Obama Second Term – January 2013

Question: Do you have any reasons to hope that President Obama will be “better” in his second term?

Publication Month: January 2013

This is one of those many places where we need to distinguish the “hope” about which the question asks from optimistic expectation. I am not optimistic, but I do have hope.

I am not optimistic because I think that on the most important issues, such as imperialism, environment, free trade, global finance, and human rights, we have no reason to think that Obama’s intentions are different from his past actions. He could probably never have become president if the powers that be thought they count not count on him to continue the efforts of the United States to dominate the world, and the global exploitation of natural and human resources. Ironically, but I expect quite intentionally on the part of these powers, his election destroyed the peace movement even though he continued the Bush policies that evoked it. Because the drones used to assassinate opponents of U.S. imperialism are dispatched by a Democrat, opposition is muted. I assume he will continue in this direction. I fear that quite soon he will present to Congress a proposed trade agreement with Asian countries that is worse than any we have had in the past. It will continue, and probably accelerate, shipping American jobs overseas and weakening environmental protections at home. I doubt that a Republican president could get Congressional support for this disastrous “trade agreement”, but I fear that Obama can.

There may, of course, be some improvements. Obama learned in his first term that efforts to work with Republicans did not succeed. He thought that by proposing a form of national healthcare that had been developed by Republicans, he could get Republican support. But he learned that they would oppose his proposals simply because they were his. On the other hand, Republicans learned that a purely obstructionist approach did not help them at the polls. Obama is now playing tough, and it is likely that he will succeed in re-imposing somewhat higher taxes on the rich. He may be able to regulate the financial sectors somewhat more tightly, although it is not clear how much he would like to do on that front. If he actually wants to bring the world back from the brink of climate disaster, he could probably make some progress in this direction. But, again, it is not clear that he has any personal commitment to this utterly crucial goal.

I have spoken first of my realistic expectations. Let me now say a work on hope. A second-term president swept into office in an election that showed that it is harder than we thought to control elections with money could use his newly acquired capital in important ways. He could decide that saving the planet from self-destruction is worth large personal and even political cost. He could use the next global-warming influenced catastrophe as an occasion for speaking honestly with the American people about what is going on and asking their help in making major changes. He could use his great oratorical skills to move millions on this subject and to weaken the ability of the corporate world to hide the truth from us. He could also use the global influence of the United States to support international moves in this direction.

I am not suggesting that this would be easy or safe. Probably Kennedy’s efforts to bring the CIA under presidential control was a major factor in his assassination. Any effort to subordinate corporate activity to environmental needs could have the same result. Although an administration can change quite a lot without much Congressional support, legislation is essential, and it is likely that Congress would prevent it. But even if he could make little actual change, he could persuade tens of millions of Americans that this is the most important issue facing all humanity and generate a situation in which the next election would be a referendum on whether saving the biosphere, including the human species, is important. The future of the planet could not again be swept under the carpet. Millions of people would be energized to act.

William James wrote about “the moral equivalent of war.” People in many countries will make great personal sacrifices to support their nations when they are at war. If anything could function as the moral equivalent of war, it is probably the recognition that current activity is rapidly eroding the capacity of the planet to support us and especially our children and grandchildren. The current behavior of humankind is, strictly speaking, insane. Obama is part of that insanity. I nevertheless believe that deep within him there is the potential for sanity.

You may well wonder how these highly personal reflections express the process theology with which these FAQs normally deal. They do not, in any direct sense. What I have written is not in any sense the process perspective. No doubt there are many who are informed by Whitehead’s philosophy who see matters quite differently. But I am myself so shaped by that perspective, that I am sure the reader can discern its presence.

First, the process perspective leads us to think about politics in terms of the common human good, and to think of the common human good in terms of the good of the whole biosphere. What we call the ecological movement is for us common sense. The evidence that the situation in which we now live is catastrophic is for us overwhelming. The costs of the changes needed for a decent human survival are high but in no sense high enough to justify continuing on our suicidal course.

Second, we believe in the possibility of creative transformation, beginning with the creative transformation of individuals. We are likely to judge that the conditions for a particular sort of creative transformation are better realized in some people than in others and certainly that their occurrence in some people has special potential for leading to creative transformation in the wider environment.

Third, we believe that God is working for the needed creative transformation. We do not believe that God has controlling power. Nevertheless, our belief in God’s effective working in the world is the deepest reason for our hope. I believe that God cares deeply that the biosphere of this planet survive and revive. I believe we are all called to allow God’s work in us to be more effective. I believe Obama is called by God to heroic efforts. Although practical judgment recognizes that his creative transformation in this regard is unlikely, we can hope, we can pray, and in some instances we can work toward making it happen. Obama has even urged us to make him do the right thing. He is under enormous pressure not to do so. We can join in creating a countervailing pressure.