Thursday, July 5, 2012

Election Day 2012: Four months out...

We're fast approaching the home stretch in our quadrennial spasm where we decide who will work out of the Oval office for the next four years. The incumbent, President Barack Obama, has governed during the most challenging economic times this country has seen since the depression. He's pushed through his signature piece of legislation, The Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act, in the most clumsy of ways and just last week seen the Supreme Court surprise just about everyone and rule it Constitutional. (Many pundits felt the Individual Mandate would be its undoing.) Along the way President Obama has signed several tax cuts for the middle class and small businesses, signed various other pieces of legislation into law while seeing more compelling successes abroad than he has at home. The wrapping up of operations in Iraq, a clear willingness to target and kill terrorists throughout the Middle East, not to mention giving the green light to pursue and kill Osama Bin Laden. Who could have conceived that foreign policy might have been the strongest part of his report card when he was elected?

Fair or not, President Obama is not considered by many to be a unifying force in today's politics. While most people give the President high marks for personal character and likability, the economy and unemployment in particular has been a long slow trod toward improvement, and some of his decisions have polarized the populace. Implementing the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", ruffled feathers in the military. His recent choice to not pursue illegal immigrant between 15-29, as long as they have completed high school, served in the military and not committed a serious crime infuriated many who felt it as a move beyond the proper scope of presidential authority.

Advocating for gay marriage, holding to a strict schedule on the Keystone pipeline project, the aggressive use of drones, etc. have all proven to be highly irritable to various voting segments. There has been no shortage of criticism, some warranted-some specious, leveled at Obama. He is a lightening rod for it.

That said, he clearly is not dead in the water. Far, far from it.

Incumbents traditionally hold a pretty serious advantage over their opponents. With the SCOTUS ruling mostly in favor of the ACA, that issue ceases to be the blade that could sever Obama's chances at re-election. The issue won't go away, but now there's enough positive about it that I suspect it will be moved frontward in the re-elect Obama arsenal. Given the lackluster performance of the economy and jobs over the last 3-4 months (another underwhelming jobs report is due out Friday) why wouldn't he talk about healthcare?

Combine the situation at home with the financial uncertainty abroad, Obama's pitch I suspect will be a strong visionary approach. How do you view the future? He'll suggest yes, we're in hard times and I've told you from the beginning this economy couldn't be turned around quickly. However, we're going the right direction and it would be a massive mistake to change course and head back the way we came. We need more time to realize the economic gains and improvements to our health care sector. Oh, and an even slightly more cooperative Congress would be nice too, ok?

If Obama wins, it won't be by much...a margin of victory smaller than he won his first term with for sure...

His opponent, Mitt Romney on the other hand is far more difficult to assess.

Which may be exactly how Romney wants it.

The two most prominent issues in this campaign, are probably the economy and healthcare reform. According to Mitt Romney's campaign, his economic plans are preferable to Obama's because 1) He's a business man and he knows how to turn things around and 2) Obama's plans haven't worked. There is no question Romney is the most seasoned businessman of the two men. That said, do we really want our Government to operate like a business would? In someways yes, in someways - no. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated that Romney's economic plan would in fact, increase the deficit. To be fair, we don't have all the details from the Romney campaign, so you're working on limited information. When will we get the details of the Romney economic plan? Who knows?

Looking at health care, Romney had to be stunned, like most of us were, when the Supreme Court voted that "Obamacare" was Constitutional. In spite of the Affordable Care Act being modeled after "RomneyCare" in Massachusetts, Mitt Romney isn't taking any bows for it. He strains to differentiate the two plans, with questionable success. In his comments after the Court decision was announced, Romney said he would like to see health reform legislation that "... ensures "people who want to keep their current insurance will be able to do so," enables people with preexisting conditions to get insurance, gives states more support in their efforts to expand health care access and focuses on lowering the cost of such care."

In other words, Obamacare...

Romney can say he wants people to be able to keep their insurance, but as you beef up the minimum standards for insurance, some of the players don't necessarily want to stay on board. How would he provide people with pre-existing conditions to get insurance without the mandate, that he's quite well familiar with? Insurers won't agree with that unless there's a mandate. Romney knows this from his experience in Massachusetts and he knows it from the experience with the ACA. He can say he wants to help states increase their access to health insurance and lower costs, which again, is exactly what the ACA does with the Medicaid expansion. 

So...On the two main fronts this campaign, Romney is being pretty vague about his economic plans, and saying that we must get rid of Obamacare on his very first day and replace it with, uh, Obamacare.

Is this really the strategy that could win him the White House? 

The election is four months away. Unemployment is going to be close to 8%, no matter what Obama does between now and then. Fuel prices are expected to continue dropping, but except when their very high, no one really seems to care too much. The war in Afghanistan drags on with the understanding that soon we'll be reducing our troops on the ground. Immigration is hanging around, but neither side seems willing to partner with the other side and pass reform. The budget sequester looms large on December 31, with the Bush tax cuts set to expire. Obama won't extend the cuts for the wealthy, while the Republican's won't cooperate for an alternative to the sequester unless the cuts are for everyone, including the wealthy. Come January 1st, especially if heading to a second term, Obama will posture himself as the adult in the room when it comes to reducing the deficit. If you think back to the mid-term elections in 2010, reducing the deficit was all the talk. It was the biggest issue facing us bar none and especially hateful was the insane debt we were handing off to our children. But know this, should Obama force the sequestration to become reality, the issue of reducing the deficit will quickly fade and be replaced with "we must repair the damage Obama has done to our military!" 

How does one of these imperfect candidates pull away and build a lead between now and then? For Obama, a downward trend in the unemployment numbers wouldn't hurt and an avoidance of any missteps is crucial. For Romney, his best shot is to continue to be the anti-Obama and carefully play up his conservative bona fides. He should avoid talking about healthcare as much as Obama should avoid talking about the economy. 

Historically, we're told that the "undecided voters" don't really begin to pay attention and make up their minds until after Labor Day. Most people don't watch the Conventions, so each candidate will get a temporary bump, probably a small one, after their Party's Convention. The wild card in this may be the debates. There will be two Presidential debates and one Vice Presidential debate. Given how close things project to be, these will be crucial for each man. President Obama is considered to be a strong debater, but Romney impressed a lot of people with his ability to avoid getting smacked with a direct hit during the GOP primaries. Many tried, none succeeded. 

If somehow Romney can avoid giving details he doesn't really want to give between now and Election day and at least break even with the President in the debates, that may be enough to win him the Presidency. If Obama can drag details out of Romney and then exploit them, avoiding any blunders of his own, while delivering a more effective sales job on the ACA the rest of this Summer, that may carry him to another term. 

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