x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Obama and Romney vie for the 'jobless vote'

With 13 million in the US unemployed, the state of the economy will be a decisive factor when people go to the polls in November.

ALLENTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA // Franklin Moyes pulled his cap down over his eyes outside the offices of Pennsylvania CareerLink, a private job recruitment centre on the east side of this town.

One of America's nearly 13 million jobless, Mr Moyes, 32, comes here every day looking for work, he said. It is the kind of neighbourhood where half the shops are boarded up, weeds occupy empty lots and "ladies play for half price" at Buzzy's Billiards Hall, across the street.

"I will do whatever it takes to get a job," said Mr Moyes last Thursday. "But it's rough."

"Tough" is how Barack Obama, the US president, described it in neighbouring Ohio on Friday in response to official job figures that showed the US unemployment rate stuck at 8.2 per cent.

Who is likely to get more Americans back to work is becoming the crucial issue in voters' minds as they consider their choice in the presidential election in November.

Speaking on a two-day tour of Ohio and Pennsylvania, Mr Obama said the 80,000 new jobs added nationwide in June were a "step in the right direction". He won the two states, which have large manufacturing industries, comfortably in 2008, but the Republicans have identified them as battleground states this year because of the stuttering economic recovery.

Both Mr Obama and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney - who described the June unemployment figures as "unacceptably high" - know that little can be done to affect the rate significantly before the November 6 election.

Not since Franklin D Roosevelt in 1936 has an incumbent US president won re-election with an unemployment rate higher than 7.2 per cent, the number at which Ronald Reagan secured a second term in 1984.

Reagan had wrested the presidency from Jimmy Carter when unemployment stood at 7.5 per cent. And George H W Bush lost his bid for re-election to Bill Clinton - "it's the economy, stupid" - with an unemployment rate of 7.4 per cent in 1992.

It is still the economy, the only issue that more than half of Americans say will be crucial to their vote in November, according to a CNN/ORC International poll released on Tuesday.

Key to winning in November therefore is to convince voters that "you have a better plan than the other guy", said Richard Benedetto, a professor of journalism at American University and a former White House correspondent who covered six presidential elections.

Perceptions are crucial, said Mr Benedetto. Mr Romney will benefit from the latest economic numbers. But Mr Obama will take some comfort from suggestions that the economic trend is positive and that optimism is returning.

The CNN/ORC poll found that 60 per cent of Americans said they believe the economy will be doing well in 2013.

In his remarks on Friday, Mr Obama said he wanted to "get back to a time" when middle-class families had security. Mr Romney also invoked the middle class when he told supporters in New Hampshire that "this kick in the gut has to end".

Mr Romney is pushing for change. Mr Obama is cautioning stability.

"Obama's message is that he's doing the best he can. The trend is in the right direction, and to go back would be disastrous," said Mr Benedetto.

It is a message that resonates with Mr Moyes who said he would vote for Mr Obama in November and that blaming him for the economy ignored the problems he inherited.

But Nathan Woodring, 49, disagreed. A bus driver with the local school district, Mr Woodring was looking for part-time work to supplement an income he said barely kept a roof over his head. After four years of Mr Obama, he said, it was time for a change.

"I believe in less invasive government," Mr Woodring said. "I believe you are what you make of yourself."

Mr Woodring said he was voting for Mr Romney, however, only because that was the only alternative.

Mr Benedetto suggested that while historically the poor economy ought to favour Mr Romney, the Republican candidate's greatest weakness was that much of his support was "negative", a vote against Mr Obama.

Such support did not work for Democratic candidate John Kerry in 2004 when he lost to the incumbent George W Bush, Mr Benedetto pointed out.

There is a widespread perception among many here that Mr Romney, a multimillionaire who made his money in venture capitalism, is too wealthy to understand the concerns of those out of work or worried about losing their jobs.

Abandoned factories lie in ruin along the banks of the river in the centre of Allentown, a reminder of its not-so-distant industrial past. In 2009, the biggest private employer in town, Mack Trucks, relocated to North Carolina, taking 600 jobs with it. Unemployment in the city peaked then at nearly 10 per cent.

The rate has since come down to 8 per cent. But suspicions of the very wealthy - the ones who own factories that no longer employ people here - remain rife.

Joe Marcello, a retired city supervisor, said he had not decided for whom to vote. But at 64, Mr Marcello said he was leaning toward Mr Obama.

"The rich always get rich. You can't trust them," he said.

And to Mr Moyes, who had secured a job interview at a local call centre on Monday, Mr Romney was simply "the kind of people we ought to stay away from".