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Barack Obama has to base campaign on reality of division

In 2008, Obama mobilised millions across the country on the promise of bipartisanship with the ‘yes, we can’ slogan - written in blue and red.

Updated: Jan 26, 2012, 09.20 AM IST
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When the economy tanks, incumbents tend to tumble. The last two incumbent Presidents of the US who lost reelections — Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H W Bush in 1992 — battled recessions during their presidencies. The last three who got re-elected — Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W Bush (junior ) — were lucky; they encountered recessions at the start of their presidencies. By re-election time, in all three instances, the US economy was back in good health. Barack Obama is not so lucky.

The 2008 recession is deeper than the 1980, 1992 and 2000 recessions. Indeed, because of the intensity of the recession and its global proportions, many had predicted even in 2009 that Obama would remain a one-term President. Recovery from the recession has been painfully slow. More than half the country’s working-age population has experienced either a spell of unemployment or cuts in wages or involuntary cutbacks in paid hours; almost as many have been affected by the busting of the bubble in the housing market.

There is some good news, though. According to a report by McKinsey Global Institute , the US financial sector debt declined from $8 trillion at the peak of the recession to $6.1 trillion, or 40% of the nation’s GDP, the same as in 2000. Household debt has declined $584 billion. If you recall, it was the housing debt that triggered the recession. So, its decline is an indication that the economy is on the mend. Is private debt reduction a harbinger of good fortune for Obama? Only if it revives the economy, results in more jobs and increases consumer confidence by the spring or summer of 2012.

For now, consumer confidence is several notches lower than where it was before the recession. Voter enthusiasm is equally dismal. And the clock is ticking. In most ways, the current American President stands way taller than the Republican aspirants for his job. So far, no single Republican candidate has been able to excite the conservative voter base. In the past three weeks, republicans have voted three different winners in as many primaries/caucuses. Conservatives’ response to the establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, who has both the money power and the organisational strength to carry out a national campaign against Obama, has been lukewarm at best. The great recession has deepened the political divide in the country.

To the right of this divide are the Tea Party followers who want economic freedom. They want to shrink the size of the government and limit its reach; they want to slash taxes and lower the fiscal deficit. In a recession, such a policy wish is like wanting to have your cake and eat it too. To the left of the divide are the followers of the Occupy Wall Street movement, who are outraged by growing economic inequality.

They want what they call ‘economic justice’ or economic equality; they want the government to increase taxes on the rich, raise the minimum wage, invest in infrastructure, provide universal healthcare and free higher education. A vast majority of Americans do not belong to either the Tea Party or the Occupy Wall Street movements. However , they share the outrage of both towards the government for spending a major chunk of the close to $800-billion stimulus package in rescuing large banks, whose reckless lending practices led the economy into recession. And while unemployment continues to be high, corporate executives have continued to grant themselves handsome bonuses and inequality has continued to grow even during the prolonged recession.

It was the Great Depression of 1929 to which the current recession is often compared that led to unemployment insurance and social security for the elderly and instituted policies to regulate the banking industry. Liberals are disenchanted that the government has used most of its energy in bailing out companies and banks that were considered ‘too big to fail’ , but has not put in place policies to regulate the financial sector or to provide for those hurt by recession. In the 2012 elections, non-economic issues have been largely relegated to the background.

Traditionally, the Republican party is known for upholding traditional family values, pro-life (against abortion) and anti-gay rights issues.

However, it appears that Republican voters are willing to forgive Newt Gingrich for his multiple marital transgressions if they are convinced that Newt will be able to defeat Obama in November . Similarly, foreign policy that has often been important in presidential elections and certainly played a major role in the last two presidential elections is not so critical this time. This is bad news for Obama for he has a better record on foreign policy than on the economy. Four years ago, when Obama rode to power, he tried to shatter the popular notion that the country is divided into red states, or states that predominantly vote for the Republican party, and blue states, or states that predominantly vote for Democrats.

However, these divisions have become stronger during the recession. In 2008, Obama mobilised millions across the country on the promise of bipartisanship with the ‘yes, we can’ slogan — written in blue and red. This time, he will have to convince his supporters that his illusion on bipartisanship is completely shattered and that he will be an effective President in an ideologically- and politicallydivided country and partisan Washington, if he wants to retain his job for another term.

NEERAJ KAUSHAL, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

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