The Most Important Election Since 1932?

Why an Obama victory is critical

You don’t have to be a Republican to consider Barack Obama a less-than-ideal president. Indeed, disappointment with the president is rife among progressives. Taking office after the worst economic debacle of modern times, Obama faced enormous challenges and a great opportunity: as the Great Depression of the 1930s proved a catalyst for massive change, so too could the Great Recession have been a catalyst for significant change. Yet many who voted for Obama believe that he has aimed too low, effecting far more modest changes than the nation needed.

In domestic matters, he chose to fight the wrong war. The true enemy was weak wages and a lack of jobs, yet he essentially accepted the economic analyses laid out by conservatives, fixing his attention on the federal budget deficit and running what was basically an austerity administration. Yes, the $800 billion stimulus adopted at the outset was a significant achievement, and helped avert what could have been an outright depression. But the subsequent economic recovery has been weak. Today we still have high unemployment and a high proportion of people in poverty, and many who have lost their jobs have also lost their health insurance.

Yet instead of focusing on this pain, Obama supported a budget-balancing commission run by a conservative Democrat, Erskine Bowles [updated*], and a very conservative Republican, Alan Simpson. The Simpson-Bowles plan called for significant restraints on government size, a dangerous reform of Medicare, Social Security reductions, and so on. Obama’s willingness to embrace this program has led some to wonder whether he is a Democrat at all—or whether, instead, he truly believes that a constrained government and a significantly shrunken safety net are American priorities.

Politically, the president’s actions have conveyed a strange fecklessness. He could have fought against conventional misunderstandings of the economic problem, but he did not. He almost never trumpeted the success of his stimulus program and was unable to create—or, I suspect, even to imagine—the political environment that might support a badly needed second stimulus. He could have pursued a far more aggressive program of mortgage relief, using the people’s anger at the big bankers to fuel popular support. But he did not. Similarly, while he supported financial regulation, he did so only tepidly; indeed, as Americans came to distrust bankers broadly, it seemed that Obama was more interested in assuaging that anger than in using it to confront Wall Street recklessness.

Meanwhile, as the linchpin of his domestic social policy, Obama proposed a significant revamping of the nation’s health-care system, mandating that all individuals must buy insurance—then sat out the congressional debate over the details. He almost never told the American people what the Affordable Care Act was all about.

In fact, the new law has many beneficial attributes, stipulating that insurance companies accept all applicants regardless of pre-existing conditions; that all employers of a certain size provide insurance for their workers; that states set up health-insurance exchanges to assist people in buying policies; that subsidies be provided for lower-income Americans; that children up to twenty-six be allowed to stay on their parents’ plans; and that the doughnut hole for seniors’ drug reimbursements gradually be closed. There is also a provision requiring insurance companies to use 85 percent of their premiums on medical care (they now use roughly 70 percent). But Americans don’t know much about these useful provisions. Why not? Maybe because Obama did not talk about them. And his failure to provide the necessary push helped allow Congress to drop the bill’s major cost-control proposal, a publicly run alternative to private health insurance known as the public option.

Having said all this, and despite my disappointments, I nonetheless consider it critically important that Obama win reelection in November, because the alternative is far, far worse. A Mitt Romney win would signal a political pivot even sharper than that effected by Ronald Reagan. It would be a turn toward less government and an even more minimal safety net—a radical attempt to return us to a pre–New Deal America, one run according to the crueler and more primitive forms of individualism. Indeed, this November may well be the most important election since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s victory over the Hooverite government minimalists. The election is crucial to the future of this country in many respects. I’d like to focus on six key areas:

1) Deficit alarmism and austerity economics. To some degree we have followed the same policies that have ravaged Europe, and have done so with President Obama’s acquiescence. But things will get far worse without him. On January 1, 2013, the Bush tax cuts will expire, as will extended unemployment benefits and the Obama payroll tax cuts, and Congress will be required to cut the budget dramatically because the supercommittee failed to do so. Though the American version of austerity isn’t as bad as Europe’s, our economy will be too weak to withstand higher taxes and government cutbacks. A second Obama administration would work to maintain government spending and probably the payroll tax cuts. If Obama is not president, harsh government spending cuts will be likely, even as tax cuts for the well-off remain in place and the military budget stays intact. The consequences are predictable. Recession is a high likelihood if Obama loses. And that could well bring on another credit crisis, as debtors fail to pay back what they owe.

2) Taxes. Higher taxes are the only way to pay for what the nation badly needs, and yet the Republicans blindly follow a path of reckless tax-cut advocacy. If Obama loses, we will get no tax increases on the wealthy. In fact, Mitt Romney, as of this writing, would cut rates sharply for upper-income Americans—even though the George W. Bush tax cuts, a boon for the wealthy, resulted in the slowest rates of GDP and job growth during a recovery and expansion of the post–World War II period. Romney tax cuts will be disguised as tax reform and simplification, but in reality they will represent little more than a boondoggle for the wealthy at the expense of the nation’s economic health.

3) Social Security and Medicare. Under a Romney administration the nation’s key social programs will fall into outright peril. If the Democrats can retain a filibuster hold on the Senate, the worst can probably be avoided. But remember that many conservative Democrats favor significant cuts in Social Security benefits; and as for Medicare, even some moderate Democrats favor a private voucher system. If Obama loses, such a system for Medicare becomes a serious possibility. Will vouchers truly get costs down by boosting competition, or will they do it by less salutary means? Keep in mind that the subsidies would be too meager to allow full health-care benefits—and their growth, if Republican Congressman Paul Ryan has his way, would be too severely constrained to keep up with rapidly escalating health-care costs. Such stringency all but guarantees that lower and middle-income people will get less health care than wealthier Americans, by an ever-widening margin. It is reform by triage. As for Medicaid, the program for the poor, it could be decimated.

4) The future of Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act is far from perfect; but given the powerful interests lined up against better possibilities—such as Medicare for all—it is about the best we are going to get. A Republican president and Congress would likely eliminate it in favor of a tax-subsidized choice of private plans—once again, a sure path to inadequate health care for growing numbers of Americans. Supposedly, the private markets would take care of all of us efficiently. The fact that Medicare payments have grown significantly more slowly than private insurance casts serious doubt on that.

5) Financial regulation. Mitt Romney has made it clear that he wants to reverse the Dodd-Frank regulations. Wall Street lobbyists have already whittled away at the original Dodd-Frank proposals; as of this writing, fewer than two-thirds of the new rules have been encoded and enforced—even as Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase and the most astringent of the antiregulation bankers, has had to admit that his banks lost more than $4 billion through precisely the kind of risky trades that serious regulation would have prevented. Vigorous regulation is the way to limit financial excesses and check the complex of leverage, manipulation, and profit incentives that triggered the financial disaster. A Romney administration would do its best to sweep away all such limits.

6) Foreign policy. I am no expert, but any citizen paying attention to the Republican primaries has heard Mitt Romney talk like a trigger-happy Cold War president of the 1960s. Global political hot spots—whether Israel-Palestine, India-Pakistan, North Korea–South Korea, the African continent, or China—require cool thinking and some empathy with other people’s needs. Romney has demonstrated neither. I’ve been skeptical of Obama’s reinforcement of the Afghan war, his demands for military tribunals, his use of drones to target the Taliban, and his acceptance of warrantless wiretapping and “email-tapping.” But consider the likely Romney approach. Fighting a war with Iran, for example? Sending troops to Syria? And does anyone doubt that domestic surveillance and the infringement of privacy under Romney would be much, much worse?

In sum, it seems clear to me that an Obama defeat will speed our nation’s decline and endanger social instability, pushing us toward a more fractious America. I know that some readers favor the Romney principles of significantly smaller government, reduced taxes for the wealthy, and increased privatization of social programs. Yet the likely Romney focus on deficit control will risk another recession while precluding needed public investment in infrastructure, green technologies, and education. America’s future depends on such public investment much more than on controlling the deficit immediately. An Obama victory is the nation’s best defense against retreat from its future responsibilities, from caring for the poor and protecting middle-class opportunities, from the country’s growing commitment to minority rights and its global responsibility to set values of fairness and good sense—not just more troops and targeted drones—as a model for the world.

Since last fall, Obama has talked a better game than he did in the first years of his presidency. He has proposed a decent jobs program and is now talking in clearer and more forceful ways about the true purposes of government. A second term could be a more enlightened one, and he may yet become one of America’s finest presidents. This will be a historically critical election.


*An earlier version of this story misidentified Erskine Bowles as Chester Bowles.

Click here for more coverage of the 2012 election.

About the Author

Jeff Madrick, editor of Challenge magazine and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, is director of policy research at the New School University’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis.



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The great FDR took 10 years and a war to get out of a financial crisis. I'm eighty and am willing to give Obama more time. Romney's no pay income tax means  Obama getting 4 more years, DOW doubled since Obama took over and ACA is getting more popular by the week.

Did Commonweal's editors check with their attorneys before posting this article? I thought Commonweal, which is registered as a 501 c 3 nonprofit organization with the IRS, cannot publish anything, in the print edition or on its Web site, officially endorsing or opposing candidates for office. (Criticizing elected officials and candidates, Democrat or Republican, is not the same thing.) Your site states that donations to Commonweal are fully tax-deductible, which makes the magazine a 501 c 3. 

Wouldn't Commonweal's editors cry foul if First Things (also a 501 c 3) or Catholic New York were to endorse Romney for President?

Dear Dimitri.. look up the Ist amendment again please.

<<   Having said all this, and despite my disappointments, I nonetheless consider it critically important that Obama win reelection in November, because the alternative is far, far worse.  >>

I don't know anything about the million and one laws that govern everything in this country from soup to nuts and on out seemingly to infinity, but Dimitri may be right.  You're plumping decidedly for the Democrats here pretty consistently, implying or outright stating that Republicans are pure evil.  If that's not partisan politics, I'm a popsicle.

Mr. Gleason:

      The federal government exempts 501 c 3 organizations--houses of worship, charities, educational organizations (which include many secular and liberal activist groups)--from paying any taxes in exchange for not engaging in any "electioneering" (officially supporting or opposing candidates for office). As I noted, criticism of elected officials and candidates is different. (Taking stands on public policy issues is perfectly legal contrary to what some bloggers, journalists, and activists believe.)


       Christian Century lost its tax-exemption in 1964 when it endorsed Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater.


        If Cardinal Dolan were to endorse Mitt Romney from the pulpit of St. Patrick's Cathedral or with an op-ed in the Catholic New York (which is published by the NY Archdiocese), it would run afoul of IRS guidelines and probably spark a slew of complaints from the secular left and even liberal Catholics who would note that the cardinal should obey the law. (However, if the cardinal or any Catholic bishop were to endorse Romney by writing an op-ed for a secular newspaper or during an interview in a Fox News/CNN/MSNBC studio, that would be legal. In fact, that's how Anglican Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire endorsed Obama in 2008--as a private citizen.)


Dimitri; There is no endorsement by Commonweal or by the author in the above piece. . He critiques Obama on a number of policies in the first 6 paragraphs .. Commonweal is an opinion journal that has the 1st amendment right to express and publish opinions. get with the good ole USA Constitution and stop posting this kind of BS .Don't bother sending a complaint letter to IRS.. they are busy auditing Romney's back taxes... if any... . (-:

Jeff Madrick is right.

Jeff Madrick is appealing to the frightened majority who sense that we are skirting the abyss, and suggests we continue that course by reelecting Barack Obama. What we need instead is real democracy, and the only way to get that is to have an informed, committed and motivated electorate. We're halfway there. Four disastrous years have smartened up the American public considerably, but the resolve is not stiff enough yet. That will only come when the Republican Dream Machine goes over the edge, dragging the nation along with it. Then, the rebuilding can begin. I'm scared, too, but we must cut the strings of the postponement puppets or we may lose the planet.

I agree with much of what this article says, except the comment about President Obama's support for the Simpson-Bowles plan. 

He did NOT support the plan and in my opinion, that was something that could have prevented the extreme gridlock in this country.  Our tax laws need to be overhauled; getting rid of tax credits and deductions is a better plan than increasing taxes on the wealthy.  But no one, Democrat or Republican, has the courage to do so.

I will vote for him but it will be a vote for the "least worse" not someone I trust to improve this country.


I agree with Ms. Ford. Obama did not support Bowles/Simpson; would that he had. It was a balanced approach to the growing deficit problems, including meaningful revenue enhancements. He could have pushed, perhaps a bit modified, the reforms through Congress, as the Democrats controlled both Houses, and there was significant Republican support (except for extreme right-wingers). He did nothing. If the reforms had passed, we would be well on our way to a growth economy, instead of a stagnant one, today, and President Obama would win in a landslide in November.


Obama could have given verbal support to Simpson/Bowles. But Paul Ryan on the panel VOTED against it.

Is this really a Catholic website?  I stumbled across it and thought to read this article.  How does this author justify his argument in light of the rampant and careless destruction of thousands of innocent children to the plague of abortion? 

L reese .. than stumble out of here.

Alan Simpson of the Simpson/Bowles Commission had the audacity to claim that this generation of Americans ie the Boomers are the most selfish generation in US history. When he first made the statement my thought was he must be refering to the Wall Street bankers. Not so he was talking about Middle Class Americans who had worked all their lives, paid taxes, and contributed to the Social Security and Medicare programs through mandatory payroll deductions. In the meantime this jerk as a member of the Senate is assured a fat government pension, health care for life, plus countless other bennies. I call on Simpson and his Republican cronies to lead by example that is to reimburse the taxpayers by sending back their monthly retirement checks and any other "entitlements" they receive as a result of their "service" which got us into this mess in the first place.

@ L Reese Cumming

How do you justify two useless wars ie Iraq and Afgahnistan which killed hundreds of thousand innocents, produced millions of refugees and cost trillions of dollars based on lies and deception all perpetrated by a Republican President. Obama's biggest mistake was not having an investigation for possible war crimes committed by Bush Jr and his cronies Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolvowitz, Feith, the list goes on and on.

While many of us who voted in 2008 for Obama had high hopes of a major turn around in federal policy making and an end to the overseas military adventures, we also must become aware of the art of the possible versus what is merely wishful thinking. Right after Obama was inaugarated, the Republican leadership in both houses of congress swore an unbreakable oath to oppose and block every attempt by the new administration to legislate new programs or policy. Their determination was summed up in the expressed wish to 'see Obama fail' and be 'only a one term president.' On the only major legistlation, the first Stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act, he needed a couple of Republican defectors and one independent Senate vote to pass both actions. Since then, it has been nay, nay, no, no on everything. The turnover of the house in 2010 made it even more likely that no significant legistlation of any kind with regard to health care implementation, the progress of winding down the wars, of crafting a sensible budget to preserve a safety net for struggling Americans, extending unemployment benefits and passing a debt limit increase, and finally taking steps to again stimulate the broad economy and increase employment were completely stymied. One can argue that a "great" president might have overcome such opposition but it is clear the GOP had dug in its heels and continues to actively oppose any overtures to improve the economy or resolve any number of crises. Nothing will happen until after the election in November and perhaps nothing for another 4 years unless the dems win a majority in the house. Would electing Romney make any difference? Only if you want most domestic programs gutted, MediCare and Social Security privatized, and most environmental regulations repealed. We could recreate the gilded age of robber barons once again, carefully stashed in gated communities, commuting by helicopter to where ever they are called to be feted and fed.

I hope everyone realizes that no Catholic may vote for a candidate who advocates the practice of abortion.  To vote to enable, in any way, a practice which is so abhorrent to the Church and so blatantly contrary to the commandments, would be to excommunicate oneself from the body of Christ.  Just as Kerry, Kennedy, Sebellius, Biden, Pelosi, and many others are banned from the Eucharist by order of their bishops, to vote for such persons is a grave sin in itself.  Even if supporting abortion candidates brought forth an earthly paradise, no good can come from the poisoned tree.  God gave us a clear marker on this one.  No one can feign ignorance of the significance of abortion in the Catholic faith.

Sorry, Michael, the Democrats you mentioned are very pro-life.Their love for the unborn does not stop in the delivery room. They fight for all life that includes food stamps for children, healthcare, concern for those going to war, the elderly on Medicare etc.  Jesus very clearly commanded us to take care of the poor and to love one another. I do think Jesus would be highly disappointed to know many turn their backs when the baby is born.

So it seems that this is a website for people who need to convince themselves that they are Catholic despite violating the most deeply held convictions of the Church.  I cannot wish you good luck - that would be wishing you to stumble and deeper fall, to your eternal peril.  May Christ send you the grace to enlighten and save you.  God bless!

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