He won—but he won ugly.
The same US president who first captured the White House in poetry and governed in competent—if lackluster—prose has been re-elected despite an appallingly mean-spirited and gaffe-prone campaign. Barack Obama may have earned another four years after stabilizing an economy on life-support and winding down unpopular wars abroad, but the attack ads circulated in his name sullied a leader who presumed himself a brand above the empty suit who opposed him. Both men cheapened an already squalid political culture more or less in equal measure. Obama, however, directed his billions of dollars worth of vitriol from the same encampment throughout the campaign, rather than switching from one rampart to another like his challenger. That may have made all the difference.
Perversely, the president’s re-election on the heels of such a shabby bid represents something of a mandate for his agenda despite the narrowest of electoral advantages. Having displayed little of the elegance and charisma that propelled him to victory four years ago, it can be fairly said that most Americans are happy enough with his style of governing to elect him anyway. However thin and dubious, it is a mandate worth redeeming. The question is how.However thin and dubious, it is a mandate worth redeeming. The question is how.
Domestically, he must persuade his political enemies—it would be too generous to characterize them as mere opponents—as to the perilousness of America’s condition. The country lags behind developed-world standards in sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, and social mobility, while leading it in income inequality, gun violence, and criminal incarceration rates. (In some areas, such as infant mortality, the US ranks below countries like Cuba and Greece.) As he struggles with a still-divided Congress to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” that looms in January, Obama must resist Republican pressure to bankrupt civil society in the name of budgetary rectitude. He should assure the nation that, Republican alarmism notwithstanding, the bond market has made clear its willingness to give Washington sufficient time to right its accounts. After all, what use is a balanced budget to a country where adequate schools, health care, and roads are increasingly confined to its wealthiest enclaves?
Overseas, Obama must confront not partisan lawmakers but policy elites from both parties who have a professional interest in preserving America’s empire despite its ruinous financial and diplomatic costs. He should embrace as a starting point the conclusions of his own deficit reduction commission that called for the withdrawal of some US forces in Europe and Asia. He should not stop there, however. Washington’s alliance system, largely a Cold War relic, has become a geopolitical welfare state in which rich countries like Japan, South Korea and Germany are encouraged to neglect their core national security obligations in return for supporting US counter-terror policies and other misadventures. Early in his next term, Obama should revive the Nixon Doctrine that, had its architect not been thwarted by the Watergate scandal, would have effectively emancipated Americans from the moral and financial burden of global hegemony.
More than twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is time for the US to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and demobilize its ground troops in Asia. At the same time, Obama should work with China for a diplomatic channel aimed at defusing potential conflicts in disputed Asian waterways and use it as the basis for a negotiating round to resolve the thicket of conflicting claims that lurk as the flashpoint for war; he should make it the policy of his administration to convert the Middle East into a nuclear-weapons free zone that, by implying the dissolution of Israel’s atomic stockpile, would deprive Iran of the imperative to develop its own. Similarly, he should make it a top priority to leave as his legacy a Palestinian state with a viable economy—with Palestinian control of its borders, airspace, and ports—as its foundation. In doing so he would earn himself the respect and admiration from the entire non-Likudnik world.
Closer to home, Obama should declare the end of America’s war on drugs, which has militarized US foreign policy in Latin America, and ally himself to the movement gaining traction across national borders and the ideological spectrum to legalize marijuana.
With luck, the recent cycle of positive economic indicators that brightened Obama’s re-election prospects will sustain themselves into a recovery strong enough to fuel enhance his presidential authority and vision for the next four years. Time will tell if the small-bore preoccupations of his first term were the consequence of Republican obstructionism or a crisis of his own imagination. Let us hope it is the former, which—however formidable—can be overcome.