x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

On the US economy, it's now or never for President Obama

The American economy is weak, its recovery fragile and, worst of all, there appears to be no functioning strategy in place to get Americans back to work. Is it too late for Barack Obama to turn things around?

Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National

The announcement last week that the unemployment rate in the United States had crept back up to 9.1 per cent presents a challenge for President Barack Obama and an opportunity for his opponents. The publication of these latest figures revealed a 0.1 per cent rise in unemployment last month and a total of 13.9 million US residents now looking for work. In truth, the figures only confirmed what was already obvious: the world's largest economy is weak, its recovery from the darkest days of the global economic crisis is fragile and, worst of all, there appears to be no functioning strategy in place to get the US back in employment.

Obama has called this a "bump in the road to recovery", cautioning critics not to judge him too soon, that his policies will soon reap the necessary rewards. But in a political system that favours a near-constant election season, the president is close to running out of time. His approval ratings, particularly in matters of domestic policy, have been in steep decline for months and the next primary season is just around the corner.

Indeed, only six months after the Democrats took a mauling in the congressional mid-term elections, the Ames straw poll for Republican Party candidates is less than 10 weeks away. The event will be staged on the campus of Iowa State University on August 13.

Of course, President Obama needn't be overly concerned just yet, the road to next year's party convention in North Carolina will naturally be relatively smooth for him - incumbents are rarely challenged from within during primary season, unless their name is Jimmy Carter. However, his Republican Party opponents will continue to make much of spiralling petrol prices, rising unemployment and a generally gloomy economic outlook as they seek their party's nomination.

The straw poll, a precursor to the Iowa caucus in February next year, is seen as offering a good early indication of who will take the challenge to Obama. Quite why, is another matter.

In five times of asking since 1979, the straw poll for Republicans has only once correctly predicted the name of the next president, when George W Bush secured 31 per cent of the vote in 1999 to see off the challenges of Steve Forbes and Elizabeth Dole and nine other hopefuls. Mitt Romney swept to victory four years ago, while John McCain trailed in next to last in that same congested contest. The former governor of Massachusetts would follow this a few months later with a strong showing in the Iowa caucus proper, finishing second behind Mike Huckabee, although his performance was not considered good enough by those who expected him to pack a much bigger punch. With little momentum to propel his campaign forward, Romney would later splutter and finally stall once McCain began to consistently outrun him in the primary season. The rest, of course, is history.

Now, having announced his intention to run once again in 2012, Romney has already managed to deliver a truly great line. "That's not a bump, that's Americans," he told a group of adoring conservative activists in response to the news of rising unemployment and, specifically to Obama's brush-off of the bad numbers.

Romney has entered an intriguing race. Sarah Palin, currently an undeclared candidate but not expected to remain that way, has not yet emerged as the dominant force many expected her to be, while Tim Pawlenty's slick marketing campaign, with its stirring talk of "in order for America to take a new direction, it's going to take a new president", has not been matched by surefooted performances on the road.

Whether Romney can now make further ground is a matter of conjecture, but equally, while Obama can forget about straw polls for the moment, he needs to fix the US's 's ailing economy soon if he is not to be undone next year.