Politics

10.30.12

Bernard-Henri Lévy on Barack Obama’s Three Revolutions

In health care, the economy, and foreign policy, Barack Obama has achieved great things. Bernard-Henri Lévy on why he deserves to win a second term.

With Election Day just around the corner and the world awash in idle banter about “Obama’s broken dream,” his “vanished charm,” and even, while we’re at it, “the assassination of hope,” it is not idle to point out what should be obvious: that in four years the 44th president of the United States has pulled off no fewer than three revolutions.

First came his reform of health care—an effort no less major for being incomplete. And in the heat of the battle waged against him by the Republicans, unanimously arrayed and aided by a handful of Democrats, he was forced to retreat from many details of his plan. But he saw it through. It was a colossal struggle, but he won. And whatever the nitpickers, faultfinders, and defeatists might say, he has something to show for his trouble: 50 million people previously dispossessed by the American dream will now enjoy—thanks to a president who watched his young mother fight cancer along with a health system that denied her access to care—the right to get sick, to age, and to die with dignity. This revolution, this basic and noble expansion of human rights, others—including Truman, Kennedy, and Clinton—had tried without success to realize. History will remember Obamacare as a considerable triumph.

Next, Obama revolutionized an economic landscape in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. That revolution, too, was insufficient. Obama took to it in his own way, as a pragmatist, a centrist, a man who believes in compromise. And he did so, remember, in the midst of a storm that, we quickly forget, had the world’s leaders paralyzed with fear, forcing them to steer their ships by instinct, without the aid of instruments, knowing that each and every decision might lead to disaster. But Obama navigated well. He began to bring Wall Street into step. Cautiously but firmly, he tested some initial mechanisms of financial regulation. And through the $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, followed by the $447 billion Jobs Act of September 2011, he implemented the largest recovery plan of all time. We all know that history does not generally record disasters avoided. But is it so hard to imagine what the rate of unemployment in the United States might be today in the absence of Obama’s decisions? Without the de facto (if temporary) nationalization of part of the automobile industry, without massive loans for sustainable energy development, without Keynesian reinvestment in infrastructure neglected since the 1930s—in short, without this new New Deal—what would be the state of the country, and thus of the world? The name of Franklin D. Roosevelt, architect of the first New Deal, comes readily to mind, along with that of Lyndon Johnson, author of the Great Society. For a man widely depicted as disappointing, hesitant, and even cowardly, that’s not too bad.

In 2004, four years before Obama’s election, I sensed the tremendous destiny of the man whom I called the black Kennedy.

Last but not least, Obama profoundly altered the course of American diplomacy and, through it, his country’s image around the world. Here again his achievement was not complete. He did not have the political means necessary to allow him to carry out his decision to close Guantánamo. Moreover, no one acting alone could have toppled—no one acting alone ever will—the idol of anti-Americanism. But ponder the sequence of events that began with his speech in Cairo and the hand that he held out that day to moderate Muslims. Consider the withdrawal from Iraq and the simultaneous intensification of the war against the Taliban. And then, before taking bin Laden out of action, and making that step possible, the reconsideration of the absurd (one might even say unnatural) alliance that his predecessors had forged with the gangster state of Pakistan. Barack Obama broke with the Jacksonian impulse to fight terrorism by firing blindly into the crowd: West against the rest! America versus Islam! On with the clash of civilizations! He chose a more deliberate strategy, a targeted approach in which the concept of just war was allied with a resolute defense of enlightened Islam against barbaric Islam. Obama’s America fights only the neo-Fascist enemies of the people of the world, particularly the enemies of Arabs and Muslims who thirst for freedom.

For the most part, then, Barack Obama has kept his promises. To allow him to keep them fully, Americans need only offer him a second term—the second term that, from the first, he said he would need to carry out his program.

I do not regret having sensed, in 2004, four years before his election, the tremendous destiny of the man whom I called the black Kennedy. There is no reason to be disappointed. The hope is still there, stronger than ever. And the struggle continues.

Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy