Politeía Digest

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

A beatable president

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Barack Obama and the Republicans

But only if a Republican candidate starts laying out a sensible plan for the American economy.

NEXT week a collection of largely unknown Republicans will hold the first proper TV debate of the 2012 presidential campaign. Whoever eventually wins their party’s nomination then has to take on Barack Obama, the giant of American politics. The president has a huge war-chest, his own party firmly behind him and a rare capacity to inspire. Yet he is vulnerable. This week a poll showed him in a dead heat with Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner. America’s sluggish recovery will give any challenger a chance. The question is whether any Republican has the personality and especially the ideas to take him on. For the best way to make this race competitive—and the best thing for America—is to force voters to confront the hard choices their country has to make.

This time, Mr President, you are playing Goliath

In terms of the horse race, an incumbent president (especially if he is without a primary challenger) usually has a head start. While the Republicans spend the next year clobbering each other, Mr Obama can appear statesmanlike and husband his resources. His approval rating is in the 50s, better than Bill Clinton’s at this stage in the proceedings in 1995, before he went on to score a solid victory against Bob Dole in 1996.

But whereas that Clinton race should encourage Mr Obama, the previous one should worry him. In spring 1991 George Bush senior was coasting towards re-election; by November 1992 the president was toast—and the main reason was a sluggish economy. This recovery, in the wake of the worst financial shock since 1929, is even slower. Growth in the first quarter was a feeble 1.8%. The unemployment rate actually rose, to 9.1%, in May: the rate of job creation is barely keeping track with the natural increase in the working-age population. Twice as many Americans think the country is on the wrong track as the right one. Many of the places where Americans feel angriest are battleground states: Florida, Michigan and Ohio all saw big Republican gains in the 2010 mid-terms.

In 2008 Mr Obama represented change. This time he will have to fend off charges that he is to blame for the achingly slow recovery by arguing that it would have been worse without his actions, such as his $800 billion stimulus package and the takeover of GM and Chrysler. That may be true but it is not easy to sell a counterfactual on the stump (as the first President Bush learned). And there are other holes in Mr Obama’s record. What happened to his promises to do something about the environment or immigration or Guantánamo? Why should any businessman support a chief executive who has let his friends in the labour movement run amok and who let his health-care bill be written by Democrats in Congress? Above all, why has he never produced a credible plan to tackle the budget deficit, currently close to 10% of GDP?

Asking these questions will surely give any Republican a perch in this race. But to beat the president, the Republicans need both a credible candidate and credible policies. Read more in The Economist.

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Written by Theophyle

June 14, 2011 at 8:42 am

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