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Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
Romney's poisoned gift to Obama
By Romney's own admission, most Americans think Obama is "trying to clean up the mess that Republicans left him".
Last Modified: 18 Sep 2012 10:37
No amount of corporate-funded Tea Party populist spin will be able to "scrub the smell of class warfare, of the one per cent conspiring against everyone else", clean from Romney's campaign [REUTERS]

Barack Obama has been handed a gift.

It's not a gift he really deserved, given how he's governed during his first term. But it's a gift the American people deserve - the gift of truth.

When Mitt Romney told a group of über-wealthy donors that his "job isn't to worry about" the half of America he claims is on the dole, stealing the hard earned money of the rich, he provided the clearest imaginable proof to Americans of just who the Republican nominee and his party represent. No amount of corporate-funded Tea Party populist spin will be able to scrub the smell of class warfare, of the one per cent conspiring against everyone else, clean from his campaign.

Sure, Tea Party diehards and the wealthy will stick with their candidate regardless of how callous he's revealed to be. But all those over-burdened, under-paid, socially conservative yet essentially tolerant soccer moms and dads - the majority of whom are in fact part of the so-called "47 per cent" of the country that requires help from the government to get by - will not take too kindly to these remarks.

They will add the rank insensitivity and even class hatred that literally echo from them to his unwillingness to release his own tax returns (Obama supporters pay no tax? What about Romney?) and the knowledge of his Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island tax havens. They'll combine these with his - and worse, Paul Ryan's - policies on women's reproductive freedoms, and a host of other issues such as climate change, healthcare and tax relief for the middle class, where official Republican orthodoxy constitutes a threat to the well-being of the majority of Americans.

And the majority of them will decide that whatever Obama's failures, he's at least trying to have their interests at heart. Bill Clinton's argument at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte suddenly reads less like a brilliant stump speech and more like a statement of fact: the Republicans' only goal is to make the rich richer and anyone who interferes with that goal is the moral equivalent of the proverbial welfare queen.

Whatever you want to say about Obama, by Romney's own admission most Americans think he's at least trying to clean up the mess that Republicans left him.  

No matter what, protect the 1.5 per cent

"There are 47 per cent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what," Romney declared to his tony lunch guests. In the view of Romney and his friends, these Americans "who are with [Obama]... are dependent on government, believe that, that they are victims, believe that government has the responsibility to care for them... believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing" (audio here). 

Never mind that every part of Romney's argument is either misleading or downright false. What's chilling is how Romney accents the second syllable of "entitled", just to emphasise the sheer ball of all these freeloaders and the disgust in which he wants his donors to know he holds them. Of course, he doesn't "worry about them". They don't exist in his universe of foreign tax havens, race horses and homes on multiple continents. For Romney, the middle class exists in the rarefied air of $200,000-250,000, when the median household income is in fact as little as one fifth that amount.

In fact, those earning in this range constitute the top 1.5 per cent of American households, according to the 2005 US census (the numbers are no doubt even more skewed today). The policy and political implications of confusing the top 1.5 for the 50th percentile are both profound and deeply troubling.

Taking responsibility

Really, Obama has just been handed the election on a golden platter. The problem is, however, that while ideologically - or at least rhetorically - the differences between he and Romney, and their two parties, couldn't be starker, in reality Obama's presidency has done all too good a job of serving the 1.5 per cent at the expense of the other 98.5.

About four million families have seen their homes foreclosed during his tenure, while Wall Street and corporate America more broadly have received untold trillions in bailout money and other aid. Income inequality continues to widen while basic civil and political rights continue to be eroded. Indeed, in one area, Romney's closed door remarks to donors weren't far wide of the mark, that Obama has "disappointed" millions of the people who voted for him and that he has just been “not up to the task” of translating his campaign promises into concrete, successful policies.

Romney's problem is that Obama's failure pales in comparison to the implications of his admission that “[m]y job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives”.

This is the classic Ayn Rand argument, that people don't deserve help (well, everyone besides the rich don't deserve help), that they should just take "personality responsibility" and depend on no one but themselves, let the "market" determine the rightful winners and losers, and don't complain when they wind up on the wrong side. Unless it's complaining about immigrants, minorities and union members who are taking away their jobs and stealing undeserved benefits from them.

Americans might be gullible and ultimately far more socially and ideologically conservative than their counterparts in other Western countries, but they're not as out of touch with reality as Romney assumes or at least hopes. 

"The Republicans' only goal is to make the rich richer and anyone who interferes with that goal is the moral equivalent of the proverbial welfare queen."

They know that Obama has done far too little to improve their lives, but they also know that the continued problems with the economy, including the "growing number of people who are dependent on the federal government, including the record number of people who are on food stamps, nearly one in six Americans in poverty, and the 23 million Americans who are struggling to find work," as Romney spokesperson Gail Gitcho argued in response to the video's release, are in this situation first and foremost because of the deliberate policies of the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, not because of Obama and the Democrats.

Time for Obama to come clean

This election remained close as long as middle class Americans in the country's interior actually believed that a super-rich patrician who looks and sounds like he's from another, far less troubled planet actually understands their problems. That his policies would create decent-paying jobs, provide healthcare and allow Americans to begin to save for their (and their children's) futures more successfully than President Obama. Whether or not Governor Romney's policies could do this remains debatable; what clear from his words in the video is that he has no intention of doing so. 

The race is now Obama's to lose, barring one or more foreign policy disasters like last week's explosion of anti-American protests in the Muslim world. But this gift in fact carries a steep price, because with his advantage cemented there is little incentive for Obama not to play safe and spend the rest of the campaign hammering Romney for his mis-steps rather than opening up to the American people about why he spent most of his first term bailing out the wealthy and powerful, leaving the working and middle classes with far less relief and aid than they deserved.

Had the race been closer, Obama might have been forced to speak more directly to Americans about the unforeseen challenges he's faced governing, the huge economic, social and political forces aligned against him from so many angles, why he's intensified the assault on civil liberties and freedoms in the context of a War on Terror he'd declared over at the very start of his administration, and yet remained silent on the blatantly racist attempts by the Republican Party, led by governors and Secretaries of State in well over a dozen states to attempt to disenfranchise millions of voters, most of them the poor, young and elderly. Republicans dismiss this half of America as the "takers" of a system Romney and his lunch companions clearly believes exists to serve the rich (25 per cent of African American and 16 per cent of Latino citizens lack the government-issued ID necessary to comply with new regulations in such identification, compared to 9 per cent of whites, according to the Brennan Centre for Justice at New York University).

Most important, the President might have been forced directly to challenge Romney's straw-man dichotomy between a "government-centred society that provides more and more benefits... or a free enterprise society where people are able to pursue their dreams". For Republicans, society can't have it both ways. Government can only frustrate people's dreams, never help realise them, while benefits are always bad, because they require that all of us contribute to a common weal whose very nature stifles the kind of entrepreneurial spirit, efficiency and competitiveness that only exist when unfettered markets reign. 

 Romney scorns Obama voters in secret video

As the US copes with the wrenching transition to an emerging global economic system where it no longer has economic dominance or political hegemony, it will be much harder for truly free markets to function without the protection of an assertive government that places people on equal footing with profits and long-term economic health on par with short-term corporate gain. In short, it will require the kind of compact between government, labour and business that enabled the great post-war economic boom in the United States, Europe and Japan that Republicans hark back to as the Golden Age to which they would like to return, even as they pursue policies that can only produce the society upon whose ashes it was built. 

Incompatible model 

Such a model is incompatible with contemporary neocon and neoliberal free market policies which are based on lowering regulations so that corporations can extract as much profit from the economy as possible regardless on the impact of such practices on workers, tax revenues and equally important, the environment. Indeed, as we are forced to confront the inescapable reality of global warming, we are also going to have to confront an even more problematic reality - that the paradigm of limitless economic growth as the best means to produce and distribute wealth across societies and thus bring higher living standards and development for everyone, is no longer viable; precisely because the more the economy grows, the faster it will head off the climate-change cliff.

The next President will have to confront these exceedingly difficult questions, not merely in closed door meetings with his advisers but openly with the American people and, through this conversation, with leaders and peoples across the globe, particularly in the still developing world where people quite naturally feel entitled to the same century of unfettered economic development that the West enjoyed before the costs of such growth became too great.

What is necessary, in short, is nothing less than the development of a new economic ideology the global architecture to enable it, one that inherently would have little place for the rapacious corporations (particularly those involved in military production, energy extraction and disposable commodity production and consumption) which currently rule the world.

Had President Obama faced a more dire challenge from Romney, one in which the strategy of being "Republican-lite" no longer worked with voters, he might have felt forced to take the chance of telling the truth to the American people, and in so doing return to the agenda that first generated such enthusiasm among millions of people five years ago. But with Romney shooting himself in the foot every other day, the President has little incentive to do anything but play it safe and let the Republican(s) hand him the election. This might be a good electoral strategy, but it will do little to help move the country forward in the next four years. In fact, it will leave a second Obama administration as beholden to the corporate powers that are the root of our problems as was the first.

In this likely scenario it really won't matter that Obama defeated Romney, since the 1.5 per cent whose interests the Republican nominee has so faithfully served will have won the 2012 elections, regardless of who's in the White House.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on 'rock and resistance and the struggle for soul' in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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