the war on terror,” never mind that it entailed the violation of an ostensible ally’s sovereignty. (The inconvenient truth that bin Laden took refuge virtually under the Pakistan military’s nose is a fact that Islamabad, meanwhile, has been keen to relegate.)
The Osama drama would have electorally been considerably more lucrative for Obama, however, had it occurred a year later. It nonetheless enabled Biden’s speechwriters to come up with the potentially catchy line that the present administration’s success can be measured by the fact that bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive. As critics on the left have pointed out, however, this declaration could be turned around to say that Al Qaeda is alive (and, it may be added, benefiting from American support at least on the Syrian front) and the American economy is still tanking.
Monthly employment figures are deemed to be a crucial criterion of the Obama administration’s credibility on the economic front, and they vary from one month to the next. But Romney has inadvertently succeeded, to some extent, in turning the conversation around. Last month, a video emerged of him addressing an exclusive bunch of well-endowed contributors to his campaign earlier in the year, saying that the 47 percent of “moochers” who pay no federal taxes are a lost cause, and he does not feel responsible for them.
Any number of critics saw it as an irrecoverable gaffe, not only because a substantial proportion of the Americans he was referring to do effectively pay federal taxes (other than income tax, from which they are exempted largely because of provisions introduced and expanded by previous Republican presidents), but many of them have hitherto tended to vote Republican. A number of them are retirees who paid taxes all their working lives. They were unlikely to be complacent about being viewed as “victims.”
The point Romney was apparently trying to make was that almost half of the electorate would be unmoved by Republican vows to slash income tax for the richest Americans. He sought once more to deflect the damage by releasing, after months of pressure, his own tax figures for the past two decades. For the last financial year he paid $1.9 million, based on an income of $13.7 million — a tax rate of 14.1 per cent.
That appallingly low figure is not illegal, given that Romney’s income is evidently based mainly on investments, but it does rather make a mockery of his disdain for working-class Americans – at least some of whom are taxed at a higher rate on a minute fraction of what Romney earns.
“Redistribution” is a dirty word in the eyes of many Republican supporters, based in part on the assumption that those who don’t earn enough have only themselves to blame. This view completely ignores the dynamics of capitalism, which thrives on — and, without government regulation, exacerbates — wealth differentials. They take offence at any suggestion from Obama or his ilk that labourers, and not just investors, have anything to do with the build-up of wealth.
They find the concept of “entitlement” devilish. How can it conceivably be wrong for the citizens of a wealthy state to feel they are entitled to basics such as healthcare, education and a reasonable job? Even Obama holds up the example of a single mother who does three different jobs to put her kid through college, but fails to question why such a state of affairs ought to be anything other than shameful for a nation that claims global leadership.
Romney, meanwhile, has also helped the Obama re-election campaign on the international front. He earned British ire by expressing his displeasure with arrangements for the Olympics during a visit to London; then, during a visit to Israel, spurred Palestinian angst by suggesting that economic disparities between the occupiers and the occupied were based on cultural differences rather than having anything to do with the occupation.
The 47 percent speech, meanwhile, featured the opinion that peace between Israelis and Palestinians was impossible because the latter rejected it en bloc. In Israel, he had unequivocally supported the idea of stalling Iran’s nuclear capability through a military attack — a notion rejected by a number of Israeli military officials, past and present, although Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is keen on the idea.
The Iran question was revived on the eve of Obama’s address to the UN General Assembly, and the obvious mutual antipathy between Netanyahu and the US president has been exploited to suggest that the Israeli leader would prefer the incumbent to lose. Which is probably true, albeit not an opinion Israel could officially express. The game is part of the customary effort to attract the Jewish vote, although its efficacy is dubious, given that younger American Jews are not quite as attached to the notion of Israel as older generations — and, besides, Obama has been quite as faithful to that outpost as any of his predecessors.
Romney erred once more in the wake of the controversy over the pathetic Innocence of Muslims video when, on the basis of a conciliatory statement issued by the US embassy in Cairo, he accused Washington of pandering to Islamists. The subsequent mayhem in Benghazi ensured that particular line of attack could not be pursued any further.
None of this necessarily means, of course, that Romney would make an extraordinarily poor president. Sure, he does harbour some strange notions, but much of what he says these days is geared exclusively towards garnering a larger share of the vote. In a long-ago senatorial contest, his opponent, Ted Kennedy, declared: “I am pro-choice, but Mitt Romney is multiple choice.”
Of course, to some extent that’s true of most presidential candidates. Of the two 2012 rivals, Obama is clearly more intelligent, eloquent and personable — and the symbolic significance of his victory four years ago is undeniable. But he is as beholden to Wall Street as anyone else in his position. Corporate control of much of the domestic agenda in the United States makes a mockery of democracy, and the two-party system adds up to not much more than periodic marketing contest in which the voters are little more than pawns. Is it any surprise, then, that almost half the electorate doesn’t bother with the ballots?
It has been suggested that Obama would be a somewhat different president in his second term, possibly more willing to do what he thinks is appropriate instead of kowtowing to the various interest groups and lobbies whose support he required for re-election. But this may well be little more than wishful thinking.
At the time of writing, the incumbent enjoyed a narrow edge over his rivals in opinion polls but hadn’t quite leapt clear of the margin of error, despite the Republican criticism that greeted Romney’s expression of disdain for 47 percent of his compatriots. Barring some sort of an “October surprise,” domestically or internationally, the likelihood of re-election is marginally greater than the probability of change. But, in either event, there is not much scope for hope.
Twelve years ago, the oldest of the aforementioned elder statesmen, Pete Seeger, wrote a brief statement to explain why he had decided to vote for Ralph Nader in 2000. He concluded by saying: “Sooner or later Americans have to quit voting for evil, even if it is lesser.” A delightful idea, but when will it begin to sink in?
This article was originally published in the October issue of Newsline.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.