In assessing the implications of an additional term for President Barack Obama, it does help to look to his first. Yet, while a lot of Americans and Brits alike have criticized President Obama for failing to deliver on the promises of the inspiring 2008 campaign, I am always adamant about defending him. Any democratic president faces tremendous obstacles. Firstly, the president has substantially less power domestically than many think. The American government is designed to be slow. There are enough stages in which a bill can be defeated to leave thousands dead every term, and of the ones that make it, those with noteworthy impact are relatively few and far between in any term. Even Democrats in congress are hardly progressive by the standards of other liberal democracies, especially when it comes to economic policy. More importantly, the tea party movement has ushered in a level of stubbornness that has left congress the most ineffectual it has been since the middle of last century.
Secondly, any Democratic president has to engage with highly prevalent views that might be outrageous elsewhere. Fox news is largely successful in reflecting the views that many actually hold, not just creating them. For example, it is not uncommon in America to blame the impoverished entirely for their circumstances. If a commentator characterizes the less fortunate as ‘the moocher class’, people will not just be unaffected by it, many will feel vindicated. Thus, it comes as no surprise that when Obama permitted a mild adjustment to the constraints of welfare by allowing more exceptions to the requirements, it instantly became fuel for him to be attacked. He was still re-elected, but it is easy to see that to go much farther would be politically dangerous. It is also important to keep in mind that welfare in America is meagre by British standards.
Democratic presidents also have to work with a country in which an argument against government involvement in anything instantly gains traction. The free market is not just something useful in America, it is part of our identity. The strange result of this is not just a strong aversion to business regulation, but also to the promotion of social good, even when the private sphere is failing fairly blatantly. Hence, in the phases where a public option was still considered, Obamacare was instantly couched as some egregious infringement upon the delicate relationship between a patient and their doctor. For some reason, this scares many more than being at the mercy of private healthcare institutions which are not only out of reach for millions of Americans, but morally indifferent to denying coverage if they can get away with it. When Fox News makes allegations of the institution of death panels, it aligns pretty well with how a lot of the public conceptualizes the government. Half of Americans rejected Obamacare without the public option.
An extension of this idea that the free market is intrinsically good becomes manifest in the perception that a good old-fashioned businessmen will be better at ‘running’ the economy. The contradiction in electing someone who is averse to the government even involving itself in the economy is lost on many.
These might seem like the views of the far right. The problem is they are not. Romney not only obtained the majority of Caucasian voters and men, but in a CNN poll, was also perceived by most Americans as better for the economy. Many of those who voted for Obama will not have done so because they reject the economic and fiscal principles of Republicans. They will have made a trade-off for the sake of rejecting the religious right and social conservatism.
Against this backdrop, how has Obama performed? Obamacare not only leads to coverage for an additional tens of millions of Americans, but it imposes taxes to do so in a country where such a measure is largely perceived as an overstretch of government power. In a country where homophobia is so prevalent that polls have just recently given the edge to same sex marriage supporters, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy was repealed. In the face of economic catastrophe, Obama managed to push through a stimulus that independent sources claim averted a full-scale depression. He did this in a country where the government is largely perceived as an obstruction to the economy, not a catalyst for its improvement. It is easy to underestimate how important these sorts of measures are in a country like America.
With a Republican house, the next four years probably won’t be a golden age of progress. I am still relieved. In the face of adversity and hostility to liberal and progressive ideas, not only has Obama made strides in the way of policy, he managed to get re-elected.
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