Business Times - 06 Apr 2012
Election fever grips America
Romney's latest primaries victories and Obama's admonition for Republicans make it clear general election campaign is underway, if not in full swing
By LEON HADAR
IT'S War! Just a few hours before Mitt Romney captured the Republican presidential primaries in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Wisconsin - and was clearly on his way to clenching his party's nomination as its presidential candidate - Democratic President Barack Obama unleashed an overwhelming election-year assault on the Republicans and their presumptive presidential nominee.
He accused the Republicans and the man who would challenge him for control of the White House in November of promoting a 'radical agenda' for America's future.
Mr Romney's primaries victories on Tuesday and Mr Obama's harsh admonition for the Republicans - and for Mr Romney's vision of the nation - made it clear that although Election Day is seven months away, the general election campaign is under way, if not in full swing.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a social-cultural conservative who has emerged as the main Republican challenger to Mr Romney's presidential aspirations, made it clear on Tuesday that he was planning to remain in the race despite his electoral defeat in Wisconsin where he could not even count on the support of his base of blue-collar and Evangelical Christian voters.
Mr Santorum and his aides have suggested that they would still be able to slow down Mr Romney's electoral momentum by beating him in the Republican primaries in Mr Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania and in several southern states.
But despite the refusal by Mr Santorum, as well as by Texas Representative Ron Paul and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, to withdraw from the race, the general consensus in Washington is that Mr Romney will be crowned as his party's presidential nominee in the convention in Tampa, Florida in June.
But if Mr Santorum continues to attack Mr Romney from the right, forcing the former Massachusetts governor to continue discussing social-cultural issues such as abortion, Mr Romney would be deprived of the opportunity of concentrating the focus of his campaign on the issue that seems to matter to the majority of the voters - and, in particular, the critical electoral bloc of independent voters - the economy.
There is no doubt that the perception that Mr Romney is a member of the wealthiest one per cent of Americans - enhanced by the Republican candidate's numerous disclosures and gaffes about his wealth during the campaign (the recent one was a report that Mr Romney was planning to add a 'car elevator' to his mansion in California) - is not helping Mr Romney win the support of the financially distressed middle-class voters.
Moreover, Mr Romney's tough stand on illegal immigration - he has called for the 'self deportation' of illegal Mexican immigrants - has sunk his support among Hispanic voters to single digit, while the Republicans' continuing obsession with whether women should have access to contraception explains why a majority of women voters are planning to vote for Mr Obama in November.
Public opinion polls are indicating that the long and bruising Republican presidential primaries have hurt the presumptive Republicans nominee with more voters telling pollsters that they were having 'unfavourable' impression of Mr Romney who seems to be falling behind Mr Obama in the daily tracking polls in swing states such as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Indeed, Mr Obama demonstrated on Tuesday that while Mr Romney continued to be distracted by the Republican primaries, he was able to start setting the terms and the agenda of this year's general presidential campaign. He portrayed the Republicans and Mr Romney as being out of touch with the concerns of America's middle class and accused them of embracing economic policies that favour the wealthiest one per cent of Americans. He said there seemed to be an attempt to return to the same policies - reducing taxes on the rich and lessening regulation on the big corporation - that created the conditions for the Great Recession. These policies were bound to devastate the middle class by expanding social-economic inequalities in America.
'It's nothing but thinly veiled Social Darwinism', is the way Mr Obama portrayed the Republican policies during a 40-minute address before editors and reporters on Tuesday.
'It's antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everyone who's willing to work hard for it, a place where prosperity doesn't trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class,' Mr Obama stressed. He added: 'It is a prescription for decline.'
Mr Obama blamed the rising deficit on the economic policies pursued under his predecessor, George W Bush, pointing out to 'two wars, two massive tax cuts and an unprecedented financial crisis'.
Faulting Republican policies, including tax cuts for the wealthy and lax financial regulation, for leading the country into the Great Recession, Mr Obama said: 'You would think that after the results of this experiment in trickle-down economics, after the results were made painfully clear, that the proponents of this theory might show some humility, might moderate their views a bit.'
But 'that's exactly the opposite of what they've done. Instead of moderating their views even slightly, the Republicans running Congress right now have doubled down'.
After spending most of his term in office trying to bridge the differences with his Republican opponents and strive to come up with bipartisan solutions to the major economic problems, including the swelling federal deficit - with the Republicans dismissing his many proposals as 'radical' and 'socialist' - Mr Obama has decided to embrace now the more populist approach favoured by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
And, indeed, during his speech on Tuesday, Mr Obama went out of his way to link Mr Romney to the set of deficit-cutting proposals advanced by the Representative Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and that have been adopted by the Republicans in the House, and which call for drastic cuts in the major government-backed retirement and health-insurance programmes, including the privatisation of one that provides assistance to elderly Americans.
At the same time that it advocated slashing these social-economic programmes, the same Republican budget blueprint also calls for preserving and in, some cases, expanding tax-reduction schemes for the wealthy and for the big corporations.
'One of my potential opponents, Governor Romney, has said that he hoped a similar version of this plan from last year would be introduced as a bill on day one of his presidency,' Mr Obama said. 'He said that he's very supportive of this new budget,' he noted, adding sarcastically that Mr Romney 'even called it marvellous, which is a word you don't often hear when it comes to describing a budget'.
Mr Ryan is from Wisconsin where he was campaigning for Mr Romney on the eve of the Republican primaries there and pundits speculated that he was one of the Republicans that Mr Romney was considering as a possible vice-presidential nominee. Mr Ryan responded to Mr Obama's attack by suggesting that the president chose 'tired and cynical political attacks'. History would 'not be kind to a president who, when it came time to confront our generation's defining challenge, chose to duck and run', Mr Ryan insisted.
But Mr Ryan refrained from responding to Mr Obama's detailed critique of his budget proposals. Hence, listing the consequences of the Ryan budget were implemented - 10 million college students with higher loan payments; 200,000 children denied early-education programmes; 4,500 fewer federal grants to fight crime - Mr Obama argued that the coming election posed fundamental choice for the American people on what kind of future their country should have.
In tough times, Mr Obama insisted, 'the debate gets sharper; it gets more vigorous'. And that was 'a good thing', he said.
In November, we will find out whether it was, indeed, a good thing for him - or for the Republicans.
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