Obama's real mandate is against America's bosses

When workers are given a clear choice, they choose the man who fights for them.

Did President Barack Obama win a mandate from the American people last week? Fox News appears to think he didn't. Some people didn't vote for him. Dick Morris doesn't see a mandate, though he foresaw a landslide for challenger Mitt Romney. Haley Barbour, the former head of the Republican National Committee, said the election was pretty much a tie. And the Wall Street Journal said Republicans, by dint of holding on to the House of Representatives, have a mandate equal to the president's.

Bill Press offers a blunt retort

Those naysayers are not only pathetic, they're dead wrong. ... Obama didn't need the help of the Supreme Court. He won the election on his own. That's a mandate. With Florida, he won the electoral vote by 332 to 206. That's a mandate. ... He beat Romney in the popular vote by almost 3 million. That's a mandate.

What's missing from this debate, if it can be called that, is that Obama's mandate is unique in the context of modern presidential history. In past elections, incumbents ran on their record, and his campaign was generally seen as a referendum of that first term. But this time, the race for the White House was framed as a choice between conflicting worldviews. 

As Mother Jones' David Corn reports, Obama and his team chose to run on ideological grounds pretty much since the "shellacking" he received after the 2010 midterms. Obamacare, financial reform, the stimulus program, the killing of Osama bin Laden -- all of these are stunning and underrated achievements compared to other presidencies, and all could have been legitimate grounds for launching a referendum election. But Obama chose a "values-and-vision" platform. Do you want to return to the trickle-down economic policies of the past 30 years or do you want to move forward with fair economic policies that benefit everyone? 

Indeed, the president ran as an old-school Democrat, a populist for the people willing to speak for the forgotten Americans who face on their own the daily prospect of economic destruction. He successfully made the case that government should protect the people against the excesses of capitalism, and voters said yes. They want government to create more and better jobs. They want social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare. They want higher taxes on the rich. And they see no problem with greater public spending on infrastructure, education and energy. 

And Romney broadened and deepened that populist image. First by defending the supply-side policies of the Bush years (though, of course, he never uttered the word "Bush"). Then by pivoting from referendum strategy early in the campaign to a choice strategy some time over the summer. From that point onward, Romney helped Obama cast the race as a choice between worldviews: both, remarkably, characterized by class. Romney, emboldened by flawed polling that showed an electorate far more to the right than it actually is, sought to press an advantage that he didn't actually have. He thought he'd win the war of ideas, and he lost, badly.

Here's one way of looking at this: Populism is good for workers. Here's another way: It's bad for their bosses. The real bosses, the one per cent. For them, populism isn't rhetorical. They know what it means. They were listening when Obama railed against the rich for thinking they played by a different set of rules; when he said he'd go back and raise their taxes; when the crowds, in places like Ohio, gobbled it all up. If there's any doubt the bosses are worried, consider what they were prepared to do.

Prior to Election Day, Romney asked the CEOs of major corporations to "advise" employees to vote Republican. Sure, they said, warning workers they'd better support Romney or face unemployment. Georgia-Pacific, owned by the billionaire Koch brothers, did it. So did the heads of CintasASG Software Solutions and Rite-HitePapa John's and Applebee's said they'd shed payrolls before yielding to the demands of Obamacare. 

Wall Street is quaking. The big firms had bet big against the president, and after the election, the Dow Jones dropped by 2.4 per cent, or 320 points. Meanwhile, Murray Energy, the largest privately held coal mining company in the US, made good on its threat to can workers if Obama won. It laid off more than 150 workers this week, because it was in "survival mode". Future layoffs loom on the horizon. And even the rightist media followed suit. A literary blogger for Commentary, a Zionist neocon monthly, was sacked after making the conservative case for gay marriage. 

The political right lost the war of ideas and is now engaged in a guerrilla war against the president's mandate. Who knows how long that will last? What they don't seem to understand is that one goes with the other. The more Romney pushed a pro-boss agenda, the worse things got for him (conversely, as we saw after the first presidential debate, the less he pushed, the better off he was). And now that the campaign that gave expression to this war of ideas has ended, the bosses themselves are picking up where Romney left off, and they think they can win. 

They can't. But it will be fun to watch. The president won a mandate to champion the cause of Americans whose lives are threatened by economic forces beyond their control. The president has said that together we can make the country a more just place to live and work, and we can start by raising taxes on your bosses, the real bosses, the one per cent. And the people, by the widest margin ever given to a Democrat, said yes.

Now the bosses are making those abstract economic forces feel real by firing workers, and the more they do that, the more people have reason to stand behind the president.

We haven't hit a tipping point yet. Not by a long shot. But it's possible to imagine a brighter future for workers if Obama remains the populist that we saw so often on the campaign trail. The war of ideas is just beginning, and we are only now seeing the case being made that the bosses are not the makers - they are merely the owners. The real makers are the workers. And when workers are given a clear choice, as they were in this election, they choose the man who fights for them - and against their bosses.

Barack Obama delivering a statement about the economy. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.


Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.