Zerkalo Nedeli, Ukraine
Save the American Cat
By Aleksandr Shcherba
Sometimes the situation is reminiscent of the famous joke about the cat that climbed into the refrigerator, and the door closed behind its back. It gradually realizes the full horror of its situation, but it cannot stop, so it eats and eats and eats. Whoever wins this presidential race will face two problems: escaping the refrigerator and putting America on a diet.
Translated By Olga Kerzhner
20 April 2012
Edited by Katie Marinello
Ukraine - Zerkalo Nedeli - Original Article (Russian)
Mitt Romney has been chosen as the Republican presidential candidate. His main rival, Rick Santorum, is no longer competing. The two remaining opponents, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, are still in the race only because of their old men's obstinacy. Obama is standing at the ready. He is weakened, but still strong. It’s time for political predictions, stakes and bets. It’s impossible to know anything for sure. However, it’s time to see who will enter the ring, and what rules will govern the fight.
Approximately ten years ago, a survey was conducted in America to determine the least-trusted profession. Used car salesmen ended up in first place. Politicians were second. That’s not surprising. Distrust of politicians and the certainty that they’re all the same is a universal phenomenon.
What’s interesting is that if the same American is asked whether he trusts the politician for whom he voted, the response is frequently completely different. Many of them will sincerely answer that yes, they trust him.
Americans draw the line between the abstract concept of a politician and the specific person for whom they voted. For them, the concept of "my president" is almost as personal as "my country" and "my church."
If you ignore the 40-50 percent of Americans who don’t vote out of principle, and focus on the politically active electorate, Americans choose not simply a president, but "my president." That is, the man who will visit the voter at home nightly as a TV picture, and as a part of the American reality. It’s important for the voters that the president is, as Americans say, “one of us.” In other words, someone reasonable, who at worst doesn’t make them want to throw a shoe at the TV screen and, at best, provides solutions to painful national development issues.
16,400,000,000,000.00 Reasons to Worry
America has accumulated quite a few painful issues, and some of them relate to the very foundation of American life. The U.S. national debt ceiling has been set at 16.4 trillion dollars since January. According to forecasts, it will be raised again in December.
The country is living beyond its means. Sometimes the situation is reminiscent of the famous joke about the cat that climbed into the refrigerator, and the door closed behind its back. It gradually realizes the full horror of its situation, but it cannot stop, so it eats and eats and eats. Whoever wins this presidential race will face two problems: escaping the refrigerator and putting America on a diet.
The sour outlook is not only turning the stomachs of the experts. More and more voters are realizing that their familiar reality could end at any moment. And although most Americans, in full accordance with the Biblical canon, are “eating and drinking, marrying” [Matthew 24:38] as if nothing had happened, upon closer look, the background of this feast is gloomy.
Obama: Time to Drink Hershey’s*
Four years ago, people were expecting Obama to find a way out of the refrigerator. Not just find the way out, in fact, but also inspire the nation to change its lifestyle. Alas, he has succeeded in neither the former nor the latter. But that’s one way of looking at it. On the other hand, those who consider Obama to be the American version of Yushchenko are wrong. There’s no need to be so cruel and unequivocal. He is still popular among the general public. Much of the population still puts their hopes in him.
Obama is a charismatic politician. However, his glamor has evaporated. He spent the first term of his presidency throwing bags of freshly printed dollars at the financial crisis. He also spent it on very controversial and costly reforms. The most controversial (and, as a result, the most unpopular) was health care reform. The idea of making American medicine more humane and reasonable is right, but the timing is disappointing.
The hope was that by increasing the money supply, the new reform projects at the national level would start the motor of the economy, and lead to massive job creation. It had only partial success. Yes, the unemployment rate had dropped below nine percent, which is the magic number that many perceive as a kind of line between the crisis and the start of the recovery. Yes, the American automobile industry was saved. General Motors, which was recently on the brink of bankruptcy, regained its ability to pay bills and its position as the world’s number one producer. This means a lot, and might very well be the key to Obama’s second term.
Price is the only question. For many people, a further increase in government spending, with the incomprehensible number of $16,400,000,000,000.00 in the background, seems to be an unaffordable price. Accordingly, the Keynesian strategy for reviving the economy seems like a policy for delaying the inevitable day of reckoning. Obama dialed down the crisis, but was not impressive as an economic dietitian.
American society developed an urgent need for a new Reagan — a conservative, charismatic politician, capable of taking unpopular measures to improve the economy. And so, by the laws of the genre, entered the anti-Obama — Mitt Romney. Alas, he is not so conservative, and not very charismatic. He is a millionaire, and the son of a millionaire. He is a former governor, and the son of a former governor. He is a strong manager. He is dry, hard and reminiscent of Michael Douglas' character from the movie “Wall Street,” Gordon Gekko.
Who, if not Mitt?
The Republican race followed the script of, "Who, if not Mitt?" The question was far from rhetorical. Now and then, the response would be, “Anyone but Mitt!” For, whatever antipathy the conservative voters have toward Obama, their attitude toward Romney is far from enthusiastic. It is more like the classic story “Without Dowry,” where they’re trying to marry off a girl to a wealthy but old general.
The Republicans desperately looked for an alternative. They fluctuated constantly, first in favor of Congresswoman Bachmann, then Governor Perry, then former Speaker Gingrich, then millionaire Cain, then former Senator Santorum.
However, the same fate awaited whoever came to the forefront. First, mistakes during the debates. Then, some "skeletons in the closet" (in this respect, the amorous Cain and Gingrich especially distinguished themselves). Then Romney’s negative political ads (the funding of which has been nonstop, like Niagara Falls) finished off the rivals.
As a result, our hero reached the finish line, but many people started to dislike him precisely during the primaries stage. According to statistics, no candidate since the 70s challenged the incumbent with such a low personal popularity rating (43 percent). At the same time, Obama's personal popularity rating (not to be confused with the political rating) is 56 percent, which is as high as Clinton’s and Bush’s at similar stages of their successful re-election campaigns. And although once the primaries are over Romney’s personal rating will also begin to grow, he will have to work hard to become more pleasing to the American eye.
As the president, Obama has a certain reserve. Even on the most painful index, presidential approval rating, he is now at 48 percent. In recent decades, no president who had a rating of 50 percent or more has lost the campaign. In other words, Obama is left to pull up only two percent to turn his currently rather ephemeral handicap into a more or less enduring confidence in victory. But, like a new recruit on the pull-up bar, he might not make it.
Big Candidate in the Sea of Small Problems
Romney’s problems lie in the above-mentioned deeply personal relationship that the American voters have with their presidents. Even those who willingly perceive Romney as a potential leader don’t always perceive him as a person.
He is facing a lot of problems: the skepticism of conservative voters, an insufficiently strong position among women, doubts among Latinos and so on. As for his personal image, he faces the "MMM” problem: Mormon, millionaire, and mazhor [slang for offspring of wealthy/influential parent].
No matter how far Mormons have advanced in modern American politics, when it comes to the presidential candidate, then Mormonism is a reason to worry. Religion, faith in God — this is traditionally the bridge that helps the candidate to find an approach, even to those groups of voters who oppose his views.
Romney's religious affiliation, by contrast, plays the role of some kind of a barrier between him and the mass of conservative voters. This obstacle is unlikely to be pivotal, but may very well layer on top of other issues in the dialogue between the candidate and the voters.
For example, Romney-the-millionaire’s lifestyle raises questions. It’s not like being a millionaire in America is shameful — not at all. It’s just that at different stages of his campaign, there was a sense that he is not one of those people who understands the needs of ordinary Americans.
Presumably, much of Romney’s success is in some way connected with his late father’s status. In America, mazhors are liked less than people who, like Obama, worked their way up from the bottom. This is not in Romney’s favor. Of course, the same was true for George W. Bush. However, the latter was still closer to the average American, if not with his advantages, then with his flaws.
It seems as though Romney does not have any flaws. There are no skeletons in his closet. His life seems sterile like a surgical table, except for a significant number of small, strange episodes, which also add to his image of a creature from another reality.
For example, he once told a funny story about traveling to his vacation home in Canada (12 hours away), with a dog cage attached to the roof of his station wagon. The day was windy, the car went fast, but he stopped only when something unpleasant started spilling from the cage down the back car window. This story was immediately followed by protests from animal rights groups, and even faster by protests from critics of his election campaign.
Romney's opponents argue that he intends to do the same thing with the American government “machine.” His proponents revengefully retort that it’s a good idea.
The Election’s Leitmotif(s)
So the main question is, what topics will be at the center of the campaign. Obviously, one will be socioeconomic. The state of the economy (job creation) is in first place. In second, is the health care system (that is, whether Obama's reform is meant “to be or not to be”). Foreign policy (Afghanistan and Iran) is in third place. Immigration is fourth. In fifth and sixth, traditionally, are gay marriage and a woman's right to abortion.
Atypically, the following issues were not discussed as much: social programs (despite the resonant nature of the federal debt issue), the right to bear arms (although this may change in light of the recent murder of a young Floridian, Trayvon Martin), education reform and terrorism.
And because economic issues are painful, and world markets are volatile, the election campaigns may change at any time. The collapse of new markets, increase in gasoline prices and worsening state of the labor market are all very real scenarios, each of which could make Obama’s campaign significantly more difficult, if not derail it altogether.
Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why Obama is so careful in matters relating to the possible strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. It’s too likely to have a destabilizing effect on the global economy. It’s typical that Romney and other Republicans (except for the eccentric Congressman Paul) took a hawkish stance on this issue. How come?
It’s interesting that both candidates attempted not to simply react to the campaign’s agenda, but to also shape it in a way that benefits them. Obama is trying to make social justice the focus of the election. The Republicans want to focus on cutting taxes and bureaucracy (it seems that Romney is going to cut by half or even completely eliminate at least two departments: education and housing).
Time will tell who is going to win. Neither candidate has yet demonstrated a convincing strategy to reduce debt. Romney's approach (a sharp reduction in government spending) seems more logical, but it’s questionable when considered in light of American realities. This approach appears to have been tested at the local level in Wisconsin, and it failed. The winner of the Wisconsin election was a conservative, radical, principled governor, Scott Walker, who promised to cut costs, and followed through. This caused an uproar. As a result, he faces a referendum in June under the slogan of “Recall the Principles.”** The outcome of the recall election, by the way, is important for the campaign. The same is true of the Supreme Court’s June verdict on the constitutionality of certain provisions of Obama's health care reform.
What Will Determine the Election’s Result?
The current campaign is very reminiscent of George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004. It has the same polarization around the current president. It similarly lacks solidarity among the opposition (although then-candidate John Kerry’s personal rating at this point was higher than that of Romney). There are the same expectations for change among certain segments of the electorate. Will the result once again be the victory of the current president? Not necessarily. But if the campaign continues to develop along the same trajectory until September, then Obama will certainly have more reason to be optimistic.
The United States has an unusual voting system. A candidate can receive the majority of votes, but not get the coveted 270 votes of the Electoral College. The fate of the election is decided in the so-called swing states — that is, in states where the voters sometimes vote blue (Democrat), and sometimes red (Republican).
Based on different analyses, this category has either eleven or twelve states. Among them are the three juiciest: Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. Traditionally, whoever wins two of these three states with a large number of electors also wins the election. So far, Obama is ahead of Romney in all three. But even if he loses there, but wins in the other swing states where he won in 2008, he will still win the election. Four years ago, he shined so powerfully. So many people see him not as an abstract politician, but as "my president," who can be given a second chance.
If the survey is conducted among all voters, Obama is ahead. But as consolation to Romney, as soon as the sample is narrowed to the politically active electorate, and those voters who are likely not to vote in this election are discarded (as, for example, is done by the Gallup and Rasmussen Tracking polls), Obama’s advantage disappears right before our eyes.
And yet, to feel confident, Romney needs to make great strides in Obama's electoral territory. Or Obama would need to make a mistake. Mitt needs to inspire and electrify American conservatives. It’s not enough for them to dislike the current president. He needs to make the conservatives get off the couch, go to the polls and — in spite of the Republican candidate’s liberalism, dryness, Mormonism and personal strangeness — see him as "one of us."
So far, he has not succeeded. The other day, I called one of my friends who traditionally votes for Republicans. He thought about it, and said that he would be "against everybody," although there’s no such option on the ballot.
*Translator’s note: This is a reference to an advertising slogan from the 1990s.
**Editor’s note: This quote, while accurately translated, cannot be verified.
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