No. 135

WHY OBAMA MIGHT WIN – AS THE US GETS OLDER AND POORER

STONE the crows Barack Obama looks like winning on a platform of Hope (the economy doesn’t tank) and Change (but with luck, not for the worse).

Mr Obama isn’t assured a second term but short of a campaign catastrophe it is starting to seem a sure-ish thing.

He is leading by at least 5 per cent in the three crucial swing states, Ohio, Florida and Virginia. [i] And the respected Charlie Cook concludes, “without a change in trajectory, it’s a good bet that Obama will come out on top.”[ii]

If he does it will mark a generational political change ending the age of Reaganite optimism and demonstrating Jimmy Carter was onto something, with his “crisis of the American spirit” speech, albeit 30 years early:

“For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next 5 years will be worse than the past 5 years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.” [iii]

Mr Obama spelled out his strategy in a nomination speech, which critics suggest came close to Carter country.[iv]

The President focused on tough times and the role of the state to regulate business and protect ordinary people:

“Over and over, we’ve been told by our opponents that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way — that since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing.  If you can’t afford health insurance, hope that you don’t get sick.  If a company releases toxic pollution into the air your children breathe, well, that’s the price of progress.  If you can’t afford to start a business or go to college, take my opponent’s advice and borrow money from your parents. You know what, that’s not who we are.  That’s not what this country’s about.  As Americans, we believe we are endowed by our Creator with certain, inalienable rights — rights that no man or government can take away.  We insist on personal responsibility and we celebrate individual initiative. But we also believe in something called citizenship. Citizenship: a word at the very heart of our founding; a word at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.” [v]

The birthers are obviously wrong – if Barack Obama was born outside the US he is more likely to be French than Kenyan. He certainly inhabits a different political culture to Ronald Reagan who believed the state’s job was not to block the morning light in America. As he put it at the GOP convention in 1980:

“I pledge to restore to the federal government the capacity to do the people”s work without dominating their lives. I pledge to you a government that will not only work well, but wisely; its ability to act tempered by prudence and its willingness to do good balanced by the knowledge that government is never more dangerous than when our desire to have it help us blinds us to its great power to harm us.” [vi]

So what has changed since the ‘80s so that Mr Obama can present government as partner not parasite in building American dreams?

Well the country got older and feels poorer.

In 1980 the median age of Americans was 30 and there were 34 million people over 60. [vii] In 2010 the median age was 37.2 with 40 million US citizens over 65.[viii] When you add other recipients, 50 million Americans receive social security support. [ix] And 47.5 million are on Medicare, up 13 million from 1990. [x]

For all the traditional talk of self-reliance this is a fair swag of citizens who Obama’s argument appeals to. And anybody who suggests the US does not run a welfare state should consider spending on health and human services. They accounted for 3.3 per cent of federal outlays in 1962 and 23 per cent this year. [xi]

There is another group who Obama’s welfare state rhetoric will appeal to, the millions who feel the American contract of hard work delivering increased incomes does not include them.

According to the estimable Pew Research Centre, the percentage of people who identify as lower middle or lower class has increased from a quarter to a third in four years. The young are particularly pessimistic, or perhaps they are just realists.  Which ever it is, 40 per cent of 18-39 year olds see themselves as lower/lower-middle. Even more extraordinary, some 17 per cent of college graduates see themselves as poor.

Perhaps unsurprisingly only 2-3 per cent of survey responders saw the GOP as helping the poor. [xii]

Understandably so, self-help rhetoric does not always appeal to people who are doing it tough. And they are. According to another Pew report, the median US household income last year was $50,054. In 2009 it was, in 2011 dollars, $52,195. [xiii]

For a sitting president to run on problems in the economy is audacious. Sure Mr Obama can still use the GFC as an excuse for unemployment and an economy barely breathing but he is also attacking the insiders who privatised the profits and socialised the losses for breaking the core compact in American politics; “the promise that hard work will pay off, that responsibility will be rewarded, that everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same rules from Main Street to Wall Street to Washington, D.C.”[xiv]

For anybody who argues Americans are not acutely aware of inequality this is staggering stuff. That politics is not just about increasing the size of the economic pie but also regulating shares is implicit in Mr. Obama’s argument. It reflects a trend starting in the ‘70s, when productivity and wages stopped increasing at the same rate. Between 2000 and 2009 US manufacturing productivity increased at over 3 per cent each year, which was double wage growth.[xv]

If this year’s election is, as the commentariat concludes, about getting out the base President Obama is a solid chance.[xvi] Especially if “base” includes independents, whose votes, and willingness to vote, are up for grabs – some 37 per cent of people who think they are now lower class are independents. [xvii]

Does Mr Obama’s strategy presage the Europeanisation of America? Probably not, an improved economy and the country’s innate optimism will assist a Reagan-channelling Republican in four years time.

But that is not this president’s problem.


[i] Nia-Malika Henderson, “Mitt Romney lags in swing states, polls show,” Washington Post, September 15

[ii] Charlie Cook, “The Cook Report: Obama’s a good bet,” National Journal, September 13 @ www.nationaljournal.com/columns/cook-report/the-cook-report-obama-s-a-good-bet-to-win-20120913 recovered on September 15

[iii] Jimmy Carter, “Crisis of confidence speech,” July 15, 1979, Miller Centre, University of Virginia @ http://millercenter.org/ recovered on September 15

[iv] Timothy Noah, “Obama’s speech was too much of a humblebrag,” The New Republic, September 7

[v] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at the Democratic National Convention,” September 6 2012 @ http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/09/07/remarks-president-democratic-national-convention recovered on September 15

[vi] Ronald Reagan, “Address Accepting the Presidential Nomination at the Republican National Convention,” July 17, 1980 @ www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=25970 recovered on September 15

[vii] United States Bureau of the Census, !980 Census of Population, I Characteristics of the Population, (US Department of Commerce, 1983) 19,23 @ http://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/1980/1980censusofpopu8011u_bw.pdf recovered on September 15

[viii] US Census Bureau, “2010 census shows nation’s population is ageing,” May 26 2011 @ http://2010.census.gov/news/releases/operations/cb11-cn147.html recovered on September 15

[ix] US Census, Compendia 2011, @ www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2011/tables/11s0544.pdf recovered on September 15

[x] US Census, Compendia 2011, @ www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0146.pdf recovered on September 15

[xi] The White House, Office of Management and Budget, Historical Tables, @ http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals recovered on September 15

[xii] Rich Morin and Seth Motel, “A third of Americans now say they are in the lower class,” Pew Research Centre, September 10 @ http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/09/10/a-third-of-americans-now-say-they-are-in-the-lower-classes/ recovered on September 15

[xiii] Rakesh Kochar, “A recovery no better than the recession,” Pew Research Centre, September 12 @ www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2012/09/median-household-incomes-2007-2011.pdf recovered on September 15

[xiv] Obama, DNC remarks, ibid

[xv] Susan Fleck, John Glaser and Shawn Sprague, “The compensation-productivity gap: a visual essay,” Monthly Labour Review, January 2011

[xvi] Tom Bevan, “Base wars: Antipathy, fear motivating supporters,” Real Clear Politics, September 6 @ www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2012/09/06/base_wars_antipathy_fear_motivating_supporters_115345.html recovered on September 15

[xvii] Morin and Motel, ibid

'2012