x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Obama cannot afford to be economical with the truth

With Romney breathing down his neck, he has to show he can move the US economy forward.

WASHINGTON // Last week belonged to Republicans. This week, Democrats have their turn in the national media spotlight as the faithful gather in North Carolina for their party's convention.

With Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, running neck-and-neck with him in the polls, the main focus of the president, Barack Obama, will not be the audience in Charlotte but the undecided voters at large.

Four years ago, they voted for hope and change. Now he will be asking them to give him four more years in the White House, despite a struggling economy and unemployment of more than 8 per cent.

While the US economy avoided a meltdown after the global financial crisis between 2007 and 2009, the recovery has been slow.

A US$830 billion (Dh3.04 trillion) stimulus plan in February 2009 saw Mr Obama's administration save some of the biggest names in the American car industry but it also added to a budget deficit set to top US$1 trillion this year.

High unemployment and the slow improvement in the housing market have turned the economy - traditionally the main issue in presidential elections - into practically the only issue and help explain why the presidential race remains so close.

Polls suggest that Mr Obama leads Mr Romney comfortably on every other issue. But they also indicate that Mr Romney - whose private-sector achivements Republicans are touting as one of his main credentials for the job - is narrowly perceived as better able to improve the economy.

This is a concern to Democrats, who have to counter the argument that a "businessman might be a good addition to the conversation around the economy", said Steve McMahon, a media consultant to the former Democratic presidential candidate, Howard Dean.

General frustration with the slowness of the recovery does not mean Americans are not "still optimistic" about their future, he said, a point that Democrats need to make in Charlotte.

"Notwithstanding the slow progress on the economy, people understand that the president is there to take us somewhere," said Mr McMahon. "Mitt Romney would take us back. The president would take us forward."

That was also the message Mr Obama - whose campaign slogan this time around is "forward" - was spreading during a tour of four swing states that began on Saturday in Iowa and that will take him through Colorado, Ohio and Virginia before he arrives in North Carolina on Thursday.

Mr Obama described Mr Romney as a "rerun candidate" and lampooned last week's Republican convention. "What they offered over those three days was more often than not an agenda that was better suited for the last century," Mr Obama told a crowd in Iowa. "You might as well have watched it on a black and white TV."

Yet the president needs to offer more than just criticism if he is to reach out to voters in the middle, said Christian Whiton, a former state department official in the administration of George W Bush and a principal with DC International, a political risk assessment consultancy firm.

"For Obama to get re-elected amid what is not a stellar economy, there has to be some sort of change in tone," he said. "It can't just be the sort of high rhetoric he used in '08 and it can't just be blaming Bush."

Mr Whiton also suggested that Republicans had missed an opportunity by not making more of Mr Obama's foreign-policy record.

Polls suggest Americans are happy with the job Mr Obama has done on foreign policy and trust him over Mr Romney, who has no foreign policy experience.

Democrats will spend at least part of this week touting what they will describe as Mr Obama's achievements abroad - ending the Iraq war, winding down US involvement in Afghanistan and ordering the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

With little daylight between the candidates on a range of issues, from the Afghanistan withdrawal to Syria, the Romney camp has largely left foreign policy alone.

Nevertheless, said Mr Whiton, foreign policy ought to be a "huge weakness" for Mr Obama.

"Romney has not explained how the Obama administration has been feckless on the Arab Spring and stood by as the Muslim Brotherhood has taken over Egypt."

Barring an Israeli attack on Iran - which Mr Whiton suggested would help Mr Obama's re-election bid - American voters are unlikely to be distracted from the economy, however.

Voters are faced with "competing visions", said Mr McMahon. Where Mr Romney's challenge last week was to introduce himself to voters, Mr Obama's challenge this week is to explain his record and achievements, not just talk about the problems he inherited.

"He needs to talk about the future and what kind of economy we want to have for our children: the kind of economy that George Bush and the folks on Wall Street created, or one that works for everyone."