Saturday, January 23, 2010

Politics: Elections Have Consequences, Eh?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I stayed out of the "one year evaluations" of United States President Barack Obama that ran on the anniversary of his inauguration earlier this week because everybody seemed to be doing various takes on the theme and the concept is entirely arbitrary. However, I was amazed to find in the media that I normally peruse that nobody did the obvious--tracing the consequences of the election in terms of what was different in the country as a result of the election of Barack Obama instead of John McCain. Perhaps they were too astounded at what they found--near as I can tell, the election had little consequence to the average person. John McCain would have accomplished very similar things in his first year in office as Barack Obama has accomplished.

It's true that John McCain's first act in the White House would not have been to announce the closing of the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In fact, he was rather public about the measures he would have taken with respect to the detainees there, which would have focused on completing prosecutions and figuring out where detainees could go before making a closure announcement. John McCain, as a torture victim, had spoken out vociferously against the torture practices under the Bush administration and would have taken actions to change policies that, in the end, would likely have resembled what Obama has actually done. He even called Obama's closure decision "wise," implying that he would have done it, just not as quickly. Obama's promise to close the facility by the end of the year did not come true thanks to a variety of factors. So, it's hard to find profound differences in outcome between the Obama administration and a hypothetical McCain administration on Guantanamo.

The biggest problem facing the country when Obama took office was the economy. Considering that the Obama administration has largely acted to stabilize the financial system and increase investor confidence along the lines of what the late Bush administration had already done, it's hard to imagine that McCain would have done much differently. The first major legislation to come out of Congress in 2009 was the stimulus package. Considering John McCain's anti-pork, balanced-budget stance over the years, it is clear that negotiations between congressional leaders and the president would have been different under McCain. However, the final stimulus package actually passed contained quite a number of temporary tax incentives as well as what many considered special-interest spending. It's unlikely that McCain would have opposed a stimulus package in concept, and it's unlikely that Congress--assuming the same Democratic-controlled chambers--would have accepted a substantially smaller package, so while the exact contents of the package may have been different and likely more focused on traditional infrastructure projects, I don't think the average citizen would have noted much difference. Like Obama, McCain would not have broken up big banks and would have re-nominated Ben Bernanke as Fed Chairman.

The war in Iraq? John McCain would have put a different spin on it, but it seems likely that he also would have drawn down troops there so they could be used elsewhere, including Afghanistan, as circumstances permitted. The war in Afghanistan? John McCain was a major advocate of the surge in Iraq, so it seems likely that he would have supported a similar policy in Afghanistan. Again, the spin would have been different, and he probably would have found a different way to put pressure on the Afghans to take more responsibility than to set a withdrawal deadline, but it's hard to see much difference there.

McCain's domestic priorities would clearly have been different than Obama's, but as of this juncture, no major legislation from the Obama agenda has been passed, and the landmark health care bill is in serious jeopardy. With a Democrat-controlled Congress, it would probably have been hard for McCain to advance a domestic agenda as well, so again, it's probably a wash--no major domestic legislation.

That leaves the symbolic weight of having the first African-American president. No matter how much he spoke against torture and about returning to "true American principles" on the world stage, John McCain could not have possibly changed perceptions of the United States in the rest of the world the way Obama has done. I think it's safe to say that John McCain would not have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, foreign perceptions have little practical consequence to the average US citizen, and Al-Qaeda continued its campaigns against the United States anyway.

There's a lot of time left in the Obama presidency, at least three years. But, six months ago, I questioned whether there would be an Obama legacy. At the one year mark, I could have published virtually that same blog entry again. By 2012, it may be very obvious how the 2008 election was consequential by electing Barack Obama instead of John McCain. Right now, though, I'm having trouble seeing that the consequences were the least bit profound to the average person.

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