A global progressive agenda for Obama’s second term

Mark LeVine discusses 5 issues that progressives should push the President to address at the start of his second term.

Obama should take advantage of his re-election by going back to what got him his first victory: "Yes, we can" [AFP]
Obama should take advantage of his re-election by going back to what got him his first victory: "Yes, we can" [AFP]

Barack Obama’s re-election offers progressives a short window of opportunity to lay out a vision for his second term which, if deftly presented, could win broader public support, especially among the millions of young, women, and Latino voters who were crucial to his victory. Here are five issues that progressives, both in the United States and abroad, should push the President to address at the start of his second term in order to meet the so-far unfulfilled hopes for a transformative change in foreign and domestic policies that accompanied his historic political ascendance.

All five have the advantage of being issues which have the increasing attention and even support of important members of the Republican establishment in the US as well political leaders abroad and global civil society, increasing the possibility of their impacting administration policies if enough pressure can be deployed from a variety of angles in support of them. 

1. Stop the drones. Drones have become Obama’s water boarding, only worse, and are the single biggest threat to US standing in the international community today. They have killed at least 176 children in Pakistan alone – that’s right, President Obama has killed sixteen times the number of children that Osama bin Laden killed on 9/11, including at least one American citizen. This number is a greater stain on the United States than the use of torture, secret renditions or Guantanamo. And the children represent only a small share of the many hundreds of civilians – perhaps as many as a thousand – who’ve been killed by US drones.

Inside Story Americas –
Are US drones terrorising civilians?

The President has directly supervised the programme, lauding its “surgical precision” even though a comprehensive report has revealed the number of high value al-Qaeda targets killed (the original purpose and still the primary justification for the programme) to be as low as two percent of the total killed. Moreover, the attacks have included patently illegal “double strikes” which have killed first responders who arrived to tend to the wounded only to themselves be blown to bits from the sky.

Even conservatives are worried about the legal and diplomatic ramifications of the drone programme, offering a unique opportunity to create a political and policy-making consensus drastically to curtail and perhaps even end their use.

2. Deal boldly with climate change. Ironically, for a president who literally ran away from climate change during his first term, Obama likely owes his re-election at least in part to its worsening impact, as demonstrated by Hurricane Sandy and the last minute endorsement by NYC Mike Bloomberg specifically because of this issue. The simple fact is that if the world doesn’t drastically reduce its fossil fuel usage in the immediate future, any accomplishments Obama might achieve during his second turn will quite literally be overwhelmed by the environmental and climate catastrophes that are sure to arrive sooner rather than later.

How can the US lead the way? The President’s tilt towards domestic fossil fuel extraction, and particularly his support for fracking has rightly angered environmentalists, but these policies gives him political capital to corral key political and business constituencies around a comprehensive plan to push for a massive increase in the use of solar power, with increased subsidies for and even mandating the installation of solar systems on the tens of millions of existing and new housing and commercial structures in the southern and western United States and the upgrading of the nation’s electrical grid this would necessitate.

Of course, if mother earth will have little chance to heal without a major reduction in energy consumption by Americans, she will be doomed if the citizens of countries like India, China and other BRICs continue to define their road to development through the insatiable and clearly unsustainable levels of consumption that have already led us to the tipping point of global environmental catastrophe.

If there’s a politician today with the mandate and rhetorical skills to lead an international conversation on this issues, it’s President Obama. With no more re-election bids ahead of him, a populace which at least for the moment is reacquainted with the costs of non-action on climate change, and an unparalleled international bully pulpit, the President has little to lose by seizing the stage on the singular issue of our age.

3. Stop the increased violations of basic constitutional rights. Drones represent only part of a large-scale government assault on basic civil and constitutional liberties in the United States that President Obama, as a former constitutional law professor, has shockingly spearheaded. These measures included the increased use of warrantless wiretapping, long-term confinement without trials, punishment of whistleblowers, subpoenaing of peace activists and the seizure of their computers and mobile phones, violent repression of peaceful protestors and the use of tactics like kettling and mass arrests to break apart protests, the use of a State Secrets defence to cloak government actions in secrecy, domestic spying by police forces and the FBI on minority and activist communities, and even the criminalisation of political speech.

 Inside Story Americas – Obama: Under surveillance

Taken collectively the actions of the Obama administration have had a chilling effect on the ability of ordinary Americans, activists and journalists to assert their free speech rights and investigate and/or protest against government policies. Before he begins a new term, civil liberties advocates need to articulate a clear set of proposals to demand that the President confront these policies and wind them back before they become a permanent feature of the American political, police and judicial systems. At the same time, European governments are also guilty of pursuing similar policies towards their citizens; the time is ripe for a united push-back against the post-9/11 criminalisation of dissident politics and broader securatisation of civic life in the US and Europe, a process which only amplifies similar policies by authoritarian allies and clients in the developing world and particularly in the Middle East.

4. End the “war on drugs”. The drug war is an even bigger failure than the war on terror. Over $1 trillion has been spent during the last forty years, and entire countries – including America’s southern neighbour – have become narco-states. Millions of citizens – a disproportionate number of them poor and young black and latino men – have been incarcerated for years merely for possession of marijuana, at a huge economic and social cost. Even Obama’s own drug czar has declared the the existing drug control policies have “not been successful” and the problem has “if anything, magnified, intensified”. This is a conclusion leaders across Latin America and Europe have also reached.

The victories of pot-legalisation ballot measures in Colorado and Washington State is likely just the first crack in the marijuana prohibition dam; California will likely follow suit in the near future, leaving the federal government in a war against the states over a drug policy that it cannot win (in fact, if the continued reduction in the street prices of most drugs is any indication, the war is already lost). If Americans can radically alter their views on as hot button an issue as gay marriage in the space of a few years, there is no reason why a similar transformation on drug policy can’t occur. In fact, most polling shows Americans broadly support drug policy reform, as do an increasing number of senior Republican politicians. And once again, a change in US policy would be a huge relief to governments around the world who have became foot soldiers in and collateral damage of the US war on drugs.

5. Stop supporting authoritarian regimes in the Arab/Muslim World. Ongoing American support for corrupt and brutal regimes across the Arab/Muslim world, including Israel, is the single biggest cause of anger at – and ultimately terrorism against – the United States. For too long, however, activists have treated the Israeli occupation and American support for the Arab world’s autocratic and corrupt leader as separate and even competing issues, with those on the Left focusing disproportionate attention on Palestine and conservatives focusing on Arab governments and Iran because of their supposed antipathy towards and even danger to Israel.

Ongoing American support for corrupt and brutal regimes across the Arab/Muslim world, including Israel, is the single biggest cause of anger at – and ultimately terrorism against – the United States.

The reality is that occupation and the violence, authoritarianism and corruption plaguing most every country from Mauritania to Pakistan are intimately connected. Specifically, they are part of a larger system which the US and Europe have helped to shape, managed and benefited from for more than half a century. A holistic agenda that demands a unitary approach to “Mideast policy” in support of full human, political and civil rights for all the peoples – women and men, Shia and Sunnis, Jews, Alawites and Christians, Arabs, Amazigh, Druze, Sahrawis, and Kurds; everyone, without exception – is the only programme that would press Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran and Morocco, to fundamentally change their treatment of the peoples whose lives they control. Such a shift in American policy towards an explicit and honest human rights agenda would demonstrate to all the peoples of the region that the United States truly “stands by their democratic aspirations”, as Obama has repeatedly, but so far emptily, said.

An army of entrenched interests

Such a policy change would threaten the massive profits that accrue to the US and other western defence industries. Indeed, each one of these prescriptions would challenge the power, prerogative and/or profits of some of the most powerful economic and policy forces in the US, including the defence, petroleum and coal industries, the prison lobby, the intelligence and law enforcement bureaucracies.

These forces have had a decades-long free reign to reshape the political economy of the United States to their interests, and much of the world along with it. The reality is that if Obama wants to go down in history as a transformative rather than care-taker president in more than just symbolism, he will have to take on these entrenched interests – who’ve only grown more rather than less powerful during the last four years – as early as possible during his second term.

Challenging them would no doubt be a Herculean task, one that most of the President’s advisors will likely counsel him is not worth the effort. But the President’s entire political career has been based on the belief that “Yes, we can”. If progressives can remind him of this core principle that first motivated his political career and push relentlessly and broadly enough on a few foundational issues, there is hope that President Obama’s second term will produce less disappointment, and perhaps even more long-term changes on the most important issues facing Americans and the world, than did his first.

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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