Obama prescribes political fix for Ebola

By Justin Burke in Sydney, Australia

24 October 2014

President Obama at the CDC

The upcoming American midterm elections were recently described by David Brooks of the New York Times as making voters “giddy with disinterest, tingling with ... ennui and quivering with apathy.”

It would be a mistake, however, to minimise the stakes. On 4 November, votes will be cast for all 435 seats in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives; 33 of the 100 seats in the Senate, also likely to pass into Republican control; and governorships of states including Florida, which could confer crucial advantages in the next presidential election.

No single issue had galvanised voters. That was until the Ebola virus outbreak, which has so far seen the infection of Dallas nurses Nina Pham and Amber Joy Vinson while treating a Liberian man, Thomas Eric Duncan, since deceased.

And, on Thursday, a doctor named Craig Spencer who had recently returned to New York after treating Ebola victims in West Africa, tested positive for the virus.

Now giddiness, tingling, and quivering have taken on much more sinister connotations, with more than one thousand Americans under supervision for symptoms of the deadly disease.

And public alarm is becoming widespread. A poll published last Monday by Politico showed an overwhelming majority of voters in the most competitive elections saying it felt as if events in the United States are “out of control.” Further, voters who intend to support Republicans in the most pivotal Senate and House elections had significantly less confidence in the federal government’s response to the occurrence of Ebola.

Illustrating the levels of concern at the highest levels, last week President Obama — who is not on a ticket but is supporting fellow Democrats — did something he has rarely done in the past: he cancelled political rallies and fundraisers to take direct involvement in the crisis’ management.

In contrast, recent months have seen Obama attend fundraisers the day a passenger jet was shot down over Ukraine, head directly from his condemnation of James Foley’s beheading to a golf game, and continue his vacation during the riots in Ferguson, Missouri.

The political dimensions of the Ebola crisis in the US are immediately apparent.

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Firstly, the competence of the Obama administration, and particularly the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is being harshly judged.

Confusion around personal protection protocols and the fact that Amber Joy Vinson was permitted to fly from Dallas to Cleveland to visit family last week have shattered the public’s confidence.

Secondly, the blame game of “who voted for what budget cuts” is reverberating throughout debates in the various races: a notoriously muddy area which is likely to cut both ways politically.

And, finally, border security has been called into question, an issue that Obama, who has failed to deliver his long-promised immigration reforms, is already profoundly weak on.

Marco Rubio, a Republican Senator from Florida and a likely 2016 candidate for President, announced Monday he will introduce legislation to create a temporary ban on new visas for nationals of the countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.

The key White House response to the crisis last week was the appointment of Ron Klain as “Ebola Czar.”

A long-time political fixer who was previously chief of staff to vice presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore, Klain is perhaps most famous for being depicted by Kevin Spacey in Recount, the HBO drama about the disputed 2000 election recount. But he is not well known for anything vaguely related to public health.

This politics-heavy response is not merely due to the looming midterms, which, according to the FiveThirtyEight Senate election forecast model, has looked like a probable loss to the Democrats for some time.

Obama will also be keen to avoid the Ebola crisis becoming his "second term curse," the strangely predictable political phenomenon whereby a tired administration is overwhelmed in its final years by crisis and scandal, from Hurricane Katrina, to Clinton’s impeachment scandal, to Iran Contra, to Watergate.

Specifically, Obama will not want his signature — and solitary — domestic policy achievement of healthcare reform, Obamacare, overshadowed by a rolling public health crisis.

But in a larger sense, the contours of Obama’s legacy are already in place, as Ebola crisis or no, history would suggest he is unlikely to achieve much more, especially with a Republican-controlled Congress.

Simply put, he showed that America was capable of electing and re-electing a black man, an historic achievement.

But in respect of almost every other issue, he has merely proven once again that Washington DC is impervious to outsiders spouting high-minded rhetoric about hope and change.

Justin Burke is a special election analyst with the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney, and a journalist with The Australian. Follow him on Twitter: @justinburke


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State of the manufactured crises

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

4 March 2013

"The greatest nation on Earth," President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address this year, "cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next." He could have said the same of his presidency.

The package of indiscriminate spending cuts known as the sequester, which took hold on March 1st, are not only bad for the United States, though they are that. The spending not only takes money out of the American economy at a time when there is too little demand to ensure it can remain in its precarious state of recovery, it also reduces government services across the board, without planning or forethought. The result is an unplanned reduction in government funding that hits essential programs as brutally as less essential ones. The sequester, in short, was designed to be so awful that no responsible government would permit it to take effect.

But in addition to the human suffering and economic disruptions caused by the cuts, sequestration is threatening to derail the second term of Obama's presidency. Even if the Administration were to move on from the sequester, bearing the brunt of the reduced spending, and looking to the next fight, it would continue to find itself beset by the same obstacles and having the same arguments. 

The sequester was a manufactured crisis — Congress building a trap that it sprung on itself when it refused to deactivate it — but another manufactured crisis is just around the corner. That comes on the heels of the debt ceiling crisis of last year, when the US almost defaulted on its debt and had its credit rating downgraded by ratings agency Standard and Poor's because Republicans refused to allow the country to pay for its legal obligations. (That's how the sequester came into being in the first place.)

Then there was the "fiscal cliff", the point on January 1st, 2013, at which a slew of payroll and income tax cuts were scheduled to expire and the sequester in its original form was due to go into effect.  This was solved — sort of — when Congress agreed to permit most of the tax cuts to continue, though not those on taxpayers earning more than $400 thousand a year, nor the payroll tax cut, which meant that all American workers, regardless of income, saw their taxes go up as a result. The sequester, meanwhile, was deferred for two months, permitting it to become the next manufactured crisis in a series of them that arrive with languid regularity.

The next manufactured crisis set to roll into Washington is over the continuing resolution. That's the measure Congress passes to pay for everything the government does. If the resolution doesn't pass before the end of the month, the government will not have the funds it needs to operate, and all the services it provides — ensuring food is safe, keeping national parks open, making sure the environment is clean, and much more — will stop.

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The last time that happened was in 1995, when Congressional Republicans tried to extract concessions from the Clinton administration by threatening a government shutdown. When President Clinton refused to deal, Republicans shut down the government. When the American people made clear how unpopular this action was, Republicans gave in.

Now Congressional Republicans again might threaten to shut down the government unless President Obama agrees to certain measures in their proposed budget, such as spending and entitlement cuts. This, like the few before it, would be a manufactured crisis, because there is no reason Congress can't fund the government. It simply has to pass a law that says, in effect, "fund the government". Then, if  lawmakers would like to cut spending and entitlements, they can propose a law doing so and attempt to pass it through popular vote in both chambers of Congress. (This is better known as "democracy".)

The havoc this series of unnecessary crises is playing with the economy is why President Obama called this pattern of Congressional brinksmanship no way for the United States to conduct business. But it's also presenting problems for Obama's presidency as well.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama outlined a number of policies he would like to pursue over the coming months and years. Many of these, such as immigration, climate change, and gun control, are pressing issues that America must address — and, unlike the sequester, they cannot be solved merely by Congress deciding to stop causing trouble for itself.  

But politicians are humans who have only 24 hours available to them in each day. Having important and unresolved problems before them does not give them time they do not have. As such, if, as they currently are, they busy themselves arguing about problems that aren't real — the fiscal cliff, sequestration, a threatened government shutdown — that means they're not addressing problems that are real, like the millions of undocumented immigrants living inside the US, or the dangerously warming planet, or the millions of Americans still out of work.

A cynical mind might suggest that this is exactly what Republican legislators want. After all, the agenda President Obama laid out is his, not theirs. If Congress is not devoting its time to working out how to enact President Obama's agenda it is, by definition, not enacting President Obama's agenda. The manufactured crises are bad for the country, but they have an upside for people who don't want Obama to do the things he would like to do.

Recent reports have suggested Obama might now be willing to wait until 2014, after the next midterm elections, to pursue his policy goals. At that point, Democrats might again control the House, meaning Republicans will be less able to disrupt his plans.

If so, this would be a mistake. Think back to President George W. Bush's second term. At this time in 2005, Bush was riding high after the electorate had returned him to office. he had bold plans to reform immigration and Social Security. But instead Congress busied itself arguing about whether Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who had been in a coma for decades and had no hope of recovery, must be kept alive against her husband's wishes. 

It was the beginning of the end of the Bush presidency's plans. With continuing distractions in the form of Hurricane Katrina and worsening violence in Iraq, Bush was never able to devote the time to his agenda he would have liked. When 2006 he came around, the public turned on him and he spent the final two years of his presidency a lame duck.

Persuading Republicans to pass Obama's proposals into law will be tough — perhaps impossible. But the President should have the chance to persuade them. Deciding whether America should enact economically destructive spending cuts or whether it should keep the government running at all is a pointless exercise that solves nothing. Congress should at least be arguing about something that matters.


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Election Watch Weekly: Aurora on our minds

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

26 July 2012


The tragic killing in Auorra, Colorado was on everyone's mind this past week and both Obama and Romney toned down their campaign's out of respect for the vicitms. Meanwhile, New York City Michael Bloomberg called on the candidates to  make gun violence a central issue on the campaign trail.

"You know, soothing words are nice, but maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be President of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country. And everybody always says, ‘Isn’t it tragic,’ and you know, we look for was the guy, as you said, maybe trying to recreate Batman. I mean, there are so many murders with guns every day, it’s just got to stop. And instead of the two people – President Obama and Governor Romney – talking in broad things about they want to make the world a better place, okay, tell us how."

Gail Collins says it's well past time for stricter gun laws Roderick Long disagrees and our own Jonathan Bradley explains why it's likely that little will change.

Romney left Tuesday on seven-day international  tour with stops in Britain, Israel and Poland. Romney and Obama both gave speeches at the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference in Reno, Nevada. The President dismissed  the notion that America is in decline and attacked his opponent for failing to provide specifics on his plans for Afghanistan. Romney fired back, criticizing proposed defence cuts and calling for an investigation of national security leaks that supposedly came from the White House.

Morgan Freeman gave $1 million to the Democratic Super Pac Priorities USA.

Around the Web

Five observations about the Romney foreign policy doctrine.

Paul Campos says we "shouldn't be surprised" by the shootings in Auora and ponders the lessons we should draw.

"Among other things, this kind of crime highlights the absurdity of “security theater” – the almost wholly symbolic rigmarole to which Americans subject ourselves in a few symbolic places, such as airports, government buildings and the like. Anybody in this country who wants to kill a lot of people in a crowded public space can do so fairly easily. The fact this almost never happens – and that when it does happen the act almost never has a political motive – indicates how wildly overstated the threat of terrorism is in America today."

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Andrew Sullivan tells Obama to to be  careful to avoid future blunders on the campaign trail.

Looking ahead

Romney will be at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies  tonight, arrive in Israel on Saturday and get to Poland on Monday.

Trivia: What was the nickname of the short lived Progressive Party that was founded in 1912?

Answer to Last Week's Trivia: Thomas Paine

Fun Fact: Who is the only US president to serve non-consecutive terms?


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Campaign Notes: Obama calls for action on violence

By John Barron in Sydney, Australia

25 July 2012

The killing of twelve people at a midnight screening of the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado, early this past Friday has united a nation in grief, yet also divided Americans along predictable lines.

The shooting was made all the more shocking by the everyday nature of the setting: a suburban multiplex on a summer night, showing the latest in a blockbuster franchise — a special treat for holidaying kids, their parents, and twenty-something fans of the superhero series.

A number of movie-goers were in Batman-themed fancy dress, so the tall young man who left the cinema then came back through an emergency exit dressed like a member of a SWAT team didn’t look completely out of place.

Until he set off gas canisters and the shooting on the screen was interrupted by dozens of horribly real gunshots.

Equally disturbing was the meticulous planning by the alleged gunman, 24 year old James Holmes — a high-achieving honours student until a few months ago, when something apparently went very wrong.

Holmes had been a PhD candidate in neuroscience and applied that intelligence to acquiring deadly weapons, armor, a gas mask, and canisters to execute his deadly attack.

He also rigged his apartment with booby traps and reportedly set loud music to a timer — presumably to lure neighbors or police into another deadly ambush.

When he was apprehended, he told the arresting officers he was the Batman character The Joker. His hair and beard had reportedly been dyed red.

While James Holmes is almost certainly suffering from a major mental illness, he is generally being portrayed by the media as a sinister, highly intelligent villain: someone who is evil rather than someone suffering a sickness over which they have no control.

While both President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney cancelled campaign events and have suspended election advertising in Colorado, the politics of such a tragedy are inescapable.

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg said that "soothing words are nice" but immediately called on the candidates to "stand up and tell us what they’re going to do about" preventing such shooting incidents.

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On Sunday, President Obama travelled to Aurora to meet with some of the victims' families and survivors.

The President asked that Americans focus on the victims and the survivors rather than the perpetrator. "I hope that over the next several days, next several weeks, next several months we all reflect on how we can do something about some of the senseless violence that ends up marring this country, but also reflect on all the wonderful people who make this the greatest country on earth."

Its difficult to see, however, that this mass shooting will jolt a divided nation into agreement on gun control any more than last year’s Arizona shootings, which claimed six lives and so nearly the life of Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

The massacre at Fort Hood in 2009, which took a dozen lives, and another at Virginia Tech, which claimed 32 lives in 2007 both failed to bridge the fundamental disagreement between those who see guns as the problem and others who see them as their best hope for protection in a violent world.

Although, after Virginia Tech, state laws to try and prevent mentally ill people purchasing guns were tightened.

Ultimately the issue should perhaps be on mental health services to identify and treat those in danger of becoming so removed from reality that there is no longer a barrier to such terrible actions.

But, of course, health care is an even more contentious issue in America these days than gun control.


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Campaign Notes: The Swiftboating of Mitt Romney?

By John Barron in Sydney, Australia

18 July 2012

It may be a political form of martial art, or perhaps it’s just common sense to attack a rival’s strengths, but certainly Mitt Romney’s central presidential selling point as a business "fixer" now has a large red target painted on it.

The Romney version of his career to date is a simple and compelling narrative: after years on Wall Street turning around ailing businesses, Romney was brought in to save the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games in 1999 and delivered a successful event.

That led to his election as governor of Massachusetts, where he worked with a Democratic majority to get things — including health care — done.

And now he’s running for president as a fixer, a doer — even an economic savior.

It should be a compelling message as America struggles to recover from the longest, deepest economic downturn in eighty years — and for many it is.

But not quite enough.

Only twice since February 2011 has Romney actually led President Obama in the average of national polls; for one week in September last year and for another week in October.

President Obama has held a small but stubborn lead the rest of that time, currently at around 2.5 per cent.

Obama’s done this by taking Romney’s obvious success and turning it into a negative: he’s super-rich, he’s out of touch, he made his money sacking American people and sending jobs off-shore, he doesn’t understand you, he doesn’t care about you.

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In recent days, inconsistencies have emerged over when Romney left the venture capital firm he founded, Bain Capital. He’s always said he left in 1999 to work on the Olympics, yet The Boston Globe has revealed filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) showing Romney was still in charge in 2002.

This matters because some of the most blatant "off-shoring" of jobs by Bain occurred between 1999 and 2002. Was Romney responsible or not?

It also matters because making a false statement to the SEC is a criminal offense.

Further, Romney has so far refused to release his tax returns for the period, and a web of business interests and overseas bank accounts and shell companies in the Bahamas and the Caymans are helping to create an impression that may be very hard to shift: Mitt Romney is all about making money for Mitt Romney, not ordinary people.

“Mitt Romney is not the Solution,” Obama’s latest attack ad claims. “He’s the Problem.”

There are legitimate questions to be raised over his claim to be a Mr Fix-it, and the Obama campaign clearly thinks they have a winning strategy.

Yet at the same time it’s a bit reminiscent of the highly successful (yet utterly reprehensible) attacks on John McCain in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 by surrogates of the Bush campaign. McCain, like Kerry four years later, would have his heroic military record turned against him: McCain must be unstable after all those years in the Hanoi Hilton; Kerry dishonored those who died in Vietnam by turning against the war — and probably lied to get his medals anyway.

Which is not to say Mitt Romney is being "Swiftboated" — not yet anyway.

So far it’s just politics, or what has come to be seen as "just politics."

The irony now being that after years of this ridiculous debate over the release of President Obama’s long form birth certificate, it’s Mitt Romney’s tax returns that have become the latest bundle of paper to be in hot demand from the punditry.

Part of Romney’s hesitation to heed the calls to release those tax returns now must be because he surely knows, whatever they reveal (apart from the known-fact that he’s very rich), they wont silence his critics — just as the number of Americans who don’t believe their president was born in the United States has actually increased since his full birth certificate was published.


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The implications of the healthcare ruling for the presidential race

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

2 July 2012

I would love nothing more than to write a lengthy treatise on the health care case’s implications on constitutional law and the future of American healthcare policy. However, seeing as this is an election blog, I’ll resist the siren song and instead focus on what it means for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Broadly speaking, the Court’s ruling probably won’t be a huge boost to either candidate’s chances. As Kyle Klonidck explains, after the dust settles, the “country’s partisan battle over health care essentially remains unchanged.” The ruling left the law almost entirely intact and thus the political calculus doesn’t change for either candidate much if it all. Obama will continue to defend the Affordable Care Act and Romney will still vow to try and repeal it.

However, there’s no doubt that the decision has large implication for Obama’s legacy. The ACA is the biggest legislative victory for a Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson presided over the implementation of Medicare and Medicaid. Even if Obama ends up as a one term president his name will forever be associated with one of the milestones of American liberalism.

Some speculated that the law being declared unconstitutional would have boosted Obama’s chances by freeing him from the obligation of defending a still unpopular policy. I never  bought this argument. Obama’s reputation was inextricably linked with Obamacare regardless of whether it survived  Striking down the law would just have made the president appear weak and ineffective; strengthening Republican claims that Obama lacks political chops to address the country’s challenges. If anything, the Supreme Court’s validation of the president’s signature legislative accomplishment gives his campaign a renewed sense of direction and a bit of good press.

Still, Team Romney isn’t fretting too much over the ruling. Republicans can continue to run under the banner of repeal, rather than feeling pressed to put forward a comprehensive plan of their own. That’s not bad news for a Republican Party that doesn’t  have a concrete alternative to offer.

Long story short, the ruling was monumental for proponents of liberalism but probably doesn’t do too much to bolster the president’s re-election chances.

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Swing state preview: Ohio

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

25 June 2012

hocking hills

On to Ohio! The Buckeye State has been a bellwether in past elections, having thrown its support behind the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1964. In an earlier post, I claimed that Romney couldn’t win the election without winning Ohio. The always informative Jonathan Bernstein calls such pronouncements rash: still, after reviewing the electoral map, I don’t feel the need to hedge my bets too much. To lose Ohio and still win, Romney would have to perform exceptionally well in the other swing states, including many that are currently leaning towards Obama. Ohio is enough of a bellwether to make this scenario extremely improbable. And while Obama can win without Ohio his path to 270 begins to look significantly more difficult.

Ohio has been steadily losing electoral votes over the past half century but is still the seventh largest state, with 18 electoral votes. Demographically, it's primarily white and working class but has large African American populations in many of the major cities. This political map gives a great sense of its politics by region. Western and Central Ohio, including Cincinnati in the southwest, are conservative, while northeastern Ohio is much more liberal. Less educated working class white voters are increasingly moving towards the Republican Party, which, obviously, is not ideal for Democrats in a state like Ohio. And while Obama beat McCain here in 2008 by 4.7 points, that was still 2.5 points under his national margin. A lot of the swing states are leaning one way or the other but Ohio’s probably about as close to a true 50-50 as we have at this point. In a close election the outcome here could very easily determine the next president.

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Election Watch Weekly: Fed stays steady

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

22 June 2012


Last Friday, Obama issued an executive order halting the depuration of undocumented immigrants who came to the country before they were 16. If the announcement energises the Hispanic electorate it could have large implications on the 2012 elections. Obama explained his position in a Time column and Mitt Romney gave his thoughts in an interview with Bob Schieffer. You can read my take here.

Romney completed a five-day bus tour through six key swing states. The “Every Town Counts” tour was billed as a chance to connect middle class Americans from across the country.

John Karl of the American Broadcasting Company said that reliable Republican sources informed him that Florida Senator Marco Rubio was not being vetted as a potential vice president.

“Although it is possible that Rubio may yet be asked to go through the vetting process, it has been nearly two months since Romney named his long-time aide Beth Myers to run his vice presidential search. The fact that Rubio has not been asked to turn over any documents by now is a strong indication that he is not on Romney’s short list of potential running mates.”

The Romney campaign quickly dismissed the story as false explaining that Rubio was being seriously considered for the position.

The Federal Reserve announced on Thursday that it would continue Operation Twist, its program of buying bonds to spur economic activity. Despite downgrading its outlook for future growth, the Fed has decided not to take further steps to help ease unemployment. Ezra Klein says there's a "scary" implication: the Fed isn't sure it can do much more.

Around the Web

Joel Goldstein outlines the process of selecting a vice president.

An interactive New York Times feature provides "analysis and context to some of the candidate’s truths, half-truths and exaggerations” on issues such as federal spending, job creation and health care.

Andrew Sullivan talks to James Fallows about blogging and the 2012 elections in a segment for the American Review.

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Looking Ahead

We’re still waiting for the Supreme Court to decide the fate of Obamacare. Expect the decision to come out Monday or Thursday. Jonathan Cohn runs over the implications of a few possible scenarios and Orin Kerr explains why impact of the decision might not be as big as many think. The Court will also issue a ruling next week on the constitutionality of Arizona’s immigration law.

Fun Fact: There has been two ties in the electoral college. In 1800 the House of Reps broke the deadlock by picking Thomas Jefferson and in 1824 they chose John Quincy Adams.

Trivia: Which US president was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr.?

Answer to last week's trivia: Daniel Webster


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Swing state preview: Florida

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

8 June 2012


Well that’s embarrassing. I had intended to do these swing state previews in alphabetical order but jumped right from Colorado to Iowa. Hopefully, my understanding of Florida's demographics is better than my ABCs.

Who can forgot 2000, when the outcome of the presidential race remained uncertain as the hanging chads in Florida were examined?

Although the Bush v. Gore election was almost certainly the high water mark of Florida’s electoral influence, the state will stay play an important role in the 2012 election cycle. Over the past sixty years Florida has been amongst the fastest growing states in the nation. The Sunshine State now has the fourth largest population in the US — translating into 29 electoral votes. The expanding population has also greatly diversified the Floridian electorate, as 270 To Win explains:

Influxes of Cubans, retirees, service workers to the theme park economy booming near Orlando and other groups have resulted in a state much more diversified — both economically and politically — than many of its southern brethren.

Obama won the state by about 3 points in 2008 but Mitt Romney and the Republicans are determined to not let that happen again. The GOP is pulling out all the stops: holding their convention in Tampa and pouring resources into the state. Economic trends should work in Romney’s favour here as well. It’s very possible that if it weren’t for the financial crisis Obama would have lost Florida in 2008, but what helped him four years ago could be his undoing this time around. The state has been hit especially hard by the recession, with the unemployment rate remaining well above the national average.

While polls currently show the two candidates deadlocked, the aforementioned factors make Romney a modest favourite here for now. If there’s a silver lining for Obama it’s that he has a lot of routes to 270 that don’t run through Florida. Changing demographics in the southwest mean that winning Florida isn’t as critical for Democrats as in elections past. For Romney though, a victory here is almost a must.

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New jobs report is a real downer

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

4 June 2012

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke

The May jobs report came out on Friday and the numbers weren’t encouraging. The US added only 69,000 jobs, the lowest total in a year and less than half of what most analysts were predicting.  The bad news extended to earlier months as well. The March numbers were adjusted down from 154,000 to 143,000 and the April figures from 115,000 to 75,000. The economic recovery that seemed to be arriving at the beginning of the year has not materialized.

I’ve said before that that it’s not the candidate’s campaigns but the performance of the economy that will ultimately shape and determine the outcome of the election. The factors that favoured Obama a few months now indicate a much more wide open race.

The real importance of the jobs report though isn’t what it means for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Behind these dismal numbers are the faces of millions of Americans out of work and struggling to make ends meet. Americans facing an uncertain future in an economic climate that’s not improving fast enough.

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In the wake of the report, Obama called on Congress to do what it could to try and address the situation. The President specifically referenced several proposals from his 2011 American Jobs Act such as increasing aid to state governments and funding for infrastructure projects as well as tax breaks for small businesses. But, unless you’ve been hiding under a  rock, it should be obvious that Obama doesn’t have the numbers in Congress to get his proposals passed.

However, the lagging economy may inspire the Federal Reserve to take new action. The Fed – America’s central banking system – has a dual mandate to try and create maximum employment and ensure stable prices. The Fed has a variety of tools for achieving these objectives, most notably lowering short term interest rates during a recession to encourage borrowing and spending and raising rates during a boom to stave off inflation. Right now, the rates can't be lowered any further, but many on the left such as Paul Krugman have argued that the Fed should be aggressively using other means to try and increase employment.


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Election Watch Podcast #4: Dick Lugar loses and Obama evolves

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

11 May 2012

It's time for another edition of our intermittent Election Watch podcast! This one comes in two parts, because when Luke and I originally recorded it, we engaged in a lengthy discussion about when and if Barack Obama would declare that he supported gay marriage.  Then, before we could post it on the website, Obama announced that he did support gay marriage. So we went back into the studio unused office and recorded a new segment. Stream and download both parts below.

Download Part 1

Download Part 2

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Campaign Notes: Kick-off in the main game

By John Barron in Sydney, Australia

8 May 2012

Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, has marked the start of his re-election campaign with “kickoff” speeches in two potentially crucial states: Ohio and Virginia.

After more than six months where almost all of the attention has been focused on who would be his Republican opponent, Obama is set to try to remind Americans why he became President in the first place, and ask them to double-down on that bet.

But in doing so he will also be asking voters to accept he has failed to deliver on agenda items like the closing of Guantanamo Bay and a cap and trade scheme on carbon pollution; compromised on incomplete or endangered reforms like Healthcare and financial regulation; and overseen an insipid recovery from the worst financial crisis in eighty years.

Speaking on Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, just a day after unemployment data for April came in just 0.1 per cent lower at 8.1 per cent, President Obama pointedly reminded Ohioans this was not a mess of his making: "It was a house of cards that collapsed in the most destructive crisis since the Great Depression. In the last six months of 2008, even as we were campaigning, nearly three million of our neighbors lost their jobs. Over 800 000 more were lost in the month I took office alone."

Obama revealed the fine line he treads, trying to win credit for turning the US economy around without claiming things are yet back to where they should be: "…our auto industry is back on top of the world, manufacturers started investing again, adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s, businesses got back to the basics, exports surged … and over four million jobs were created in the last two years — more than one million of those in the last six months alone."

But then the President asked the crowd of around 14 000, "Are we satisfied?"

"No!" they duly chorused.

"Of course not," the President concurred. "Too many of our friends and family are still out there looking for work. The housing market is still weak, deficits are still too high, and states are still laying off teachers, first responders. This crisis took years to develop, and the economy is still facing headwinds. And it will take sustained, persistent effort — yours and mine — for America to fully recover. That’s the truth. We all know it.”

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But then the President asked the crowd of around 14 000, "Are we satisfied?"

"No!" they duly chorused.

"Of course not," the President concurred. "Too many of our friends and family are still out there looking for work. The housing market is still weak, deficits are still too high, and states are still laying off teachers, first responders. This crisis took years to develop, and the economy is still facing headwinds. And it will take sustained, persistent effort — yours and mine — for America to fully recover. That’s the truth. We all know it.”

The contrast between Obama’s themes of 2008 and 2012 could not have been starker. Instead of “Hope and Change” it is now “Things are a little bit better than they were, and it wasn’t my fault.”

And little wonder, with such a tepid recovery on his record, that Obama’s main point of attack is on the alternative. Mitt Romney will be a puppet of congressional Republicans who want to cut the heart out of Medicare, tear up Obamacare, and give tax cuts to millionaires while stripping government programs for the poor.

The national polls currently give Obama the edge over Romney by an average of 3.3 per cent. In Virginia, Obama leads Romney by 7 per cent; in Ohio, Obama leads by just 2 per cent; while in the other recent battleground Florida, Romney has a 1 per cent lead.

Obama was the first Democrat to win Virginia since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide, while no Republican has won the White House without taking Ohio. And we all remember the role Florida played in 2000.

Less than six months before Election Day 2012, the bookmakers are putting Obama’s chances of winning a second term at a far-from-certain 59 per cent.

“We are not going back,” the President insisted as the Saturday crowd at Ohio State University cheered its approval.

But the crowd itself may tell an interesting story of its own. OFA, the erstwhile “Organizing for America,” which has reverted to its original “Obama for America” moniker for the campaign, announced on Twitter on Friday they’d received about 25 000 RSVPs for the President’s speech, in a venue that only holds 18 000.

Maybe put off by the prospect of a crush, in the end there were 4000 conspicuously empty seats. Now, to be fair, that is still about twice the crowd even the college-kid favourite, Republican Ron Paul, has mustered at a rally this year, but an empty seat is an empty seat — and someone who says they support you but stays at home should be a legitimate worry for the Obama campaign.

But as Obama’s kick-off speech reached it’s climax, that crowd of 14 000 was making more than enough noise to fill those empty seats. “If you’re willing to stick with me,” Obama proclaimed over their applause, “if you're willing to fight with me, and press on with me; if you’re willing to work even harder in this election than you did in the last election, I guarantee you — we will move this country forward”.

And so it begins.


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Lessig on campaign financing

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

27 April 2012

Larry Lessig has a thought provoking piece over at The Atlantic on campaign finance reform, arguing that until we do something about the role of money in politics it will be almost impossible to address other challenges. Frustrated that neither political party is making any attempt to fix the problem, he argues for citizens to nominate a third party candidate through Americans Elect who will bring the issue to the forefront of the election.  If the nominee can get more than 15 per cent of the vote in six national polls they will be invited to participate in the presidential debates, and perhaps force Mr. Romney and President Obama to talk about campaign financing.  Many Democrats have worried that Americans Elect will hurt President Obama’s chances of re-election, but Professor Lessig-who is liberal-thinks it would be worth the costs:

 Let both major party candidates then address this issue. If the consequence is that Romney loses to Obama because of it, then Obama will have some mandate to return to the issue again. If the consequence is that Obama loses to Romney because of it, then maybe the next would-be-reformer president will carry through on the reform he promised. And if the unimaginable happens -- that a true reform candidate captures the imagination of America and wins -- then maybe we can finally address this, the most important issue in American politics today. Just maybe.

 I share Professor Lessig’s frustration that the issue has been absent from the campaign and that President Obama made no attempt in his first term to try and reform to the system. I’m sceptical though that having campaign financing mentioned in a debate or two would do much to change the political salience of the issue.  After all, the 2010 Citizens United decision put the question at the centre of public debate for a few weeks, but hasn’t led either of the parties to offer much in the way of reform.  In any case, changes to the way we conduct elections are long overdue. Choosing politicians the same way over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

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Cool. Cool cool cool.

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

27 April 2012

The Karl Rove-founded American Crossroads group has released this commercial attacking Barack Obama for being "cool." Much of the footage comes from Obama's recent "slow jam the news" appearance on Jimmy Fallon, which charmed the Internet and infuriated Republicans in equal proportion.

Kevin Drum doesn't think it works, writing "this one makes Obama look a little too much like Will Smith, and I don't think the heartland really has anything against Will Smith." Greg Sargent sees a clear message: "This ad is basically a way of saying, See? We told you he was all slick and empty talk. You fell for it. Look what it got you."

As David Frum wrote in New York magazine last year, Republicans have a very different view of Obama than the rest of America:

Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system .... Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy ­errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action phony doomed to inevitable defeat.

Notably, many of the attacks conservatives have been making against the President are based on their own understanding of him: the GOP primaries were rife with teleprompter jokes, for instance. The "cool" commercial follows in this vein; Republicans are convinced Obama is a preening fraud who coasts on the cultish devotion he cultivates among his supporters. Is the rest of America open to this interpretation? (Or, at least, would they agree with the American voter who told me recently that she disliked the Fallon appearance because it was undignified for a president to participate in a talk show sketch?)

Meanwhile, Jennifer Rubin has her own problems with the Obama image:

I found that irksome because I’m tired of the faux sophistication mixed with fake down-homeness (characterized by dropping “g’s”).

Possibly fair! But on that "dropping gs" thing: Is there a politician anywhere in America who could correctly pronounce gerunds and still get elected? This affectation is one as necessary as wearin' a flag pin or endin' a speech with "Gold Bless America." Over-enunciation is such a sure sign of snobbery that no one running for an office as esteemed as the presidency would dare indulge in it.

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Campaign Notes: Money matters

By John Barron in Sydney, Australia

26 April 2012

If having lots of money were all you need to get elected President of the United States then the likes of Ross Perot, Steve Forbes, Donald Trump, or Jon Huntsman could have been sliding their feet under the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.

Happily, that will only happen if they sneak past the Secret Service at a White House dinner — which on recent evidence is not entirely out of the realm of possibility, but would presumably only be for a few short moments of pondering what might have been.

No, money alone will not win you the Presidency, particularly if we are talking about a personal fortune rather than money from a legion of enthusiastic supporters.

Yet money can be both a reflection of a candidate’s support and a means to generate more of that support through spending on campaign activities and advertising.

As Mitt Romney showed during his now all-but-victorious campaign for the Republican Party presidential nomination, having more money than your opponent can turn a potential primary loss into a win.

Time and again since January, Romney wheeled out the big financial guns to bombard his opponents with negative television ads. First Newt Gingrich got the Romney-treatment in Florida after his strong showing in South Carolina, and once Newt was taken down, it was Rick Santorum’s turn.

Mitt Romney may have become the nominee even if he didn’t outspend his rivals by 10 to one or more in some crucial states like Michigan and Wisconsin, but it would surely have taken him a lot longer.

His sealing of the deal has come at a cost.

Financial disclosures for March have been released, and as Romney and President Barack Obama get on their marks and get set for the general election campaign their bank balances are rather unbalanced:

Cash On Hand in April

  • Mitt Romney: $10.1 million.
  • Barack Obama: $104 million.

Yes, there’s a small but significant decimal point on Romney’s bank statement. On those numbers alone it would be “game over,” as now Romney would face being outspent by 10 to one.

But that’s not the whole story. Those numbers don’t take into account the so-called SuperPACs, like former Bush advisor Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, and it’s secretive sibling Crossroads GPS, which have hauled in $99.8 million since last year and aim to spend three times that amount this year.

The SuperPACs and 501(c)4s (which for tax purposes are non-profit social welfare organisations) can take unlimited contributions, and in the case of 501(c)4s like GPS, they never need to disclose where the money is coming from.

We do know that someone penned a $10 million cheque for Crossroads GPS recently — we just can’t ever read their signature.

While that $99.8 million doesn’t belong to Romney’s campaign, it will certainly be spent boosting Republicans and tearing down Democrats — Barack Obama in particular.

Pro-Democratic SuperPACs have been formed as well, but they have struggled. The most closely aligned to President Obama has just $5 million in the bank.

Luckily then for Obama, his financial disclosures reveal he had more than half a million individual donors in March alone — close to 200 000 of whom have never given to his campaign before. While few of those Obama donors may ever be in a position to write a cheque for $10 million, they can all give up to $2500 this election – a potential wad of $1.2 billion.

So whether it’s coming in big bundles of loot from a relatively small number of wealthy donors, or small amounts from hundreds of thousands of less affluent supporters, it’s looking like the contest for money could be pretty close this year.

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