Business Times - 09 Sep 2008
Democrats and Republicans are wooing US voters with vastly different, strident messages. Whose will prevail?
By LEON HADAR
IT SEEMED appropriate that just a day after the Republican Party ended its presidential nomination convention, following on the heels of a similar gathering of Democrats, the US government reported that the unemployment rate in the economy jumped to 6.1 per cent last month, its highest level in five years.
At the same time, the Bush administration placed the two giant mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac under the control of the federal government in what could amount to the largest taxpayer- backed bailout of US companies.
And according to the report issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics last Friday, more than 600,000 US jobs have been lost since January with unemployment rising to a level that reflects the dawning of a full-blown economic recession.
Another sign of mounting economic problems was a report by the Mortgage Bankers Association that more than 4 million American homeowners with a mortgage, a record 9 per cent, were either behind on their payments or in foreclosure at the end of June.
It's clear that Americans, especially those belonging to the struggling middle class and blue-collar workers, are feeling economic pain as they lose the value of their homes and find it more difficult paying off their credit card bills while having to deal with rising energy and food prices.
It's also becoming apparent that in this election year, these same Americans sense that the outcome of the presidential race between Democratic Senator Barack Obama and Republican Senator John McCain will have a direct effect on the condition of the US economy. That may explain why a record number of viewers were watching the two party conventions, with 38.9 million watching Mr McCain's acceptance speech last Thursday and 38.4 million following Mr Obama's acceptance a week earlier.
Indeed, news reports as well as anecdotal evidence suggest that an American public that is very concerned about the direction that the US has been taking in recent years, is following the presidential race very closely and is eager to hear what the two candidates have to offer in terms of dealing with current problems facing the US economy and bringing an end to the war in Iraq. Moreover, there is a growing sense among many Americans that the US is failing to maintain its leadership position on the geo-economic and geo-strategic fronts, and they are eager to find out how each man will help the US regain its global status.
In fact, neither Mr Obama nor Mr McCain has promoted any radical solutions to the structural problems facing the US economy, along the lines of, say, former president Franklin D Roosevelt's New Deal that helped to bring an end to the economic depression or former president Ronald Reagan's privatisation and deregulation agenda of the 1990s.Instead, the two have embraced familiar platitudes such as a call for 'change' with Mr Obama's 'Yes, we can!' and Mr McCain's 'Change we can trust', while reiterating their support for conventional policy choices, including calling on Congress to approve a new economic stimulus package.
Nevertheless, while the two presidential candidates may not have any grand and visionary plans to revive the US economy, the messages that were disseminated during the two conventions demonstrate that they both have very coherent strategies aimed at exploiting the economic anxieties of middle-class voters and blue-collar workers, many of whom are concentrated in key swing states that tend to switch between the two parties during presidential elections.
One would assume that Michigan - with its devastated car industry and which has the highest unemployment rate at 8.5 per cent, and a home-foreclosure rate that is twice the national average - would be easy pickings for Mr Obama, whose campaign has blamed Bush administration policies for the lousy conditions of the American economy. Most voters, according to the polls, agree with that and associate Mr McCain with failed Republican policies, or as Mr Obama and other Democrats describe it, the 'Bush-McCain economy' or the 'McBush policies'.
Hence one of the main messages that the Democrats drummed up during the convention was that electing Mr McCain would amount to having four (or eight) more years of Mr Bush in the White House.
But the fact is that notwithstanding the economic problems and the powerful Democratic message, Mr Obama is leading by only two points in Michigan and is not doing much better in other swing states. The reason is that, as the Republicans have discovered since the 1960s: 'It's Not Only the Economy, Stupid!'
Based on sheer economic interests, you would assume that an unemployed blue-collar worker from a decaying small town in Michigan or Pennsylvania would vote for Mr Obama and the Democrats, who are backed by the labour unions and who promise to tax the rich and help the poor, punish oil speculators and expand social programmes.
'It's the culture, stupid!'
But Middle America is not only an economic entity; it's also a cultural organism, in the sense that its members tend to be more conservative in terms of their cultural values. They attend churches on a regular basis; they are nationalist; they like to hunt; they respect a tough law-and-order stand; they are suspicious of an intrusive Big Government and resent what they consider to be the patronising and belittling attitude that the 'liberal cultural elites' - represented to them by the snobbish pro-civil rights, pro-immigration, anti-war, atheistic graduates of Ivy League colleges from Manhattan, Hollywood and Cambridge - project towards them. And according to opinion polls, these voters also tend to be the least tolerant of religious and racial minorities.
It's not surprising then that the African-American and Harvard graduate Mr Obama, who seems to project a certain urbane detachment, if not intellectual haughtiness, has failed to win the hearts and the votes of many of these Middle Americans, who were certainly antagonised by his remarks during a fund-raising event in San Francisco (a symbol of the libertine cultural elites) that many members of the small communities in Pennsylvania 'get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations'.
That explains why some of these Middle Americans had voted for Hillary Clinton (who ironically is an Ivy Leaguer and a strident feminist) and not for Mr Obama.
The decision by Mr McCain to select as his vice-presidential running mate the ultimate Middle American, Sarah Palin - who grew up in and was a mayor of a small town in Alaska, in addition to being a working mother and a devoted Christian and committed to traditional values, and who is opposed to abortion and doesn't believe in evolution - is probably the most dramatic and effective move by the Republicans to transform the direction of the campaign.
As Ms Palin insisted during convention address, those struggling middle-class voters and blue-collar workers should blame the liberal Cultural Elite - not Big Business - for their problems. Mr Obama and the Democrats are the guys and gals who have legalised abortion, mocked their religious values, denied them the use of their arms when they want to go hunting or protect themselves from criminals, and are taxing them to death.
Moreover, the theme of 'Country First', that Ms Palin and Mr McCain promoted during the convention, is part of an effort to paint Mr Obama as someone who - unlike the former Vietnam War hero and the mother whose son is being deployed to Iraq - is not ready or able to confront the threat of radical Islam and is too weak to overcome Osama bin Laden.
And let's not forget that these same liberals oppose drilling for more oil in the US.
Ironically, it was revealed last week that the teenage daughter of the family-values-oriented Ms Palin is pregnant and many questions have been raised about her credentials as an anti-Big-Government crusader.
But electoral strategy of the 'Us' (small-town, traditional, conservative patriotic Middle America) vs 'Them' (arrogant, liberal, secular, dovish Cultural Elite) could prove very effective for the McCain-Palin presidential ticket in terms of erasing Mr Obama's narrow lead in the swing states, including Michigan, and winning the race.
The ball is now in Mr Obama's court. Will he be able to fashion a populist economic message that could win the votes of those white middle- class voters who are still wavering? Can he overcome the 'race problem' that continues to haunt him? And will he be able to mobilise enough young voters to hand him a win on Nov 4?
One thing is certain: the next 55 days will be filled with a lot of excitement as one of the most historic presidential election campaigns comes to an end.
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