Barack Obama’s N-270 highway

By J Brooks Spector 31 July 2012

In Paradise Lost, John Milton wrote: “What hath night to do with sleep?” That question would be a fair description of life in the Obama White House and his Chicago re-election campaign headquarters right now. Way into the early morning hours, there are just two numbers all hands fix upon right now – 270 and 8. A crucial look at the latter may come as early as Friday. J. BROOKS SPECTOR explores the import of these numbers - and what they may well portend for the incumbent’s goal of a second four-year lease at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The number 270, of course, is the bare minimum number of electoral votes needed to win the presidency out of 538 (the number of senators, members of the House of Representatives plus three for Washington, DC). But reaching an unemployment rate of 8% (or even just below it) from its current 8.2% represents what will almost certainly be the bare maximum needed for Obama to lock in a win. As a result, virtually everything hinges on efforts to make these numbers – or better ones – come true by 6 November. 

While the presumptive Republican challenger (technically he isn’t the nominee until his party’s convention says he is at the end of August) was galumphing around Europe and the Middle East to demonstrate a foreign policy nous – but stumbling into pitfalls of his own making – Obama’s campaign strategists and administration were trying to offer their counter-narrative of judicious resoluteness in foreign policy. 

If Mitt Romney was caught in a web of off-putting statements about the UK and his wife’s dressage horse, by contrast Obama could praise Britain’s preparations. And his wife, Michelle, was all over US television Olympic previews, cheerfully mixing with the US team. 

Romney journeyed to Jerusalem for fundraisers with ultra-conservative Jewish-American Chinese casino magnates, sabre rattling against Iran and its presumed nuclear ambitions, effectively blessing Israeli military actions to dissuade the Iranians from such ambitions, and promising to move the American Embassy from its location in Tel Aviv to an internationally disputed Jerusalem. 

But the Obama administration – in full campaign mode itself – was poised to dispatch ultra-experienced politician and defence secretary Leon Panetta, as well as other senior officials, to engage in consultations with Israeli leaders, give media backgrounders on general agreement with the Israelis on both nations’ current opinions about Iran, and then to announce an additional $70-million worth of anxiously awaited military support. This was small change in terms of military assistance, but it was highly symbolic, coming just as Romney was arriving for his speeches. That is the power of incumbency to make news with tangible titbits. 

While he was in Israel, in his fundraiser speech and in his ruminations on Israel’s economic success, Romney cited two books that had influenced his views about foreign affairs — Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. (Both authors would almost certainly have been astonished to be props in a Mitt Romney presidential fundraiser.) In that same event, Romney also gave what they call a “shout out” to Start Up Nation, the book by his foreign policy advisor, Dan Senor, about entrepreneurial behaviour in Israel. 

Senor, of course, is the aide who had precipitated Romney’s first hiccup during his time in Israel, when Senor implied the candidate supported a pre-emptive attack on Iran in response to nuclear developments. This had forced Romney’s hand to walk back from such a position when he gave his Sunday speech. The Obama administration’s comments that there was effective US-Israel concurrence was an effort to exploit that back and forth in the Romney camp as if to say: “Whoa there, Mr Romney, stop encouraging the Israelis to go off and do something we will all regret. Better that adults remain in charge on this one.” 

Underscoring that view, The Jerusalem Post reported Panetta had “touted the close security relationship between Israel and the US, suggesting that Israel remained on board with international efforts to pressure Iran on its nuclear programme and had not decided to unilaterally strike the Islamic Republic. Panetta was speaking at the start of a week-long trip to the Middle East and North Africa that will bring him to Israel for talks with top officials.” 

Of course the one moment of Mitt’s adventures in the Holy Land the Obama folks are sure to leave pretty much alone, save to point to them as something that would make it difficult for Romney to be a credible negotiator, was the challenger’s parting shot in his fundraising breakfast with those Jewish-American donors when he praised the Jews (or the Israelis, or both, it isn’t really clear what he meant, or if he understood the difference) for their skills in building wealth because it is in their culture and that, by contrast, the Arabs seem preternaturally slothful in the moneymaking department. While he didn’t cross over the line entirely and praise their genes for this talent, what Romney did say was certainly bad enough and has churned up the waters pretty thoroughly. 

As Romney himself said: “As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality.” Maybe his midnight reading for this trip was The Merchant of Venice

Not too surprisingly, the Palestinians were quick off the mark to condemn Romney’s remarks (as Jews should be) as totally oblivious to the nature of the West Bank/Gaza occupation and its resulting impact on economic growth. This one may reverberate for days and Romney’s campaign handlers are probably hoping the American swimming, track and gymnastics teams suddenly rack up a whole shopping bag’s worth of gold medals in London to distract attention from what Romney said, or what he meant, or what he meant when he explained what it was he meant when he said it. This is the kind of stumble that can mark the difference between being fully attuned to diplomatic nuance versus a campaign trying to whip up enthusiasm for a less than rapturously embraced candidate. 

Back at the White House and in the Obama campaign’s Chicago headquarters, the parsing of the national electoral map continues apace. The geography and demographics of an American presidential election – each state gets a number equivalent to the total of its delegation in the House of Representatives and Senate – is roughly proportionate to population. That means Democratic candidates usually start with a solid base on the West Coast, many of the Middle Atlantic and New England states, as well as a good chunk of the Midwest. Republicans hold most of the South, the Plains and the Rocky Mountain states as their base. But because the Democratic Party’s electoral weight of its base is somewhat larger, a generic Democratic candidate can count on about 220 or so electoral votes before the swing states are divided up. This means the real election centres on those battleground states – Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and perhaps Colorado and even Arizona. Winning fifty electoral votes from those states – say, those of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, for instance – means the election is Obama’s. 

This is where that terrifying 8 comes into play. Right now, any meaningful decline in the national unemployment rate has paused at around 8.2%. The slow decline in that percentage took place in the earlier part of 2012. By common consent of most political scientists and campaign strategists, it has been almost impossible for a sitting president to be re-elected with such an unemployment rate staring him in the face. But, break the numbers down a bit further and it becomes more complicated.  In many of those swing states — where Democrats and Republicans will both spend the lion’s share of their time and money until election day, the economic picture is actually better than the national one. 

As Chris Cillizza discussed in a recent analysis for the Washington Post, “In seven of those 12 states — Iowa, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin — the unemployment rate is below the June national average of 8.2%. In some, it is considerably less than the national average: the June rates in New Hampshire, Iowa and Virginia were below 6%. Even in Ohio, a state hit hard by the collapse of the manufacturing sector, the unemployment rate is a full percentage point below the US average. Republicans note that the unemployment rate rose between May and June in Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia, among other swing states.” 

Moreover, in four swing states where the rate is above the national one — Florida, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina — the trend line is angling downward. Cillizza continues, “Nevada’s June unemployment rate was an eye-popping 11.6%, but that was down from 13.8% in June 2011. Ditto Florida (10.7% in June 2011, 8.6% now), Michigan (10.6% in 2011, 8.6% now) and North Carolina (10.6% in 2011, 9.4% now).” 

He concludes, and his analysis is worth quoting at length, that “although the US unemployment rate matters as a broad thematic, the rates in the eight to 12 swing states may well be more telling indicators of whether Obama can sell voters on his plans for the economy. That handful of states is where the election will be decided; the unemployment rates in places such as California (10.7% in June) and North Dakota (2.9%) are, essentially, meaningless. Even in the places where the unemployment rate is higher than the national average — particularly Florida — the downward trend line could (and we emphasise ‘could’) allow the incumbent to convince undecided voters that things are slowly but surely getting better.” Of course they – like the Republican Party’s strategists and pretty much everybody else – are going to be waiting for the Friday release of monthly job statistics. As if to underscore this analysis, almost all of the recent email-contribution solicitations from Democrats seen by this writer (who gets electronic pleas from Republican and Democratic campaign committees daily) are focusing closely on matching the money Republicans are spending in those swing states to nudge support up a few notches and claim the state. 

It is number crunching like this that animates the Obama campaign’s economic attack lines.  They are pushing hard to make the case that a Republican House of Representatives is what has been standing in the way of the spending that would finally reignite the economy; and that they want to achieve continued tax cuts for those earning over $250,000 a year. Moreover, it is those Republicans who are to blame for the growing likelihood the federal budget could be pushed over the so-called financial cliff from the “draconian” spending cuts that were a consequence of last year’s sullen budget agreement. 

In effect, Democrats are hoping to encourage people in those swing states to accept the notion that, were it not for the Republicans, there would be sufficient political support to achieve real economic growth. Marry that position with the Obama campaign’s efforts to keep pushing buttons on Republican unfairness in tax terms – and Romney’s alleged own sins in that regard – and there you have the overall campaign strategy in the proverbial nutshell. 

As Edward Luce wrote for the UK’s unabashedly pro-business Financial Times: “Six long years after he first emerged as presidential candidate, time is fast slipping away for Mr Romney to define himself favourably. At a moment when the US debate should be dominated by a weakening economy, Barack Obama’s campaign keeps shifting attention back to Mr Romney’s mangled biography. When the president needs a day off, Mr Romney is usually happy to step in his shoes.” 

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign still has to carry out a near-constant fight-back against a cascade of campaign ads that pummel their candidate with the charge he deludedly believes his economic plans have already made the difference for a national economic recovery and that he has denied entrepreneurs any hand in their success. For the first, their charge is built upon a particularly clumsy Obama statement – but one just as clearly taken out of context. The current Republican ad quotes Obama saying, “We tried our plan and it worked. That’s the difference. That’s the choice in this election. That’s why I’m running for a second term.” 

However, the actual context of that statement shows Obama was referring to the pro-growth economic approaches of the Clinton era. Or, as Washington Post campaign analyst Glenn Kessler has just written about this ad, “in an inelegant way, Obama is trying to compare Democratic philosophy (raise taxes on the wealthy – our plan ) with Republican philosophy (don’t raise any taxes  — their plan ). He also appears to be trying to hitch his presidency to the economic success of the Clinton years. He can rightly argue that he’s never had a chance to do what Bill Clinton did – raise taxes on the wealthy – because Republicans have blocked his efforts.” 

Meanwhile, Republicans have been trying to make additional ground with another Obama quote that supposedly has him denying entrepreneurs were instrumental in achieving their own success – tying into the continuing idea Obama is some kind of anti-business closet socialist. With that particular quote, it seems clear that Obama had been trying to make the larger point businesses’ successes have always come in the context of enabling government spending – the very essence of founding father Alexander Hamilton’s ideas of strong pro-business governance that date right back to the beginning of the nation in support for “domestic improvements” – canals, railroads, highways, airports, communication grids – as things crucial for the success of business. The irony is that this position is one embraced by Republicans from their start as a party and on through much of the 20th century – until the party’s predominant ideology was supplanted by the ideas of Southern and Midwestern small government conservatives. 

The real question, though, is whether such claims can trump Obama’s arguments in favour of stimulus spending plus tax and economic fairness as the motor for reinvigorating the economy. While Obama seems to have won over the population as skilled on national security and foreign policy – even as Romney’s foreign adventures may end up painting him as an amateur or worse, and a shameless panderer on Israel – the real battle will be about the economy. 

The polls say the president is generally liked much more than his challenger (or certainly Congress), but his challenger is seen as more likely to be competent in economic policy terms. As long as that fateful unemployment figure continues to hover around 8% once Americans come back from vacation, turn off the TV after the Olympics are over, and go back to work and school after summer vacations, it may all come down to how much better the voters in those crucial swing states think their corner of the national economy is – or will be – faring within the next three months. DM

Read more:

  • In swing states, economic picture a little brighter for Obama in the Washington Post
  • An Obama quote taken out of context, yet again in the Washington Post
  • Why the UK was right on Romney, a column by Edward Luce in the Financial Times
  • Mitt Romney, at fundraiser in Israel, describes spiritual impact of visit in the Washington Post
  • The motivation for voters is stopping the other guy in the Washington Post
  • Romney: You bet Jerusalem is the capital in the Washington Post (a column by Jennifer Rubin, Post resident conservative columnist)
  • Campaigns Take Different Roads Against Olympics in the New York Times
  • The Obama campaign: Slow and steady in the Economist
  • The economy: Upswing – Many states key to November’s election are doing better; whether the president can exploit that is another matter in the Economist
  • Panetta kicks off ME tour, touts Israel-US ties in the Jerusalem Post
  • What the Latest GDP Numbers Tell Us About the Election at the New Republic
  • Romney comments at fundraiser outrage Palestinians at the AP
  • Obama and Romney enter the final 100 days at the Washington Post

Photo: US President Barack Obama smiles at the 2012 National Urban League Conference at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans July 25, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing


While we have your attention...

An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.

Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.

Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.


Project David Mabuza’s Long Walk to Rehabilitation

By Stephen Grootes

One of the largest carp ever caught on record was done so using the ashes of the fisherman's deceased friend.