Fear of finding something worse
Barack Obama looks likely to base his second campaign for the Oval Office not on hope but on fear ─ fear of the alternative
While the world focused on the election results in France and Greece in early May, Americans, ever insular, have been obsessed with their own presidential race. On the west side of the Atlantic as on the east, voter anger over bad economic conditions may be the deciding factor at the polls.
Even before Rick Santorum, the last significant obstacle to Mitt Romney's nomination, dropped out of the race, the Obama administration had begun its own fully-fledged campaign for re-election. The anniversary of the killing of Osama bin laden by US special forces was exploited by the Obama team, over the protests of the right that the president was politicsing the event. Those protests were hard to take seriously, from conservative Republicans who, from Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, had made a specialty of claiming that the Republicans were stronger than the Democrats in the realm of national defence.
While using the successful hunt for Bin Laden to immunise the president against accusations of weakness in foreign affairs, the Democrats accused Republicans of waging a "war on women." The source of this line of attack was the attempt of right-wing legislators in some state governments to restrict access to abortion or contraceptives. Most of these attempts would have failed the test of constitutionality, if enacted into law and tested in federal courts. Their sponsors inadvertently helped the Democrats, who hoped to tar Romney and the Republican opposition in general by association with the unpopular views of the most extreme members of the right.
But foreign policy is not likely to be a major issue in the campaign, barring surprises between now and November. And the voters who are repelled by the views of religious fundamentalists on sex and contraception are likely to vote Democratic anyway. As in the previous cycles since the Great Recession began, the key terrain to be contested will be the economy.
Obama's re-election might have been assured, if the economy had come roaring back by now, following the time frame of conventional recessions. But "balance sheet recessions" following massive private debt bubbles can last half a decade or longer. Despite a weak recovery, unemployment in the US remains high and would be higher but for many Americans who have dropped out of the workforce altogether in discouragement. The president's inability to decide, in the last few years, whether his priority should be job creation or deficit reduction has left his campaign without a clear, understandable story to tell the public.
Rather than run on his mixed record of economic achievement, the president and his party appear to be focused on running against Mitt Romney. Two lines of attack are particularly promising. The former private equity billionaire can be portrayed as an out-of-touch member of the 1 per cent ─ complete with a secret Swiss bank account. And the Democrats will exploit the attempt of the moderate Romney to ingratiate himself with the far right wing of his party by endorsing Congressman Paul Ryan's controversial budget plan, which would slash entitlements for the middle class to fund further tax cuts for the rich and high defence spending.
While this strategy might work, the Democrats cannot be complacent. A strong anti-incumbent feeling shaped each of the last three federal elections. In 2006, before the financial crisis but following a "jobless recovery" after an earlier recession, angry voters transferred Congressional control from the Republicans to the Democrats. In 2008, they threw the incumbent party out of the White House and installed the Democrat Obama. But in 2010 anti-incumbent feelings, which had recently benefited the Democrats, worked to the advantage of the Republicans, who recaptured America's lower house of Congress.
Will the outcome in 2012 be shaped again by anti-incumbent fervour? Will angry Americans, like angry French and Greek voters, seek to throw the bums out and throw the other bums in? If so, that cannot be good news for the incumbent president. Unable to run on a solid record of achievements, given Republican congressional opposition and a weak and faltering economy, Barack Obama may base his second campaign for the Oval Office not on hope but on fear ─ fear of the alternative. The theme of the Democrats in this election year might be summed up by a couplet from Hilaire Belloc: "It's always best to cling to Nurse/ For fear of finding something worse."
A contribution to State of the Left - Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics
Michael Lind is policy director of the New America Foundation’s Economic Growth Program and a columnist at Salon. His new book, Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States, will be published by HarperCollins in April and can be pre-ordered in the UK in the US
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