(Preface: This article isn't really meant for everyone, so I might be able to save you some time. If you think climate change isn't a serious electoral issue, this probably wasn't written for you. If you think American presidents should conduct wars on their own authority and that it's okay if they secretly assassinate whomever they (secretly) decide are bad people who might hurt us then you needn't concern yourself with what follows. If you think the Bill of Rights of the Constitution doesn't necessarily apply when terrorism is involved, or that letting gays have civil rights should be decided on a state-by-state basis like slavery before the civil war, or that the health of the environment isn't more important than economic growth, or that whistleblowers who expose governmental and corporate crimes should go to prison but that privileged lawbreakers shouldn't, or that whether a candidate is electable should depend on how much she pleases wealthy donors--if any of these approximates your own take on the issues, please read no further. You'll be bored. Honestly.)
I live in a purple part of the country (Virginia) and move in academic circles, so of course I know many, many people who will be voting for Obama. If that doesn't strike you as funny, then you are the person I have written this for.
Of course it is impossible to know, but if I murdered Santa Claus in front of their children, the look on my Obama-voter friends' faces could scarcely be much different than the look they get when I say I am voting for Jill Stein.
"But this is a swing state...you have to vote for Obama...what if Romney wins?!?"
The pain in their voices tugs at my sympathies; their fear is very real. I want to reassure them, but I was cured a few presidential elections ago. I won't be drinking from that cup again.
At first they assume I don't understand what's at stake. They tell me about the Romney/Ryan agenda. They tell me about Obamacare. They tell me about DOMA and the Fair Pay Act. But the conversation wanes when I am not only unsurprised by the information but able to supply amplifications and corrections. I've read the (detailed summary of) the Affordable Care Act. I know about Romney's probable agenda. I even know the age and bodily afflictions of key members of the Supreme Court. In short, I know what's at stake.
This is awkward, and for some there is no plan B, but experienced partisans know where to take it next. There is something wrong with me. I'm a purist, a liberal elitist who won't be satisfied, arrogantly "engaging in a form of rhetorical narcissism and ideological self-preoccupation."1 I indulge in a "pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn't."2 I trade the common good for private conceit.
Fortunately my friends are mature people with trained minds, so for most it is enough to mention the ad hominem fallacy, to remind them that my personal faults--which I stipulate are legion--aren't relevant to the validity or otherwise of my position in this debate. Usually we can agree to leave that brand of "discourse" to the professional bloviators.
So at last we come down to it. What are the arguments? There seem to be only two reasons for a progressive (you're still reading, so I suppose that includes you) to vote for Obama. Either (1) you think Obama is not so bad, really, and has done a lot of good and could do more, or (2) Obama's record makes you green about the gills, but the thought of Romney winning is intolerable.
Obama enthusiasts have by heart a widely-circulated3 list of his achievements: The Fair Pay Act, the auto bailout, legislation for credit card reform and hate crimes and student loans, some tax cuts, repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, raising fuel efficiency standards, and ending the war in Iraq. Some also add killing bin Laden, the stimulus, and a new Start treaty with Russia. Everyone adds Obamacare.
Some of these really are achievements. The Fair Pay Act is a no-brainer, for one. Others are marginal. Credit card reform stopped some abuses but left millions imprisoned by usurious interest rates on their debt, with their homes and futures at the mercy of predatory lenders. If you are drowning it is definitely better to have fewer stones around your neck. You still drown though.
Some of the "achievements" are problematic at best. The Affordable Care Act introduces crucial reforms and increases access to healthcare for many, but it does so by placing a new tax on labor and small business to underwrite private insurance and pharmaceutical corporations' complete capture of the nation's healthcare system. The phrase "lipstick on a pig" comes to mind. (One could say something about the spectacle of progressives celebrating the plan corporate conservatives were pushing until Obama swiped it. One could.)
Some of these are not achievements, or not Obama's. U.S. troops ultimately left Iraq not because Obama wanted them out, but because Iraq wouldn't sign a Status of Forces agreement to allow them to stay, despite the Obama administration's efforts. Hard to see how it is honest to give credit to Obama for doing something he was forced to do against his will. (Iraq's intransigence was owing in part to the revelations allegedly leaked by Bradley Manning, so if anyone is responsible for getting us out of Iraq it is he. For this he was locked up under Obama's direct authority under conditions that for many months met the international definition of torture, and now faces life in prison.)
But enough: he's done some good things. Is that enough, or should his merit be judged on the whole of his record? This matters, because the weight on the other side of the scale is not insignificant.