Analysis & Opinions - Public Service Europe

The 2012 US Election — Through the Prism of the Economy

| April 4, 2012

Unlike most of the world's democracies, America's political parties nominate their standard bearers in a highly visible sequence of state primary elections that attract a fairly small subsection of the voting public. While former governor Mitt Romney has not had an easy time convincing hard core Republican primary voters that he is the 'real deal' and conservative enough to be the nominee — his persistence, his money and his organisation will most likely make him the presumptive nominee sometime this month. The pivot from a nomination to a general election contest has already started with several hard-hitting speeches by United States President Barack Obama. As the campaign pivots, the debate changes — away from the social issues like contraception and abortion that preoccupy the Republican base and towards a set of issues that engage a broader electorate.

So what are the issues we can expect to dominate the upcoming election? Not surprisingly, the chief issue will be the economy. Obama has had a string of good news lately; the jobs situation is finally improving, manufacturing is up, the auto industry is back, the stock market is up and consumer demand is on the rise. On the downside is housing — with prices low, foreclosures steady and way too many people 'underwater' on their mortgages; owing more than their house is worth. The slow pace of recovery in the housing market is affecting every other aspect of the economy as people who are afraid of losing their home restrain their spending. And hanging over this feeble recovery is the financial uncertainty in Europe, slowing growth in China and an overall lack of trust in the recovery that keeps corporate America sitting on piles of cash that could be going to create jobs.

Obama will argue that without him the situation would have been much worse — that he has been the steady hand of an economy that was seconds away from falling from recession into depression. Expect to hear a great deal about the success of the auto industry bail-out and the revival of manufacturing. And expect to be reminded that the Republicans started the recession. When he has managed to disentangle himself from the spectacle over social issues that is inflicted on all Republican hopefuls, Romney has argued that Obama was simply not up to the job; that he never had a job in the 'real economy' and that his background as a professor and community organiser ill-equipped him to bring America back and that we are not out of the recession yet.

All other issues will be subservient to the overriding argument about the economy. Take a few. Arguments about the size of the national debt, for instance, will be couched in terms of what is right for the national recovery. Arguments over energy policy will not revolve around the importance of reducing carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Climate change has been submerged, at least temporarily, by the recession and by gas prices — which have reached $4 per gallon in many places. Cheap by European standards, but high by American standards. In the back and forth over gas prices, Romney will blame Obama's environmental policies for placing extra burdens — such as restrictions on oil drilling — on an already struggling economy. Obama will paint Romney as captive of big oil companies and big banks that rake in unconscionable profits at the expense of the hard working middle class.

Like the coming debate on energy, the debate on health care will be less about health and more about whether or not Obamacare — the President's signature reform legislation — is good or bad for the economy. To the Republicans, the mandate to buy health care makes it an unprecedented infringement on individual rights. More importantly, however, they argue that the requirements the new law places on businesses will end up being a job killer that extends the recession. For his part — Obama will argue that the law will save money, help balance the budget and provide a much-needed extension to the safety net that so many Americans fall through when they get very sick.

Barring a dramatic event like a terrorist attack or a meltdown of historic proportions in Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan — even foreign policy will be viewed through the prism of the economy. Support for the war in Afghanistan is at an all-time low, driven in large part by the humongous amount of treasure — in both blood and dollars — we have spent in a place that seems as resistant to a western view of government as ever. Every issue debated this fall will be scrutinised through the dark, fearful glasses of an economy that is in the middle of a feeble and uncertain recovery. How people feel about their circumstances and how the presidential candidates can influence those feelings will make all the difference.

Elaine C. Kamarck is on the faculty of Harvard University and the author of Primary Politics: How presidential candidates have shaped the modern nominating system

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kamarck, Elaine C..“The 2012 US Election — Through the Prism of the Economy.” Public Service Europe, April 4, 2012.