Like Bill Clinton as president (you remember: banking "reform," telecom "reform," welfare "reform," WTO, NAFTA -- that Bill Clinton), President Obama has tried to deflect criticism by adopting the policies of his opponents, in effect, as used to be said, being more Catholic than the Pope. In domestic affairs, this has led to passivity and inaction, allowing the Right to stake out the parameters of the political debate: the pursuit of austerity; the advancement of tax cuts (more of a muddle now that candidate Obama is a born-again populist); the promotion of the health of the insurance industry ahead of the health of the people; the setting "on the table" of cuts in Social Security and Medicare.
But, as troubling as the administration's domestic agenda has been, it is in the area of foreign policy that its behavior is most distressing. Not wishing to allow criticism from conservatives, Obama has not just continued George W. Bush's Long War, but has enlarged it both in scope and in ferocity. The legal and physical framework established during Bush's reign, from the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act thru Gitmo to drones, not only remains in place, but has been extended to include contract killings and a list of conflict points that looks like the departure board of an international airline.
So where does that leave the Left in November 2012? True to form, the presidential wing of the Democratic Party is campaigning on the shop-worn "lesser-of-two-evils" platform, even though it has become so threadbare the only part not in tatters is the fear-mongering about appointments to the Supreme Court. (And, by the way, how different is jazzing up the Democratic base over Roe V. Wade from the GOP's cynical use of "social issues" to get its base hyperventilating? Here's something you can put money on: whether Obama or Romney is president, the next appointee to the Supreme Court will be a reliable defender of corporate interests and the status quo.) Even if you're appalled, as you should be, by the idea of Mitt Romney in the White House (and Paul Ryan a heartbeat away), how can you vote for Obama without endorsing his policy choices?
The answer, of course, is that you can't. In 2008, it was possible to convince yourself that the Democratic candidate's general blandness ("hope," "change," "yes we can") and specific conservatism (missile attacks on Iran, more war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, advocacy of the death penalty, deliberate blurring of the clear language of the 2nd amendment, bipartisanship as a policy goal) was a disguise intended to slip him past voters on election day, a "whites of their eyes" strategy as it is (now wistfully) described to get hold of the reins of power before turning the carriage of state down the road to peace and economic justice. In 2012, deluding yourself that Obama is the candidate of change is no longer possible. No wonder the campaign is spending its millions demonizing the hapless Romney (Obama has been supremely lucky in his opponents, but never more so than this season); what else is there to talk about?
If you're not a supporter of fiscal austerity except when it comes to funding endless war, what do you do? In some states, third party candidates will be on the ballot (in California, no joke, Roseanne Barr was nominated for president last week by the Peace and Freedom Party, which also has in Marsha Feinland a first rate candidate for U.S. Senate against that pillar of the status quo, Sen. Diane Feinstein; Barr is also working hard to get on the ballot in other states; and the Green Party has a worthy candidate in Dr. Jill Stein). In most of the places where where liberal disappointment in the president is greatest -- New York, Illinois, California, New England and the Pacific Northwest, the distortions of the electoral college have rendered votes in the Obama-Romney contest so meaningless that even progressives persuaded by lesser-of-two-evils argument can cast a third party protest vote without worrying. There also are numerous opportunities to affect the much more important matter of who gets to serve in the national legislature: in addition to such obvious choices as Sen. Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, and Alan Grayson, scores of federal and local progressive candidates need your support: you'll find most (or all) of them at the fundraising site ActBlue. And you can work to build a third party more in tune with the your politics than the duopoly; get involved in local politics; join the struggle to create alternative power bases, for example in labor or community organizations; pursue change in specific policy areas (such as militarization or the environment); assist civil rights and civil liberties defenders like the Southern Poverty Law Center or the American Civil Liberties Union.
Or you can take to the streets.
What you can't do, it seems to me, is sit passively in the audience of our political theater; what you can't do is agree to business as usual; what you can't do is once again accept without resistance the lesser of two evils.