Wednesday, November 7, 2012

US Presidential election: Going down to the wires

The Daily Sun
November 4, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

With days to go for the November 6th US Presidential election and with the debates over, the fate of the US Presidential election is now in the hands of the voters. The candidates are targeting undecided voters in swing states knowing that voters in majority of the states will vote as they always do for one of the two parties going by their historic preferences. Super Storm Sandy gave the President some undue last moment advantage when he had the centre stage managing the national emergency and Governor Romney officially pausing his electioneering as a show of sympathy for the millions on USA’s east coast facing the Super Storm. Nevertheless, as the two candidates look down the barrel, the outcome is anybody’s guess polls taken after the debates placing the candidates neck to neck. 

Early voting is already underway in some of the states (suspended in the east coast due to Sandy) and the President himself has already voted! There is extreme tension in both the teams because to quote a cliché, this one is going to go to the wires. For the President, this should not have been so. The Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Charlotte, North Carolina in the first week of September that was held after a lack luster Republican Convention a week earlier had set the President’s campaign on the right track to cross the November 6 finishing line comfortably. The DNC was extremely successful and helped the President increase his lead in opinion polls alarmingly for his opponent. Perhaps, the President’s team was led to a false sense of complacency as a consequence and slowed down  their efforts, assuming that they were already in the comfort zone. In the key swing states of Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the outlook was good. 

Thus going to the Presidential debates, the Republican team was wary of the way the fortunes of the two parties were shaping. On the way to the debates, the Republicans added more to their discomfort when Governor Romney was caught in a secretly taped video making disparaging remarks about the US middle class. That gaffe was spun successfully by the media sympathetic to the Democrats and was nick named “the 47% gaffe” with significant potentials to damage the Governor’s campaign. Many supporters of the President expected him to use the “47% gaffe” in the first of the 3 presidential debates to portray the Governor as a candidate of the rich with no sympathy for the middle class that they were convinced would further increase his lead over his opponent. 

Thus Governor Romney was hoping for something unexpected to bring him back to the race while continuing to blame President Obama for the current economic ills facing the United States on way to the presidential debates. The key element in that strategy has been the unemployment rate that was 8.2% before the debates, a figure with which no presidential candidate has entered the White House in recent memory.  The other elements in that strategy have been the huge national debt, high spending by the federal government and the economic recession of the country from where it is coming out painfully slowly for comfort of voters across the political divide. The President’s team was convinced they had been able to explain to the voters that the economic recession facing the Americans has not been the doing of the President and his administration but the outcome of the eight years of President Bush and his two wars that drained the national coffers of huge amount of tax payer’s money. They were also led to believe that the President’s policy with regards to the auto industry had convinced voters that his bail out policy for the economy was working. 

Thus a complacent President Obama went to the first Presidential debate thinking he did not have to do much other than appear “presidential” and get the debates out of the way. That complacent attitude, should he fail in his re-election bid, would no doubt be considered his major failure. By his complacency, he answered Governor Romney’s prayer for something unexpected. For not once in the course of that 90 minutes long debate did he mention the Governor’s infamous 47% gaffe.  He allowed Governor Romney instead to paint the President as distant to the sufferings of the average Americans who are in the middle of their worst economic recession for many decades and without a plan to bring them out of it. What the President needed to do was to reiterate what President Clinton had said in his NDC speech,  that the current economic predicament of Americans did not drop suddenly 4 years  ago but was the result of the failed policies of the  President Bush and that Governor Romney was promising to take the country back to that economic predicament, if elected.   

The President failed to make these crucial points and failed badly in the debate and lost it and with it, the momentum. In fact, in the period after that, the Governor has closed the gap dangerously for the President and before Sandy, was even with the President in the opinion polls. Although the President rebounded in the next two debates and Vice President Joe Biden made a major impact in the only Vice Presidential debate, these efforts have not been enough to halt the Governor. Even the fall of unemployment rate under 8% for the first time during this administration to 7.8% that came after the first debate went un-noticed, a figure that although still high, no doubt indicated that the President’s economic policies are working. 

Thus Governor Romney, despite his 47% gaffe against the middle class and another he made about the women in the second Presidential debate, the “women in binder” reference, has gained momentum with his strong performance in the first debate. The Governor used the major slip of the President in the first debate to establish in the mind of the voters that the economy is in a deplorable state and the President cannot be trusted with another term to take the country out of its current economic predicament. As a consequence till Super Sandy hit the east coast as one of the worst natural disasters in US history, there was practically nothing dividing the candidates.  

Super storm Sandy may have given the President the edge that he now desperately needs having done an excellent job before the storm hit and then in managing the aftermath of the disaster.  Lot is being made of the praise that the President has received from the Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie for his management of Sandy. The Governor had delivered the keynote address at the Republican National Convention. Meanwhile, news of the economy emerging in the critical days leading to the election is also encouraging for the President. The IMF while writing its latest report on world economy has said that over the next four years, the US economy will grow at the strongest rate among the developed nations; at 3% compared to France and Germany’s 1.2% and Canada’s 2.3%. Commenting on the IMF report,  Fareed Zakaria has said that the strong growth of the US economy is a sign that it is recovering “thanks to Obama and Bernanke”. The serious question that would only be known after November 6 is whether the President and his team succeeded in conveying this message to the voters together with the palpably damaging issues to Governor Romney such as his 47% gaffe, his dislike for the middle class and his indifference to the women voters.

The writer is a retired Secretary and a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt


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