Business Times - 16 Jun 2011
Obama is sitting pretty for now
But if the economy gets worse, the Republican challenge will look more formidable
By LEON HADAR
I DON'T know whether US President Barack Obama watched the televised exchange between the leading Republican presidential candidates. If he did, he may have felt reassured that none of the seven GOP members who gathered for the second debate of the season in New Hampshire - the state that will hold the first primary next year - and who are hoping to win his job next November pose any serious threat to him. But should he?
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, Representative Michele Bachmann from Ohio, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, Representative Ron Paul from Texas, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former Ohio governor Tim Pawlenty and business executive Herman Cain are all accomplished individuals. They believe in their professional and political experience as well as in their ideology and policy prescriptions. They share a disdain of President Obama and his economic policies, and his handling of the budget deficit and healthcare.
These prospective presidential candidates will be joined in the coming weeks by two or three other Republicans, including former Utah governor Jon Huntsman. All are confident that the slow economic recovery and unemployment numbers provide them with an opportunity to return a Republican to the White House next year.
And while pompous pundits in Washington dismiss these Republican presidential contenders as political 'midgets' and 'lightweights', one should recall those same disrespectful terms were used to describe Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Bill Clinton when they launched their presidential campaigns.
Indeed, Representative Bachmann, a favourite of the Tea Party movement, has been bashed by political experts and parodied by late-night comedians on television who seem to consider her to be nothing more than an amusing sideshow in the campaign. But a former tax attorney who is currently serving as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Ms Bachmann demonstrated during the televised debate that she is an attractive and intelligent candidate. She is certainly more familiar with the intricacies of complex economic and foreign policy issues than the other top conservative female Republican politician, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
And if Ms Palin, as most observers expect, decides not to jump into the presidential race next year (apparently she doesn't want to give up her lucrative media and literary pursuits), Ms Bachmann could end up winning the votes of the Tea Party members and conservative Christian activists who are going to play a major role in deciding the outcome of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. That could provide Ms Bachmann with a significant electoral momentum in the following Republican primaries which also tend to be dominated by conservative voters and could turn her into a formidable presidential candidate and as a clear alternative to Mr Romney, the darling of the Republican Party's establishment.
Mr Romney, who is running for the presidency for a second time - he was beaten by John McCain during the last Republican presidential competition - may have a strong base of political and financial support, and looks exactly the way US presidents were portrayed in the movies before Mr Obama. But the Tea Partiers and the conservative activists who play such a major role in Republican politics these days do not trust him, and suspect that he is a 'closet liberal'. This raises major questions about his ability to win the nomination.
More specifically, conservative Republicans are not willing to forgive Mr Romney for his passage of a government-backed healthcare insurance programme in Massachusetts - which served as a model for the healthcare plan embraced by Congress last year and which is denounced by Republicans as 'Obamacare', a supposedly wasteful and failed government scheme.
In addition, Mr Romney - who, a while ago, was regarded by voters, including by the liberal voters of Massachusetts, as a centrist Republican and who, coinciding with his plans to run for the White House, has gradually moved to the right - has been accused by conservatives (and liberals) for flip-flopping on social-cultural issues such as abortion rights and gay marriage, which he had once supported and (as he made clear during the presidential debate) now opposes.
Moreover, in this age of media stardom - where one has to become a celebrity in order to succeed in politics - Mr Romney seems to be too bland and uninspiring.
In addition, his membership in the Mormon Church - that is regarded by some Christians as being outside the confines of the Christian religion - could be a political liability among Republican primary voters; this is something that Mr Huntsman, who is also a Mormon, will need to take into consideration.
At the moment, Mr Romney seems to have a much better chance than the other Republicans of defeating Mr Obama in November 2012. In fact, a recent Washington Post opinion poll suggested that he was the only Republican presidential candidate who currently maintains a narrow edge over Mr Obama among voters. In particular, independent voters - the mostly white middle-class voters whose support is critical for any White House hopeful - prefer him over Mr Obama and believe that his experience as a governor and business executive and his economic ideas make him the kind of Republican who could fix the American economy.
That Mr Romney's views on social-cultural issues are not perceived to be as extreme as those of Ms Bachmann, Ms Palin or Mr Santorum is clearly a political plus as far as independent voters are concerned - but a political liability in the eyes of the Republican voters. Which points to the Republican electoral paradox of this election season: the Republican candidate who could win the general election (Mr Romney and, for that matter, Mr Huntsman) may find it difficult to win the Republican nomination. And vice versa: Ms Bachmann or Ms Palin have a chance of winning their party's presidential nomination but will probably lose the race to the White House.
Enter former Ohio governor Pawlenty. Younger and a little bit more exciting than Mr Romney, Mr Pawlenty does not carry the kind of political baggage of 'flip-flopping' and 'centrism' that makes the former Massachusetts governor anathema to conservative Republicans. He was a successful governor of a large state that has voted both Republican and Democratic candidates in recent presidential elections, including for Mr Obama the last time. And while on social-cultural issues Mr Pawlenty seems conservative enough for the taste of supporters of Ms Bachmann and Ms Palin, he has refrained from placing issues such as abortion and gay rights on the top of his presidential agenda.
In short, Mr Pawlenty is probably the kind of Republican presidential candidate that could - in theory at least - win both the nomination and the general election and will have to be taken seriously by Mr Obama, especially if the economy continues on its current downturn trend. But who knows? If things start getting worse on the economic front, it is not unlikely that even Ms Bachmann could threaten Mr Obama's re-election.
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