September 15, 2012

Obama vs. Romney: The United States Before the Election

Albert Scharenberg

With the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, the presidential election campaign has entered the final stage. Both sides are fighting for the election as if they were fighting a last stand.

And indeed: Even if the actual differences in the policies of Republicans and Democrats are by no means as great as they appear in the political-cultural discourse, this time the election is about the course of the country against the backdrop of the “American decline.”

President Barack Obama has for months maintained a small but stable lead over Mitt Romney in all the polls, which increased again after the national convention. Following the unimaginative Republican National Convention that lacked any content and the comparatively dazzling show by the Democrats for the nomination of Obama, many observers view the election as a foregone conclusion. But this is by no means the case.

The Republican March to the Far Right

The reasons for this included the Republicans’ obstructionist politics and the business world’s turn to the right.

Barack Obama, elected to the White House on a wave of enthusiasm after two terms of George W. Bush and the outbreak of the real estate and financial crisis, has been under massive pressure since taking office. Immediately after January 2009, the far right-wing Tea Party movement formed. It mobilized a counterattack facilitated by racism—a backlash against the first Afro-American president in the history of the U.S.—and relying heavily on substantial financial support from right-wing companies and private donors.

From the beginning, Obama’s most important domestic reform, the Affordable Health Care Act, as well as his economic programs met with massive criticism from the conservative opposition. As a result of the rapid rise of the Tea Party movement and the ongoing economic weakness in the U.S., the Democrats suffered dramatic losses in the congressional 2010 elections: Their majority in the Senate shrank significantly, and the Republicans gained the majority in the House of Representatives.1

From the very start, the Republicans’ politics were solely directed at winning back the power of the White House. The party engaged in obstructionist politics that could hardly be matched. Even initiatives to support the economy were regularly rejected solely for one purpose: so that the poor economic data would make Obama’s re-election more difficult or even impossible. Furthermore, Republicans do not hesitate to lie through their teeth in order to win votes: Obama quotes are ripped out of context and turned into the opposite; fictitious numbers are provided as “proof;” scientific discoveries such as climate change are degraded to pure “opinions;” and “facts” are invented (“Obama wants to take your guns away”).

What makes the whole thing even worse is the fact that in their effort to provide what they claim to be “objective” reporting, most of the mainstream media now largely abstains from commentary. However, the formal balance of “the one says this; the other says that” has nothing to do with objectivity, as we know. Aaron Sorkin, author of the television series “West Wing” and “Newsroom,” got right to the heart of it recently in an interview: If tomorrow all the Republicans in Congress claimed that the earth is a disc, said Sorkin, The New York Times would title an article the next day as: “Democrats and Republicans Disagree about the Form of the Earth.”2

The Rightward Turn of the Business World

The radicalization of the Republican Party, however, is not only explained by the rise of the Tea Party. It is much more a manifestation of a rightward turn in the business world.

Four years ago moderate reforms like the expansion of environmentally friendly technologies or the re-regulation of certain industries (especially banking) met with approval among some entrepreneurs. Since then the endorsement even of e small reforms has disappeared, and with it has vanished much of the support for the president’s agenda. Despite the financial meltdown, despite Deepwater Horizon, despite the visible impact of climate change, despite deadly mining accidents on account of insufficient safety measures, evidently corporate America overwhelmingly desires a return to deregulation and “trickle down.” And they now apparently want, after decades of continually falling tax rates, not to pay any taxes at all.

Furthermore, a decision by the Supreme Court, which received far too little attention in Germany, substantially shifted the balance of power in elections: In the “Citizens United” (2010) case, the court ruled that the government could not restrict the independent political expenditures of corporations. Donations to so-called Super PACs that support the candidates must no longer be disclosed publicly. As a result, the financial expenditures for presidential election campaigns have increased to an almost unlimited amount—multiple billions of dollars will be spent by November.3

In recent months, the donations for Mitt Romney exceeded those for Obama. That does not bode particularly well for the prospects of Obama’s election campaign.

This is particularly unsettling because throughout the entire summer Romney bumbled from one blunder straight to the next. It was all too visible what a weak and highly vulnerable candidate the former governor of Massachusetts is—and not only because of his pale appearance and his constant maneuvering on central issues, but rather above all due to “private” matters. Romney is the first presidential candidate ever who refuses to disclose all his tax returns; apparently, he fears that the disclosure requested by all sides would do more damage to his candidacy than its ongoing secrecy. As the CEO of Bain Capital, he outsourced massive numbers of jobs abroad, while he set up accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands for himself. In Paul Ryan, he also made a rock-hard austerity politician and a fanatical opponent of abortion (without any exceptions) his running mate.

Romney/Ryan are betting on the short memory of voters by dumping responsibility for the faltering economy solely on Obama—as if it were not the policies of Bush that drove the country into the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s. They want to further reduce the already low taxes for the rich (Romney last paid taxes on his income at a rate of only 14%; under his own new plan, he would pay taxes of less than one percent). Simultaneously, Romney/Ryan complain about the budget deficit, which would rise even more due to this measure. At the same time, they do not provide any concrete information about where they would make cuts, but only where they do not want to make cuts—namely for military expenditures.

Nonetheless, the Republican agenda is clear: Vice-Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan, a darling of the right-wing Tea Party scene, is the author of the uncompromising House Republican budget plan. And also on the state level, the Republican governors are cautious: They are calling for massive salary reductions in government services to compensate for the budget holes. Recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s ultimately successful attempt to curb the collective bargaining rights of unions representing government workers became known. Corporations and Republicans seem to be in agreement with their plan to break the last real stronghold of U.S. labor unions, the government sector, and finally make the country a labor-free zone.4

The Attack on Universal Suffrage

The Republicans certainly have the required resources—financially as well as ideologically—to challenge Obama’s poll lead in the last weeks of the election.

However, it does not necessarily depend on who is ahead in the national polls—or even in the election itself. Because of the antiquated U.S. electoral system, the election is decided not by total votes, but on the state level. In the history of the U.S., it has already happened four times that the candidate with the most votes did not become president. Most recently, George W. Bush received over half a million votes less than his opponent Al Gore in 2000—an election that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. That is due to the fact that each of the 50 states decides separately about the winner. Irrespective of his lead in the total votes, he receives all the electors, who in turn elect the president. A lead in national polls therefore says little, particularly if it is narrow, about who will ultimately win the election.

The electoral system also causes the election campaign of the parties to be focused mainly on those states in which the result is still undecided. In reality, this means that an election campaign is seriously run in fewer than a dozen states—the states in which one party is significantly ahead are simply written off by the other party.

For this reason, the election is primarily being fought in certain swing states—above all, Florida, Virginia and Ohio.

For the Republicans, this has become a gateway for a perfidious strategy: in swing states in which they won the gubernatorial elections in 2010, they have systematically passed laws that tie participation in elections to the presentation of a photo ID. What sounds self-evident in countries like Germany is not at all in the U.S., since many people here do not have a passport and quite a few also do not have a driver’s license. Above all, Afro-Americans and Latinos are affected by this—and thus exactly those electoral groups that helped put Obama in office in 2008. In states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, almost ten percent of the registered voters are affected by this measure, which could decide the election.5

In effect, the Republicans have eliminated the right to universal suffrage. And they go even further: In Ohio, for example, they have enforced that the voting centers in some areas are only open on election day, which is a regular workday in the U.S., while they are open for multiple days in other areas. It goes without saying that the former are Democratic and the later Republican strongholds. Finally, the officeholders here even refused to implement a court ruling that forbid this practice.6

So it doesn’t look good for the oldest democracy in the world: While the Supreme Court with the “Citizens United” case gave companies almost unlimited influence on the election campaign, voting rights are simultaneously being withdrawn from many poor people and minorities.

The Republicans are doing all this in a clearly calculated way and for one single reason: because they only represent one minority, namely that of white men as the core group of their electoral base. After their turn to the right—with immigrant bashing, barely concealed racism, fanatical opposition to abortion—and in the face of the rapidly changing demographic composition of the population, with strong growth primarily in the share of Latinos, the Republicans can only win the elections in this way.

Obama’s Balance Sheet

President Barack Obama, despite a successful national convention for the Democrats, continues to be under massive pressure from the right. This is primarily due to the fact that the results of his reform efforts, as measured by the high expectations, are downright poor, both domestically and in the area of foreign policy. Above all, however, the economic recovery has stalled; the official unemployment rate continues to be above eight percent; unofficially, it is roughly twice as high.

Accordingly, voters are disappointed, both in the Democrats’ core electoral base and especially in the Occupy Wall Street movement that formed in the fall of 2011 and made the left politically visible in the U.S. for the first time in decades. As a result of this movement, the growing social inequality has again become a subject and also been addressed by the mainstream.7

The Obama/Biden team appears to have realized now that it will be hard to win the majority of the business community. For this reason, the Democrats’ electoral campaign is increasingly referring to the Occupy movement—if not in name then in messaging—taking a populist bent that at least verbally addresses social inequality, chastises the misconduct of Wall Street and openly focuses on the middle class and higher taxes for the wealthy. They are also no longer afraid to aggressively defend their own policies, above all the health care reform, as the convention demonstrated.

Nonetheless, Obama is pursuing a downright risky course with this strategy in light of the immense influence of large corporations on U.S. policies. Even though the president will never turn into a fundamental opponent of neoliberal corporate dominance, his critique of certain business practices further increases Wall Street’s mistrust of a second term for Obama.

If he is re-elected, Obama will fall under tremendous pressure from corporations; an abandonment of neoliberalism is thus not to be expected. But another thing is also clear: If Romney/Ryan are elected, the Republicans will interpret their victory as a mandate for a general attack on the achievements of the New Deal.

Albert Scharenberg is Co-Director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s New York Office.

1 See Albert Scharenberg, Kick it like Roosevelt,

2 See Katrina vanden Heuvel, Two Cheers for “The Newsroom”,, 9.8.2012.

3 See Robert B. Reich, Mitt Romney and the New Gilded Age, in: “The Nation”, June 27, 2012; Ethan Young, Obama, Romney and the Fight for the White House,

4 See John Nichols, To Begin The World Over Again: A Politics of Wisconsin, Occupy, and the Next Left,

5 See James P. Hare, Steal the Vote. Voter Repression in the 2012 Election, (forthcoming).

6 See Steven Rosenfeld, Ohio’s GOP Secretary of State Ignores Court Order To Expand Weekend Voting,, September 4, 2012.

7 See Ethan Earle, Occupy Wall Street Turns One: Learning to Stand, Learning to Speak, (forthcoming).