The 2012 presidential race is likely to be a real squeaker. According to most polls, it's in a tie situation and there's little reason to believe anything is going to change drastically between now and November.
If Barack Obama and the Democrats are going to win, they will need every vote they can muster. So maybe the party of stimulus spending, Dodd-Frank, and the broccoli mandate is willing to turn libertarian this time around.
To be sure, Obama’s economic and regulatory policies have rightly irradiated him with most libertarians, but there’s still little love lost among libertarians for the GOP. When they last controlled the White House and Congress, Republicans spent wildly, expanded government at every level, meddled in people's personal choices, and charted a disastrous foreign policy. If the GOP faithful is lukewarm about Mitt Romney, voters who favor less government spending and more social tolerance are even less enthusiastic.
So if Obama and the Democrats explicitly move libertarian on some issues, anything could happen. (Related: "3 Ways Romney, Ryan, and Republicans Can Woo Libertarian Voters.")
Here are three ways that Obama might win at least some of the 10 percent to 15 percent of libertarian-minded voters who believe in shrinking the size and scope of the federal government.
1. Get Transparent, Right Now!
Candidate Obama promised the most transparent administration in history but he’s delivered the exact opposite. One example: Between 2008 and 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration has more than doubled the number of exemptions it has claimed from Freedom of Information Act requests.
He also promised to rein in abuses of executive power but he’s even got a top-secret kill list that apparently includes U.S. citizens on it and is free of any sort of judicial review or restraint.
Come clean, Obama, starting right now. Acknowledge the cavalier attitude you've taken both to the Constitution and your own promises and explain how you will change paths in a second term.
Libertarians take institutional checks on the restraint of power very seriously and nobody was expecting anyone to match George W. Bush's record on that score.
But Obama raised the bar for himself—and then just walked right under it.
2. Drug War Is Over, If You Want it
Back when he was a state senator, Obama used to say the war on drugs was a failed policy. When he was running for president, he joked about inhaling deeply while smoking dope ("that was the whole point") and since taking office, he continues to crack wise about marijuana policy even as hundreds of thousands of Americans are arrested each year for possession. That's not funny. It's sick.
Since becoming president, Obama has raided a record number of medical marijuana dispensaries that are legal under California law and he’s given no indications that he’ll change his policy in a second term. His own attorney general, Eric Holder, continues to either dissemble before Congress on the matter or evince incompetence in running his department.
The federal "asset forfeiture fund" (AFF) has been swollen with money and goods taken from dispensaries and other drug-related raids; seized property is being kicked back to the law enforcement agencies who do the seizing in record amounts.
As a former heavy user of pot, Obama is in a perfect position to push for an end to a drug war that he knows is awful in countless ways. Arguably, nothing would pull more libertarian voters from voting for Gov. Gary Johnson (the strong Libertarian Party candidate) or for Romney (on the theory that he is more friendly to free markets) than bold action to end America's longest war.
Obama and the Democrats are relentlessly attacked by Republicans as the party of doves, right?
Yet the president tripled troops in Afghanistan and things are not getting any better there (just a couple of weeks ago, in the very area U.S. troops "surged" into under Obama, the Taliban beheaded 17 people for dancing). For all the ballyhoo over the U.S. leaving Iraq (in keeping with a schedule worked out during the Bush administration), Obama's Defense Secretary Leon Panetta fought tooth and nail to keep troops around and somewhere around 17,000 contractors and other Americans are still there.
Obama unilaterally entered Libya and he’s put troops in Uganda, of all places. This guy won the Nobel Peace Prize? How about coming up with a serious reduction in defense spending, which is up over 70 percent in real terms in the 21st century and accounts for 45 percent of global military dollars? Obama's most recent budget plan (for fiscal year 2013) would see baseline defense spending rise from $700 billion next year to $788 billion in 2022 (see table S-4; figures in current dollars).
Perhaps more important, Obama might articulate a foreign policy that would provide a decision-making matrix that would guide American military interventions large and small. If it is non-interventionist—not isolationist, mind you, but not some warmed-over Wilsonian globo-cop nonsense—in a principled way, libertarians would listen.
If Obama and the Democrats want to win the libertarian vote—and November's election—they've got their work cut out for them. Obama's time in office has been marked by disastrous policies that have stalled economic recovery by introducing massive amounts of uncertainty into the equation (and we still have no clear sense of what basic taxes will be come January 2013). He has been weak-kneed when it comes to things such as marriage equality and terrible when it comes to issues such as immigration (he has deported almost as many people in three-plus years as George W. Bush did in eight).
Yet the libertarian bona fides of Mitt Romney and the Republicans are anything but convincing. And even though the LP has a remarkably attractive and accomplished presidential candidate in Gary Johnson, Obama could certainly win votes from libertarians if he ran on the three issues outlined above.