Fear and loathing on the 2012 US campaign trail

By J Brooks Spector 5 September 2011

For many Americans, Labour Day on 5 September is the last chance to savour a final visit to the beach or wherever before the return to work and school. That’s because after this weekend, the election battles well and truly start. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

For the men – and one woman – who would be the Republican Party’s nominee for president, this is their best penalty-free chance to try out applause lines and those dog whistle soundbites as they try to elbow each other out of position – or even deliver an early knockout punch to one of their number. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is working hard to repackage him as the essential man internationally, but one with his eye fixed firmly on the economy. It is a worry for them that the president’s popularity continues to fall, but the positive in the polls is that the public has even less regard for Congress’ capabilities to do its job.

On foreign policy, over the past week, Obama, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry have offered sharply differing assessments of Obama’s record. Obama has claimed success with a “lead from behind” and multilateral rather than go-it-alone strategy, while his Republican challengers charge his policies have been weak, rudderless and an endangerment to American security.

The Washington Post noted: “The clashing visions, which emerged in speeches (on)Tuesday from Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney before gatherings of military veterans, highlighted what is sure to be a sharp point of contention during the 2012 campaign…. The debate centers on approach as much as on policy, and in some ways it reverses the critique that Obama leveled against the previous administration…. But Romney — and, a day earlier, Texas Gov. Rick Perry — has accused Obama of weak, overly cautious leadership…. “Have we ever had a president who was so eager to address the world with an apology on his lips and doubt in his heart?” Romney told a convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in San Antonio.”

Now the candidates are back with speeches on job creation, unemployment and the state of the US economy. The first Republican debate this month comes on Monday evening in South Carolina, followed two days later in California at the Ronald Reagan Library. Embedded in these debates and speeches is the key challenge for politicians – the thing closest to the bone right now is the state of the American economy.

To carry his message forward, Barack Obama asked to address a joint sitting of the House of Representatives and the Senate on 7 September. But, in a virtually unprecedented move, the House Republican leadership declined, forcing Obama to move his speech to the following night. This puts it cheek-by-jowl with the televised kick-off of a widely anticipated start of the season National Football League game between the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints – potentially pulling audience attention away from Obama’s message.

It was also apparent Republicans were determined to inflict another defeat on Obama to show him who’s in charge in Washington. The Republicans held fast, despite media criticism. Coupled with Obama’s retreat on an environmental measure, these moves have made some members of his party unhappy with him as their leader, and Republicans increasingly exultant they have his number.

But for Republicans, too, there is a lurking danger in their increasingly strident challenge on the economy. Even as Barack Obama gears up to propose new stimulus measures, Republicans have already signalled they oppose things like an infrastructure bank, instead of further relaxation of business regulations.

The danger down the road, of course, is that even as each of these candidates paints themselves as uniquely competent to do the job, they simultaneously serve up critiques Democrats will draw upon in the future. Some of the sharpest mutual critiques will be about health care – Romney’s plan for Massachusetts was the model for Obama’s health care reforms, while Rick Perry’s state leads the nation in people without medical insurance. Others will be about who can produce conditions for job creation, rather than drawing jobs from the rest of the US in a race to the bottom in business regulation.

Or, as The New York Times observed: “Rick Perry is privately being coached to come across as more presidential — cautious in his comments, deliberate in defending his Texas record — while building on his fast start by trying to consolidate support across the Republican spectrum, from the Tea Party and evangelicals to the party establishment.

“Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts is steeling for a long and combative fight for the Republican nomination, dropping his front-runner’s strategy and preparing to confront Mr. Perry on immigration, his quarter-century in government and his claims of creating jobs in Texas.

“Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is working to shatter the notion that the race is becoming a two-person contest, scaling back her campaign appearances to study Mr. Perry’s spending record in Texas in an effort to raise scepticism about his candidacy among Tea Party supporters.”

Of course, this preliminary knock-out strategy doesn’t always work out as expected – recall when George Bush charged in 1980 Ronald Reagan was using voodoo economics in his reliance upon the so-called Laffer Curve to push lower taxes to generate self-sustaining growth. In the end, of course, Reagan won the nomination and then the presidency. In office he started with voodoo economics – and as the national debt ballooned, he gave in on tax increases.

Over on foreign policy, Obama may just catch a bit of a break with the tenth anniversary commemorations of 9/11, if he can tie his definition of foreign policy success in the demise of Osama bin Laden and the evident collapse of Qaddafi’s Libyan regime together. In a curious reversal of a half-century’s worth of polling, this Democratic president is seen as stronger on international security than any of the Republican challengers.

The conundrum for Obama is that since 9/11, as the Afghanistan war and Iraqi operations recede in visibility, the economy has taken front place as a measurement of government competence. As a result, while Republicans may slug it out in comparative obscurity in these early debates, the stakes for Obama in offering new economic measures and being seen to deliver a major success in his upcoming speech couldn’t be higher. A speech deemed a failure by supporters, the media and the public will make it that much harder for him to set the terms of the debate in the election – or to do battle with Republicans in Congress. DM

Read more:

  • For presidents, the legacy of Sept 11 has no end in the AP;
  • Romney, Perry criticize Obama’s foreign policy as weak in the Washington Post;
  • Obama Draws Line on Possible Cuts to Veterans Programs in the New York Times.



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