Archive for November, 2012

“President Barack Obama holds a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Nov. 23, 2009.” (via Wikipedia)

The difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is the difference between the Center for American Progress and the Heritage Foundation. Because the President of the United States holds responsibility for appointing literally thousands of senior government officials, an election is never merely about the candidates running for office. Obama and Romney’s individual personalities, strengths, weaknesses, life stories are all interesting inputs.

But a great deal of what matters in the governance of the US over the next four years is whose appointees sit atop the executive branch bureaucratic machine. Those officials who serve at the pleasure of the president will have had careers in the party apparatus of Republicans or Democrats, congressional staffers, current or former elected officials, fellows in think tanks with this or that political alignment, or previous service in presidential administrations of the same political stripes. If one claims to have any affinity for the left of the political spectrum, there is no alternative but to vote in favor of putting Obama at the top of this vast executive branch pyramid.

US Supreme Court Justice appointments provide a particularly vivid example of this point. Considering the US Constitution from a left-of-center perspective, one is spoiled for choice in selecting a Justice Antonin Scalia quote to marvel (and recoil) at. I’ll plonk for a brief answer given to California Lawyer (via ComPost),

[California Lawyer:] What do you do when the original meaning of a constitutional provision is either in doubt or is unknown?

Always in the balance

[Justice Scalia:] I do not pretend that originalism is perfect. There are some questions you have no easy answer to, and you have to take your best shot. … We don’t have the answer to everything, but by God we have an answer to a lot of stuff … especially the most controversial: whether the death penalty is unconstitutional, whether there’s a constitutional right to abortion, to suicide, and I could go on. All the most controversial stuff. … I don’t even have to read the briefs, for Pete’s sake.

Fewer ellipses on California Lawyer‘s part would be helpful, but the sentiment that still jumps out “I don’t even have to read the briefs, for Pete’s sake.” The death penalty a-okay, thinking rights to abortion or suicide, well not in his reading. Simple, straightforward. And he can go on! Interpretations that are essentially antiquated, a constitution that reflects rights as conceived in the 18th century, not the 21st century. I take Romney at his word when he pledges to appoint justices in the mold of the right wing of the court. From a left-of-center perspective, one should quake in terror at the prospect of even more Scalias and Thomases on the court (See the NY Times editorial board on Justice Thomas in 1992: The Youngest, Cruelest Justice).

It is not as though Obama’s critics from the left have illegitimate points to make. I count myself among those who wish Obama’s first term had been less conciliatory, with far less time spent reaching out to the right. A right devoted not to constructive legislating but bare-knuckled, blood-sport politicking – “death panels” for instance. That level of outright falsehood signals how unwilling the GOP was to take part in carefully crafting public policy. Obama rightly deserves blame for not pushing his program harder, earlier in his administration. The administration needed a posture akin to that of the Tory Chief Whip who remarked, “In the last analysis, even if there has been a major fight, the Queen’s Government must get it’s business.” (via BBC Parliament, Margaret Beckett in Speaker’s Lecture Series).

Civil liberties beware?

I also would have liked a firmer footing for the national security architecture that is developing to combat al-Qaeda. Simply put, due process does matter. The way America conducts itself in the world matters. I disagree with critics (see for example Jason Kuznicki or Freddie deBoer) who claim, wrongly, that Obama has arrogated unto himself lawless, unreviewable power to determine who lives or dies. Obama has not established modern-day star chambersLA Times, NY Times, and Washington Postcoverage have explored the checks on the process and the administration has articulated its legal underpinnings (see speeches by Harold Koh at ASIL and John Brennan at the Wilson Center). Nonetheless, the organic regime that the Obama administration developed deserves scrutiny and firmer legal footing only found in congressional action. I would note that the alternative does not have a sparkling record on this front. Recall Mitt Romney saying “we ought to double Guantanamo” or with regard to waterboarding Romney’s declining to “describe specifically which measures we would and would not use”.

All that criticism from Obama’s left said, too conciliatory and needing improvement with regard to civil liberties, a proverb comes to mind: Do not use a hatchet to remove a fly from your friend`s forehead. Those aiming for a more leftward tilt in American public policy need a more far-reaching, long-term strategy than pooh-poohing the re-election of a Democratic president. Election Day 2012 is not the day to fight these particular battles. Candidate recruitment and intra-(Democratic) party coalition building form the core of creating the pressure for more left-leaning policies.

Protest votes for Ralph Nader, Jill Stein, and other third party candidates are fruitless given the first-past-the-post electoral system, the levers of power in America lay with the Democrats or the Republicans. While Obama has had these levers, there’s a great deal (more) to be said in his favor: a near Dream Act executive order, legislation on women’s rights, promoting LGBT rights domestically, and in work that goes under recognized, promoting LGBT rights abroad, Wall Street reform measures, preventing a second Great Depression, and of course action on health care. That’s a record worthy of another term.

My view on the US elections tomorrow, I hope the American public agrees (more than the British did).


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