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“It’s (only partly) the economy, stupid”

14 September 2012

Congress is back in session after the party conventions, with the differences between Democrats and Republicans sharper than ever, writes Lesley Russell


Unpresidential times: Barack Obama addressing the Democratic Party convention last week.
Photo: Steve Bott/ Flickr

Unpresidential times: Barack Obama addressing the Democratic Party convention last week.
Photo: Steve Bott/ Flickr

THE Democratic Party convention last week was a rousing show, full of powerful oratory and visuals that highlighted the many races, creeds and orientations that make up today’s America. President Barack Obama made a strong pitch for a second term, pledging to restore the battered economy and build on the successes of his first term. Rather than hope and change, he offered a path that “may be harder but leads to a better place.”

The convention clearly achieved the aim of galvanising the base, and several polls released in the past week show Obama pushing ahead of Mitt Romney, who got no bounce in the polls after the Republican convention. But the polls also show that, despite the efforts of his prominent convention supporters, Obama is still struggling to inspire confidence that the US economy will improve if he is re-elected.

As if to highlight the economic and employment hurdles that confront both the president and his challenger, less than twelve hours after Obama’s acceptance speech the Labor Department released the August employment report. This showed the unemployment rate at 8.1 per cent – down from 8.3 per cent in July only because fewer people are looking for work – with mediocre job gains making little headway in getting 12.5 million unemployed Americans back to work.

The inability of Democrats and Republicans to work cooperatively to address the nation’s fiscal problems is chronicled in Bob Woodward’s new book, The Price of Politics, which focuses on the 2011 summer debates over the federal debt ceiling. Woodward highlights leadership shortcomings in the White House, frustrated and suspicious Democrats, and Republicans with little interest in negotiations and unconcerned that failure to reach agreement would damage the national credit rating. None of this augurs well for the unavoidable negotiations over the upcoming “fiscal cliff” that await the next president of the United States, whoever it may be.

The pundits argue that a weak economy is a liability for Obama and the Democrats and often cite how the economy sealed Ronald Reagan’s win over Jimmy Carter. But this is not 1980, when the GDP was in decline and inflation was growing; today’s economy is weak but not failing. And despite the Republicans’ traditionally strong standing with voters on the economy, this has not translated into poll gains for Romney. So 2012 may not be another “it’s the economy, stupid” election.

Speakers at the Democratic National Convention framed the choice between Obama and Romney as one with profound consequences for the economy and jobs, taxes and deficits, health and education, war and peace, and the ability of all Americans to achieve the American dream. Democrats aggressively defended their view of government and outlined how the power of government can be used to build the nation and address inequalities. In a stem-winder of a speech, former President Bill Clinton outlined the differences between a Republican “you’re-on-your-own, winner-take-all society” and a Democratic vision of “a country of shared prosperity and shared responsibility – a we’re-all-in-this-together society,” asking, “What kind of country do you want to live in?”

Arguably there are many progressives who wish that this aggressive support for the issues around healthcare reform, entitlement programs, education and taxes had emerged earlier to make the public case for the achievements of Obama’s first term. As an example, for too long the administration shunned the word “Obamacare,” which was used pejoratively by their opponents. Only now have the Democrats countered with “It’s Obamacare because Romney doesn’t care.”

What we saw and heard throughout the Democrats’ convention was a more inclusive approach to government and to tackling national, community and individuals’ problems. It was an American version of the “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy. There was as much emphasis on social issues such as equal pay for equal work, gay marriage and abortion rights as there was on debt reduction, jobs and business. The compelling stories of Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth, and first lady Michelle Obama helped make the case for the Obama–Biden ticket and reached out to key constituencies such as Hispanics, gays, military families and the elderly.

This stands in stark contrast to the Republicans, who promulgate a pro-business, anti-government agenda. Moreover, the Republican presidential ticket and congressional Republicans are coming under increasing pressure to provide the policy details that have so far been lacking. In this first week of the general campaign, Romney and Paul Ryan appeared to be trying to obscure which aspects of Obamacare they would keep and how they would pay for tax cuts, and to avoid discussing Ryan’s support for sequestration and its impact on defence spending. Always weak on foreign policy, in the hours after the attacks on the US missions in Libya and Egypt Romney cast aside the longstanding adage of American politics, that partisanship ought to end at the water’s edge, and unleashed an inaccurate attack on the Obama administration that made him look decidedly unpresidential.

MEANWHILE, Republican leaders on the Hill, back after a month-log recess, spoke endlessly to the media about jobs, the economy, energy independence, the national debt and automatic spending cuts, but never mentioned Romney’s name. There is an increasing estrangement between Romney and lawmakers, and Romney has been publicly critical of the legislative record of the congressional wing of the GOP as he waivers between pandering to the right and sounding conciliatory to the centre.

These political and policy differences will almost certainly be more sharply drawn and exploited by opponents in the upcoming debates. The real issue is what they mean for governing the nation over the next four years. There is a growing sense that Republicans and Democrats occupy parallel universes, with their own facts and philosophies, party platforms that are poles apart, and radically different approaches to government. There is a total disregard for, even ignorance of, the bipartisan efforts that enacted Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and the Civil Rights Act, and bipartisan efforts to strengthen the financing of these programs are impossible to imagine.

It is more or less certain that Congress won’t do anything meaningful before the election to develop a deficit reduction plan that avoids the fiscal cliff. And there’s a growing likelihood that, regardless of the outcome, what happens after the election will be a series of temporary fixes.

Obama’s ability to meet this year’s election promises should he be re-elected will depend less on cooperation from congressional Republicans and the enactment of legislation and more on an economic recovery, drivers at the state and local levels, and a willingness to wield presidential powers. •

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Bridging the divide: A young Sudanese man takes part in a role-playing exercise at a camp organised by the Brimbank Young Men’s Project.
Photo: Ralph Johnstone

Bridging the divide: A young Sudanese man takes part in a role-playing exercise at a camp organised by the Brimbank Young Men’s Project.
Photo: Ralph Johnstone