Economic realities may obscure Obama victory

Business Times - 05 May 2011

Economic realities may obscure Obama victory

For him, winning 2012 election could prove to be even more difficult than getting Osama


IN THE aftermath of the impressive US military victory in the First Persian Gulf War aka Operation Desert Storm in 1991, then-president George W H Bush seemed to be politically invincible. With his popularity in the public opinion polls surging to the stratosphere - one poll indicated that 90 per cent of Americans approved of his performance in office - pundits on the political right and left seemed to agree that the Republican US president would be unbeatable in the 1992 race to the White House.

Moreover, when the names of some of the Democrats who could emerge as potential presidential candidates were mentioned - including that of the young and relatively unknown former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton - the conventional wisdom in Washington was that none of them had a chance of defeating the victorious War President who had just crushed one of the nation's most hated figures, Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

But around the time of the military victory in the Persian Gulf, America was entering into a mild recession which lasted for about six months. Many companies were forced to lay off a large number of workers who had believed that their jobs were secure. By 1992, interest and inflation rates were the lowest in years, but unemployment rate reached 7.8 per cent, the highest since 1984.

Hence the media switched its attention from Iraq military victory to the problems facing the economy, including the relatively high unemployment rate and the rising level of poverty. And to the surprise of political professionals in Washington, Americans who went to the polls in November 1992 - and they included many unemployed Republicans and Independents - voted for the Democrat Clinton and for the third-party candidate Ross Perot. Mr Bush lost and Mr Clinton won, leading Mr Clinton's political strategist James Carville to make that now-famous statement: 'It's the Economy, Stupid!'

Mr Carville's argument was that no matter how successful a US president would be in foreign policy and national security arena, he or she would end up losing re-election to the White House if the economy was not doing well. In short, Americans vote with their pocket books. And a military victory doesn't help anyone get a job, buy groceries in the supermarket or fill up the petrol tank.

Indeed, Democrats and Republicans are probably considering the lesson of the 1992 presidential election as they try to figure out how the killing of Osama bin Laden by the US special forces will impact the 2012 race to the White House.

As expected, the amazing military operation led to the death of a man responsible for the worst terrorist attack on Americans, helped boost public support for Mr Obama and produced a 'bounce' in his popularity ratings. A poll conducted by The Washington Post and the Pew Research Centre in the immediate aftermath of Osama's killing found that 56 per cent of those polled said they approved of the way Mr Obama was handling his job as president, an increase of nine percentage points over a similar poll conducted last month. Mr Obama's approval rating among independents was now at 52 per cent, according to the new poll, 10 points higher than in April.

That certainly should come as good political news for Mr Obama, who received the worst foreign policy rating of his presidency in a New York Times/CBS News poll last month, with 46 per cent of respondents disapproving of his handling of international affairs.

During more than two years of campaigning and service in office, Mr Obama has been accused by Republicans and conservatives as being indecisive and weak in the war on terror and in dealing with other national security threats, that is he was too much in the habit of apologising for American global sins and dismissing the notion of 'American Exceptionalism'.

Moreover, some right-wing critics suggested that the president was probably not even born in the United States and was probably a secret Muslim who was pursuing an anti-American foreign policy agenda, that 'Obama was Osama's man at the White House', as one conservative blogger suggested.

But after even former vice-president Dick Cheney, one of the harshest critics of Mr Obama's foreign policy, declared that the White House 'clearly deserves credit for the success of the operation', it would be very difficult for other conservatives and Republicans to bash Mr Obama's performance in the war on terrorism (although several right-wing bloggers are already questioning whether Osama was really killed in Pakistan over the weekend).

Yet with unemployment remaining high and with high petrol and food prices adding to the economic misery of American consumers, many Americans are feeling depressed. Indeed, according to last month's New York Times/CBS poll, 70 per cent of Americans believed that the country was on the wrong track.

And according to the poll conducted in the aftermath of Osama's killing, there has been no change in the public's perception of the way Mr Obama was handling the economy. The majority of Americans disapprove of his economic policies.

No one seriously expects a major acceleration in the economic recovery before the 2012. If anything, the bipartisan debate in Washington over the response to the growing budget deficits - including the coming fight over whether to increase the debt limit - is only going to add to the sense of economic discontent among Americans, putting downward pressure on Mr Obama's popularity.

President Obama and his aides may still have an opportunity to translate his impressive victory on national security into electoral gains by highlighting Mr Obama's leadership skills and 'toughness' and help the White House win some political momentum in its dealing with the Congressional debates over the economy. But winning that election could prove to be even more difficult than getting Osama.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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