Opinion

The Great Debate

Why it’s all about Obama

President Barack Obama may have lost the first debate the minute he appeared on stage in Denver.  Just by showing up, he changed the terms of the campaign.  Viewers immediately saw the election as a referendum on the president.  The decision became whether to fire him or rehire him.

This was bound to happen sooner or later.  It always happens when an incumbent is running for reelection.  Until the Oct. 3 debate, Democrats had made a vigorous, and mostly successful, effort to turn the election into a choice rather than a referendum: Which guy do you like better — Obama or Mitt Romney?

Democrats managed to demonize Romney as a rich guy totally out-of-touch with ordinary Americans.  Romney made it easier for them by constantly calling attention to his wealth.  Democrats went after Romney’s business record, his flip-flops and his efforts to pander to the extreme right.  It was working.  Last month, Romney had the most negative public image of any presidential candidate in at least 25 years, according to the Pew Research Center.

Democrats have to rally the base in order to win.  The Democratic base includes a lot of voters who don’t usually turn out in large numbers — minorities, young people, recent immigrants.  Many feel disappointed and frustrated with Obama.  One way to rally the base is to drive up fear of the alternative: If Romney becomes president, he will shred the social safety net and kill Big Bird.

The Democratic strategy was working.  Until the first debate.  Once Obama stepped onto that stage,  the election was about him.

China bashing: A U.S. political tradition

In every U.S. presidential election, the major party candidates vie to see who can appear tougher on China. Once the election is over, however, the substance of U.S. policy toward China usually changes little and is far more pragmatic than the campaign rhetoric. There are ominous signs, though, that things could be different this time.

The accusations have been among the most caustic ever. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has denounced the Obama administration for being “a near-supplicant to Beijing” on trade matters, human rights and security issues. An Obama ad accuses Romney of shipping U.S. jobs to China through his activities at the Bain Capital financier group, and Democrats charge that Romney as president would not protect U.S. firms from China’s depredations.

In large measure these jabs resemble a quadrennial political ritual. Ronald Reagan repeatedly criticized President Jimmy Carter for establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing. Bill Clinton excoriated the “butchers of Beijing” in the 1992 campaign and promised to stand up to the Chinese government on both trade and human rights issues. Candidate Barack Obama labeled President George W. Bush “a patsy” in dealing with China and promised to go “to the mat” over Beijing’s “unfair” trade practices.

So what is Romney’s foreign policy?

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney gave his “Mantle of Leadership” speech Monday – his third major attempt in a year to outline his views on foreign policy.

In a speech filled with rhetoric rather than substance, and with repeated and false accusations about President Barack Obama’s national security record, Romney once again talked about how he would “strengthen our partnerships” – and once again failed to explain how he would manage relations with our friends in Europe, with whom we work closely on every major global challenge.

One central thesis in Romney’s speech, and in his criticism of the administration overall, has been that under Obama the U.S. has abandoned its allies. In addition to providing no evidence to support this claim, Romney barely mentioned the closest U.S. allies: our North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners. In fact, this neglect has been a consistent theme throughout Romney’s campaign.

Who knew jobs data could be so exciting?

The September jobs report ignited a firestorm when Jack Welch, former General Electric chief executive officer and Reuters contributor, asserted (or implied, or wondered if) the unemployment rate had been politically doctored to give President Barack Obama an electoral advantage. After all, how can the unemployment rate drop a full 0.3 percentage points to 7.8 percent when the economy is creating only 114,000 jobs?

More on that later. First, let’s dismiss the notion that the integrity of the data-collection process was undermined. Anyone at all familiar with the production of federal economic statistics – at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Federal Reserve, or elsewhere – can appreciate the firewalls that exist between the professional collection, analysis and publication of economic data and the remainder of the agencies’ missions – especially their political appointees. It is unfathomable that these would be breached.

It is even more unfathomable that they would be breached without the career civil servants getting on the telephone to, say, Reuters and reporting the political manipulation within a nanosecond of it occurring. And still more unfathomable that such a breach would be initiated and covered up successfully, while only lowering the rate to 7.8 percent. Why not 6.8?

Can Romney put foreign policy in play?

This piece was updated after GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s major foreign policy address on Monday. It reflects Romney’s remarks.

In the first foreign policy speech following his momentum-gaining debate against President Barack Obama, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney expanded on his vision of an “American century,” a view he tied to the legacy of leaders like General George Marshall as he outlined a muscular, moral U.S. foreign policy with American exceptionalism at its core.

Romney aimed to distinguish his world view from the president’s, as he has in far-lower-profile foreign policy speeches, promising to “change course” in the Middle East by helping to provide arms to Syrian rebels and talking and acting even tougher on Iran.

The GOP and voter anger

President Barack Obama’s lackluster, let’s-work-together performance in Wednesday night’s presidential debate stoked the fears of his liberal backers that Democrats simply won’t fight for them the way Republicans relentlessly battle for their wealthier, aging, corporate constituents.

After four years of Republican intransigence – even when Democrats have championed Republican ideas – the Democratic left insists that the White House hasn’t grasped that the 2012 campaign is not about policy. So far, Republicans are proving more adept at speaking, in both coded and direct terms, to Americans’ stark demographic and psychological divisions.

That Republican nominee Mitt Romney stood before the nation and all but disowned the tax-cut, Medicare, health policy and other GOP doctrines he had campaigned on for months is likely to matter little to his backers. The last three Republican presidents, as MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes pointed out, also campaigned on promises of economic growth, deficit reduction and tax relief – and all left behind a faltering economy and ballooned deficits. What they reliably delivered was tax cuts benefiting the wealthy.

It’s not the economy, stupid!

Tonight’s debate could be the most negative presidential debate ever. That’s because the best thing each candidate has going for him is negative opinion of the other guy.

This election was supposed to be a referendum on President Barack Obama. That’s what usually happens when an incumbent is running for re-election. Sometimes the incumbent is popular enough to win re-election (Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996). Sometimes he’s not (Jimmy Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992).

The biggest single factor determining the incumbent’s popularity is the economy: good in 1984 and 1996, terrible in 1980 and 1992. By that standard, Obama should be in deep trouble. That’s the big surprise this year. He’s not.

The ‘Hollywood Test’ for president

If you think of the current presidential campaign as a movie, the economy, by all rights, should have pre-empted most of the drama and handed the lead role to the lantern-jawed financier. The movie would have told of a decent man, so unflappable that he never broke a sweat, who tried his best but couldn’t work his will on the world and make things right. Into that void, walked Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who vowed that he had the experience and strength to turn things around.

Here was a simple plot pitting weakness against strength, a well-meaning amateur against a tough-minded business titan – essentially, the professor against the industrialist.

But that’s not the way it seems to be turning out. And the reason why may have as much to do with movies as politics. We love the idea of civic responsibility, of an informed citizenry boning up on the issues. But what we really do when we vote nowadays is cast our preference for the candidate who proposes the better movie – who seems to make the better protagonist in the national drama.

Where is Obama’s promised minimum-wage hike?

During the 2008 campaign, presidential candidate Barack Obama made a pledge to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour by 2011. Promises like this one inspired a generation of young voters, excited long-neglected progressive voters and gave hope to millions of his supporters across the country.

President Obama ran a campaign of soaring rhetoric and uplifting ideas. Amidst two unpopular wars, a rapidly deteriorating financial crisis and the wildly unpopular presidency of George W. Bush, Americans were desperate for a change. He was viewed as a “transformational” candidate, a president who would turn the page on the stagnant politics of Washington.

It is now four years later, and there has been no increase to the minimum wage. There has been no congressional vote, much less a whisper from the White House on the minimum wage.

The gay-rights cause Obama can actually do something about

On Wednesday, President Obama declared his evolution complete. In an interview with ABC News he said: “At a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Gay-rights groups rejoiced; conservative groups scolded. But what the president thinks about gay marriage is, ultimately, symbolic. There is a different issue on which Obama could achieve real, tangible results for gays and lesbians, and gain electoral advantage over Mitt Romney: employment discrimination.

Obama has already done everything he can on gay marriage. His administration has declared the federal law banning gay marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), to be discriminatory and declined to defend it in court. He has extended spousal benefits to the domestic partners of federal employees. Marriage laws, on the other hand, are written at the state level. Even a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman, which Romney supports and Obama already opposed, is not actually signed by the president.

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