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Obama, the Popular Vote, and the Left

It’s hard to not be delighted that so many bigots and right-wingers were horribly disappointed this week when Barack Obama won a second term, but it’s still difficult for me to be all that enthusiastic about the Democratic President.

I know what you’re thinking: “1. Don’t be so cynical.”  “2. Do you have anything positive to say?” “3. Get with the winning team!”

1. I’m not cynical.  I have a tremendous amount of hope; just not with the Democratic Party or Obama.

2. I think there were plenty of positive things to say about yesterday’s election, from gay marriage, to marijuana legalization, to Puerto Ricans voting for statehood.  Even in the defeat of Romney-Ryan and re-election of Obama I see some positive, but not what you might think.

3. No.

So as a critic of Obama and the Democrats from the left, my positive view about the presidential election comes from the fact that Obama 2012 won with less of the popular vote than Obama 2008.

For those saying he has a mandate, I don’t see it.  He certainly has less of a mandate than he had in 2008 when he won with more of the popular vote and his party had control of both houses of Congress.  The only mandate that exists is the same that any president has who wins a second term – the other party knows they have to live with what will likely be a full 8 years outside of the executive branch and that might lead to more compromise, more shaking up of their own internal affairs.

For the left – those of us not aligned with the Democratic Party – this is positive not because our great socialist leader was re-elected, but because he actually didn’t do all that great.   In 2008 Obama ran on a far more progressive platform than reflected by either his governance since then or his 2012 platform.  Obama 2008 was a sharp contrast to McCain/Palin and to the 8 years of Bush before.  Obama 2012 mostly ran on killing Osama Bin Laden and a couple of other things mostly important to partisans.

He did run on Obamacare, but that program, still unproven, is a far cry from what he ran on in 2008.  Back then he supported a public option and was opposed to an individual mandate – kind of the opposite of what happened.  Plus, in reality, Obamacare was a Republican idea.  Forcing people to buy health insurance was Romney’s idea before it was Obama’s.

He also ran on the auto bailout.  It probably helped him in a couple of the swing states, turning enough states blue to make it look like a decent victory if all that matters is an electoral college victory.  Still, it is a relatively minor point in the grand scheme of U.S. policy, and while Romney opposed the bailout, his running mate, Paul Ryan, voted for it.  So it might have been good for a few Obama television ads in the Midwest, it was not exactly a great progressive victory distinguishing him from the other side.

Obama 2008 and his healthier groundswell of support in that election contrasted with Obama 2012 demonstrate that progressive, populist policies – the ones he ran on back then – can win elections.  That’s an interesting observation, but may not translate into anything useful if it isn’t widely recognized and/or we don’t keep that in mind as Obama seeks to reach a “grand compromise” with Republicans by cutting or limiting Social Security and Medicare, as his administration continues to murder people with drones and punish the people of Iran with sanctions (if not war), as his Justice Department ratchets up deportations and prosecutions of political activists, and all the other awful stuff that could be far more difficult to counter because it is a Democrat doing it and shut the hell up, the mid-terms are just around the corner.

Thinking back to the Clinton presidency, I can see how this scenario could be a bad one for the left, for workers, and for people who care about human rights.  But I’m hopeful because I’ve seen what the left can do, even when a progressive like Obama is in power.  We’ve seen it with the Occupy movement, the battle over unions in Wisconsin, and the teachers’ strike in Chicago.  The left is still here, and we aren’t all obsessing over a glorious victory by Obama.  Sure, things could go very badly, but a strong grassroots movement from the left during a Democratic presidency could be a game changer.

CARLOS VILLARREAL is Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area Chapter. He can be reached at carlos@nlgsf.org.

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