Election campaigns can produce surprises

Will Obama’s latest economic measures be seen as anything but too little, too late?

It is a truism in U.S. politics that, in an election year, once the Labour Day weekend passes, that’s when the real campaign begins. With most primaries done, the polls show a decided advantage for the Republicans, with generic poll numbers giving them a 6-10 point lead. The Democrats are realizing it is now a matter of cutting their losses in order to preserve control of Congress. With less than 60 days left before voters head to the polls, most pundits are predicting the GOP will win the House of Representatives and possibly even the Senate .

The economy continues to be the overriding issue. August numbers have clearly indicated a slowdown in the economic recovery, with unemployment at 9.6% and annual GDP growth stuck below 2%. Housing starts are down and the largest stimulus package in U.S. history has been mostly spent. The Republicans will benefit from the situation, not because of better policies, but rather from America’s bad mood. Some call it anger and point to the Tea Party’s growing influence as proof; others like Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson call it a temper tantrum by voters against the incumbents who happen to be the Democrats. Whatever it is, it is real and it is no fun.

Barack Obama is on the hustings this week, proposing new economic measures like an additional $50 billion infrastructure program, along with an extension of a business tax credit program for research. More announcements should be expected in the coming weeks. Already the Republicans are calling it too little, too late.

By the latter part of September, expect the GOP to roll out their proposals to jumpstart the economy and the real donnybrook will begin. The issue of the extension of the Bush tax cuts will be front and centre as they are due to expire come January. Within the Democratic party, the divisions are already beginning to show as the Blue Dog Democrats appear to be closer to the GOP, who wish to see these cuts maintained and fear that any change by the Obama administration will be seen as a tax increase. Meanwhile, Obama Democrats are lambasting Republicans for a continuation of the policies that led to the Great Recession.

Agree with him or not, Obama has kept many of his promises. The rap against the president is that his agenda was not sufficiently focused on jobs. This is why his latest political salvo is a means to corner the Republicans. Counting on the fact that the memories of voters can be short, the Democrats are essentially daring the Republicans to oppose a major infrastructure project and a business tax credit. Once it returns, Congress will likely be unable to translate these latest proposals into actual policy, so the voters will be faced with a choice of  ‘would-be’ policies.

Will this be enough for the Democrats? The short answer is NO. But it might mean the difference between a wave election and a setback. A recent WSJ/NBC poll had Obama’s approval ratings in the mid-40s, the Democrats’ favourables in the low 30s, and the Republicans trailing at 24%. A CNN poll also showed no movement for the Republicans, but rather a sour mood about the economy and the incumbents. A campaign is usually a time for debate and reflection, but it can be an occasion for surprises. The current Democratic thrust may be the last (and only) opportunity for the campaign itself to make a difference.