Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Are GOP squabbles helping Obama?

Business Times - 12 Jan 2012


Are GOP squabbles helping Obama?

Republican candidates are fighting on social-cultural issues when the economy is on top of most American voters' agenda

By LEON HADAR
WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

WHILE the Republican presidential candidates in the United States have been blasting one another, things seem to be looking better than expected for President Barack Obama in recent days.

Last week's jobs report indicated that unemployment had dropped to 8.5 per cent in December, its lowest in three years. Nothing to celebrate about, but then any sign of improvement in the labour market may hint that the economic recovery is gaining momentum, raising the chances Mr Obama could be re-elected in November despite an expected strong challenge from the Republican candidate.

More importantly, the results of Tuesday's Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire suggest that it could take a long time for the party to select the man who will face Mr Obama.

There was almost no doubt that Mitt Romney, who had served as the governor of Massachusetts, would win the primary in the neighbouring state of New Hampshire. And he did.

Yet the libertarian and anti-war contender, Ron Paul, finished a close second in the primary, followed by former Utah governor Jon Huntsman. The two, as well as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum are not giving up and will show up for the coming primary in South Carolina and continue to try to deny Mr Romney his big victory.

All this suggests that the Republican race is going to remain close and for a long time.

Of course, Mr Romney and the other Republican presidential candidates dismissed the notion that the new jobs report is a sign of better economic times to come. It is true that the signs that the unemployment rate is falling could be misleading, and may only underscore the fact that many workers, discouraged by the lack of job opportunities, have stopped looking for jobs altogether.

Therefore, what the American economy is experiencing may be a shrinking labour force and not necessarily an increase in the number of jobs. In any case, the unemployment rate has traditionally been a lagging variable of economic growth.

But against the backdrop of more good economic news - or, at least, of less bad economic news - the improving job numbers provide a psychological boost for the economy as well as for Mr Obama's electoral fortunes.

And No-Drama Obama who has been criticised for his lack of political feistiness demonstrated last week that he is more than ready to pick up a fight with his Republican rivals when he announced that he would make a 'recess appointment' - meaning that he would not wait for Congress to approve it - of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The Democratic White House occupant is hoping that appointment of a consumer protection chief, which has been opposed by Congressional Republicans while enjoying wide support among Americans, will help his re-election strategy.

It gives Mr Obama a chance to bash the 'do nothing' Republican-controlled Congress for failing to support his effort to protect the interests of economically distressed middle class and while, at the same time, going out of their way to propose more tax cuts for wealthy Americans.

At times it seems as though the Republicans in Congress as well as the ones who are hoping to challenge Mr Obama are doing their best to provide valuable assistance to the incumbent.

If anything, much of what has been taking place in the long and winding Republican presidential nomination process in recent months - including a score of televised debates among the candidates - has been dominated by numerous gaffes and nasty exchanges. And then there are the never-ending reports about ethical misconduct and sex scandals that have engulfed some of them and which have turned the party's White House hopefuls into the butt of jokes of television comedians.

Moreover, the continuing political infighting among the contenders during the Republican presidential campaign also helped expose the extent to which they seem to be so out of touch with the problems and aspirations of most Americans, and more particularly with independent voters - white middle class professionals - who are expected to determine the outcome of the presidential race.

Bizarre issues

First, there is the continuing preoccupation, if not obsession, of some of the leading candidates - including Mr Santorum, Mr Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry - with social-cultural issues, such as abortion, gay rights and the theory of evolution (which they question).

In fact, one of the bizarre issues that was raised during the primary election campaign in New Hampshire was Mr Santorum's suggestion that states should have the right to make contraception and other forms of birth control illegal.

And with the exception of Mr Huntsman (who also served as US ambassador to China and Singapore), all the Republican candidates (including former Pizza business executive Herman Cain and Representative Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota who have dropped out of the race) want to outlaw abortion and deny homosexuals the right to serve in the military and get married.

Mr Santorum, Mr Perry, Mr Gingrich and Mr Paul of Texas have supported of the so-called 'personhood amendment' that would declare life beginning at fertilisation. And together with Mr Romney - one of the more moderate figures in the race - the candidates reject the current scientific consensus over climate change.

While these radical positions on social-cultural problems and the environment may help the candidates win support among religious activists, especially in the former slave-owning 'Bible Belt' states in the south, it could backfire against them when it comes to the more culturally tolerant independent voters around the country, and especially on the East and West Coasts.

And at a time when the economy is on the top of the agenda of most Americans voters, the attention that the Republican candidates seem to be paying to such issues as gay rights and abortion is probably going to antagonise many voters who had to watch the Republican candidates debating whether a state should be banning condoms or not.

It is economy that could force the Republican candidates to be left behind the political curve at a time when voters, perhaps under the impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement, seem to be more and more receptive to concerns over economic and social inequality favoured by the Democrats. Yet Mr Romney, the former financial business executive, and the other candidates have been accusing Mr Obama of trying to establish a European-style social-welfare state. They demand that he slash spending on social-economic programme and lower taxes on the rich aka 'job creators'.

Romney's problems

Indeed, Mr Paul wants to abolish many of the existing government agencies, including the US Federal Reserve, as well as the income tax, while Mr Santorum, who tends to emphasise his blue-collar upbringing, is promoting an economic nationalist agenda and, like Mr Romney, is advocating punishing China for its alleged unfair trade practices.

Mr Romney's problems go beyond his message and have to do with his personality and professional background. The son of a former car company executive and former governor, Mr Romney made millions as an executive with Bain Capital, a company that was involved in the financial restructuring of large American businesses, a process that included the laying off of hundreds of workers.

That even the pro-business Mr Gingrich and Mr Santorum have been depicting Mr Romney as someone who has made his money by firing people, only demonstrates the extent to which Mr Romney is vulnerable on an issue. Yet he is trying to make his extensive experience in the business sector into the centrepiece of his campaign. And Mr Romney did not help himself by remarking in one of his campaign appearances that: 'I like being able to fire people'.

The candidate who could probably do the best among independent voters and win support in major 'blue' Democratic inclined states is Mr Huntsman who has emerged as the most moderate and pragmatic candidate in the race. He has refrained from pandering to the religious right and has placed a lot of emphasis on his diplomatic experience and his support for a more realist foreign policy approach.

That may have helped him in the primary 'purple' state of New Hampshire that tends to swing between support for Republican and Democratic candidates but is certainly not going to lead him towards victories in the Republican votes in the South, including the next primary in South Carolina.

The best-case-scenario from a Republican perspective is that Mr Romney will get nominated as presidential candidate ASAP and that the other candidates and the rest of the party unite behind him and prepare for the big fight with Mr Obama and the Democrats. If opinion polls are any guide, that is all they have to do. But will they?

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