Brian Wilson: False start after an Olympic blunder
IN a special despatch from America, Brian Wilson tracks the see-sawing fortunes of Barack Obama and rival Mitt Romney
One of the most prominent news stories in the US over the past week has involved the revelation that the Olympic team will march under the stars and stripes wearing uniforms that were made in China.
It does seem like something of an own-goal on the part of both Ralph Lauren and the US Olympic Committee. The Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, has declared himself “so upset, they should take all the uniforms, put them in a big pile and burn them”.
Six Democratic senators are bringing forward a Team USA Made in America Act in an effort to ensure that such an outrage never happens again. The US Olympic Committee is wallowing in attrition but says it is too late to do anything about the London-bound uniforms.
It is a story that feeds directly into one of the great American resentments – the belief that unemployment and the failure of so many sturdy American companies over the past couple of decades is due to the outsourcing of jobs to low-wage economies.
They are doubtless right, just as the same thing has happened to the manufacturing sector of our own economy. Nobody likes it but we have become largely inured to a recognition that the process is inevitable and that other jobs must be created in their stead.
In the US however, there is a persistent sense of moral outrage about this method of destroying American jobs which stems from a strong protectionist streak in the American psyche. While advocating free trade around the world, there is much less belief in it where the interests of blue collar Americans are adversely affected.
It is a theme which, for reasons other than the sartorial elegance of the US Olympic team, has become extremely prominent in election year. Bill Clinton’s maxim about what decides elections – “it’s the economy, stupid” – looks more apposite than ever. The battleground is specifically about the current level of unemployment which plays back into the question of who is better qualified to protect American jobs.
Seen from afar, Barack Obama should be a shoo-in for re-election in November. A graceful world statesman, with wit and style, he also seems to have handled the global economic crisis reasonably well. In our own country, his preferred strategy of boosting the economy in order to create jobs is widely seen as a preferable alternative to the austerity mantra that we are lumbered with.
But, plaudits abroad do not always turn into votes at home. As the convention season approaches, Obama is no better than neck-and-neck with a distinctly uninspiring Republican opponent.
Even after a long and wounding battle through the primaries, Mitt Romney has emerged as a far more serious challenger than seemed likely just a few months ago – and that is largely the reflection of economic discontent. Unemployment is running at just over 8 per cent, a statistic that most European economies would give their eye-teeth for.
But Americans hate and fear unemployment for very fundamental reasons. In the absence of the safety net which a welfare state provides, the loss of a job in the US is widely associated with other catastrophic consequences, including the imminent prospect of foreclosure, unaffordable insurance and pension insecurity.
So a recent rising trend in unemployment spells seriously bad news for Obama. It can be rationally pointed out that the American situation is much better than in many countries; that his policies have minimised job losses rather than encouraged them; and that things would have been a great deal worse if the US had taken Republican advice and pursued roughly the same approach that is driving up unemployment in Europe.
It remains to be seen how effective these arguments are when set against the simple message that no president since Roosevelt has sought re-election with unemployment at this level. Actually, Roosevelt sought it and won when unemployment was at 32 per cent, but that too is an argument which is unlikely to cut much ice in the television adverts that will bombard the American public between now and November.
But then enter the other great issue of the week – the history of Bain Capital and its founder, former company president and CEO, one Mitt Romney. At a time when Romney should have been on the front-foot, attacking Obama over the unemployment figures, he has been fighting an unconvincing rearguard action against sustained Democrat attacks on his business record.
For the unfortunate truth is that Bain Capital was heavily involved in taking over companies which tended to go bankrupt after being asset-stripped or else sold overseas. Romney likes to present himself as a job creator, through Bain Capital’s record as an investor in business start-ups which went on to succeed – the two best-known examples are Staples and Domino’s Pizza.
But the Obama campaign has very deliberately set out to turn that plus into a very big minus – taking a lead from what happened to John Kerry in 2004 when his Vietnam war hero status was viciously undermined by the Republican-funded Swift Boat Veterans campaign which called Kerry a liar.
In Romney’s case, the Bain Capital question mark has been around for decades. When he stood against Ted Kennedy for the Senate in 1994, it was used against him to devastating effect. He should certainly have seen it coming when he put himself on the presidential campaign trail, but apparently hoped it would just go away.
Now,however, it has been rudely awaked by the Boston Globe’s revelation that he was apparently untruthful about the point at which his active involvement ceased – the disputed period covering an awful lot of “outsourcing” of American jobs by Bain Capital.
There is nothing very edifying about the campaign that is taking shape.
The television advertising is unremittingly negative in both directions. And the biggest success for Obama over the past few weeks has been a distinctly negative one – instead of being dominated by the economy, many news bulletins have been led by Bain Capital and the questions it raises about Romney.
For those of us who like what we know of Obama and look forward to what he can deliver in a liberated second term, it is not exactly uplifting.
But history does not suggest that American presidential elections were ever won by not mentioning your opponent.
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