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With the dogs at his heels, can Obama win again?

July 2011

Recently I watched the seven dwarfs performing at the second Republican debate.

Or as Jeffrey Simpson described them in the Globe and Mail: “What a collection of third-raters they were for a major national party: fringe characters (Ron Paul and Herman Cain), dullards (Tim Pawlenty), social conservative ideologues (Rick Santorum and Michele Bachman), egotists (Newt Gingrich, whose campaign staff has quit en masse over his eccentricities).”

Then there’s the reputed front-runner, Mitt Romney. He was so unpopular at the end of his governorship in Massachusetts that he decided not to run for a second term. Romney was for abortion before he was against it; for a health mandate before he dumped it; for a bailout before he saw the light. Does this mean that President Barack Obama will be re-elected next year in a walk?

By no means. But his problem is not the strength of his GOP opponents. It is the weakness of the American economy.

As I write this at the end of June, the U.S. unemployment rate is 9.1 per cent (well over one per cent higher than ours). The fact is, going as far back as Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 no American president has been re-elected when the unemployment rate has been higher than 7.2 per cent.

Could this be turned around before the election, which is 16 months away? Yes, it could. Some economists predict that at the end of 2012 the unemployment rate could be as low as eight per cent. Besides the trend is moving in the right direction. The Obama administration has already added 2 million jobs in the private sector.

There are a couple of other major issues that Obama is manoeuvring to be on the right side of. The first is health care. The Republicans’ rising star, Paul Ryan, is proposing a system whereby the government would give each citizen a fixed sum of money, a voucher, with which to buy the health care they need from insurance companies. But what if premiums go up and the government vouchers do not keep pace? Tough luck.

The Democrats made sport of this proposal by showing a video in which a government functionary (looking suspiciously like Paul Ryan) throws a sick “Granny” off a cliff.

Secondly, the issue that will have a major impact on the election is the astronomical size of the debt, which now tops out at $14 trillion. The way the Republicans want to deal with this is to cut programs, such as health care, and maintain tax breaks for the rich. The Democratic proposal is to save essential programs wherever possible, shut tax loopholes to rich corporations like the oil companies, and restore income tax rates for the wealthiest Americans.

To boil it down, the GOP argue that what ails the United States can be fixed by even lower taxes. David Brooks, the moderate conservative columnist of the New York Times, says of the cut taxes approach, it “is stupefyingly boring, fiscally irresponsible, and politically impressible.”

So Obama has running room to get on the right side of both these issues—health care and taxes. The economy still has 16 months to improve. This brings us back to a possible GOP nominee to challenge Obama in 2012. Of the eight now declared in the race we can eliminate five right off the bat – Santorum, Bachman, Paul, Cain and Gingrich. Santorum is a right-wing Catholic ideologue who wants to criminalize doctors and nurses who perform abortions. Bachman is a pleasant woman who got a law degree from a third-rate university, raised five children of her own and fostered 23 others. She will be supported by some elements of the Tea Party and nobody else. Ron Paul advocates a flat tax. Herman Cain made his money selling pizza. Neither will be a factor. Newt Gingrich is the only candidate I know who saved money by losing his staff. He’s a no-hoper.

That leaves three: Pawlenty, Romney and Jon Huntsman. Pawlenty is a bore and Romney is a flip-flopper. My instincts tell me that neither man will make it.

Huntsman is another matter. The former governor of Utah and ambassador to China is a quality candidate. If he can win the nomination (a long shot), he could give Obama a run for his money.

But are any of these candidates keeping Obama awake at night? He looks pretty rested to me.



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