Voting Defensively

It was nearly four years ago that Barack Obama stood on a podium in the cold in Washington D.C. and took the oath to become the 44th president of the United States.

The first black man and one of the youngest to take the oath, he took office amid a wave of optimism. Part of it was the historic nature of his victory, but mostly it was the tone of his campaign and the way he connected with younger voters, giving much of the electorate a sense of hope as the nation seemed to be teetering on a precipice.

The economy had collapsed, thanks to the bursting of a housing bubble and a financial system run amok, and a budget surplus had been turned into record deficits. We were still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the outgoing president and vice president had no concern for the constitution.

Four years later, and the economy remains stalled, the deficit has continued to grow and our civil liberties may be worse off than before.

It is clear that the promise of Barack Obama was greater than the reality.

And yet, progressives have little choice but to back his re-election bid. I don’t say this lightly. I agree with Green Party candidate Jill Stein that the two-party system is broken beyond repair. And I agree with Chris Hedges that electoral efforts are largely futile and that resistance is our best option.

But staying home this time is a poor option, if only because we must cast a defensive vote to ensure that the few programs that work and what little is left of the federal safety net remains intact. We must vote defensively to ensure that the anticipated retirement of moderately liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsberg does not result in a further shift to the right for the court.

We should have no illusions, of course. Obama’s first term has been marked by a slew of missed opportunities and failures. And even his greatest success – the Affordable Care Act – was overly bureaucratic and will not address the larger problems facing our healthcare system.

Obama is, as Robert Scheer says, a very good moderate Republican. But moderation is better than the politics of anger and fear being peddled by Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

The GOP is promising to:

• gut Medicare by turning it into a voucher program;

• slash the social safety net while cutting taxes for the richest among us;

• repeal the limited financial regulations put in place after the Wall Street meltdown;

• replace the Affordable Care Act with something weaker and less likely to expand coverage.

As disappointing as Obama has been, Romney and Ryan, armed with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, are likely to do real damage to what is left of the social compact and give license to the worst instincts of the citizenry.

The approach, therefore, should not be to boycott this vote but to back Democrats while holding our noses. And we need to make sure that every Democrat who wins re-election – including the president – knows that their survival comes with a price, i.e., support for real progressive legislation.

At the same time, we need to follow Hedges’ prescription and take to the streets and make our voices heard.

Obama said in his inaugural address that the nation had “chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” He then proclaimed “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

Too many on the left missed his meaning. They stood down and, as Obama pursued an essentially amoral bipartisanism, the right dug in and made any progress impossible.

We’re still waiting for the bold action he promised. Rather than waiting, however, we need to make him do it.

Hank Kalet is a poet and freelance writer in New Jersey. Email,; blog,; Twitter, @newspoet41; Facebook,

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2012

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