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Can Obama do a FDR?

The Republicans claim that Mitt Romney created more jobs during his governorship in Massachusetts than Obama has done in all of the US during his presidency. Romney realizes that unemployment is President Obama’s Achilles heel. Question is can Obama do an FDR?

Saying “It’s  still about the economy, and, we are not stupid” in New Hampshire after a victory in five states including New York with which Mitt Romney became the Republican challenger to President Obama as Newt Gingrich dropped out, the governor threw the gauntlet to the President. But he may have put it over broadly because while the main issue of the election actually may be the economy, it is more precisely unemployment. Over 13 million Americans are out of jobs with more than 4 million of them not having employment for a period of more than one year (which means that their chance for getting employed becomes minimum), an employment rate of over 8.2%, 3% higher than the post-war average and as the New Yorker puts it, “the percentage of working Americans is as low as it has been in almost thirty years”.

The economic recovery has now lasted nearly three years, but for millions of American it seems as if it has not yet begun. And the situation is not pretty. The unemployment rates in groups such as college graduates may be even higher. And that creates an excellent opportunity for Mitt Romney who was a successful businessman and the Governor of Massachusetts because no president has won a re-election (since arguably America’s greatest president) Franklin Delano Roosevelt with an unemployment rate of more than 8%. And for that we have to go back all the way to the 1940s, a period less than five years after the Great Depression, with a comparable unemployment rate. Romney’s record as the President of Bain Capital, a highly successful private firm equity, should stand him in good stead; after all venture capital firms are built to nurture businesses and that should translate into employment.

But Mitt Romney has come in for withering criticism during the Republican primaries for being a “Vulture Capitalist” rather than  a “Venture Capitalist” and President Obama has picked up where the Republicans left off with a series of blistering advertisement this week making Mitt Romney’s record as the President of Bain Capital as the focus of his attack.

In the Republican primaries it was blunted by a huge money advantage that Gov Mitt Romney had. He does not have a similar money advantage over President Obama. However, the President may well find that attacking private equity is a little disingenuous in America because private equity is at the heart of capitalism and it is the basic tenet of survival of the fittest. What private equity tries to do is to buy firms or invest in them, nurture them, turn them around and sell them for a profit. As can he imagined, this works sometimes and at other times it does not work but that is the way the cookie crumbles. The Obama Ad shows workers complaining that their steel mill was taken from health to bankruptcy, they were laid off, and despite that Bain Capital made a profit. Gov Romney immediately fired back with an ad about another steel mill which no one was willing to touch which Bain Capital bought a stake and turned around and now is a prosperous steel mill with over 6000 workers.

The early sparring on the issue of employment is an understanding on both sides that there is a risk for President Obama on the employment issue and a potential advantage to Gov Romney. Both sides are trying to define the other before the voters make up their mind. The centrality of the issue for Gov Romney can all be seen by his reluctance to take his eye off the ball as far as unemployment goes.

When President Obama made his announcement about his support for gay marriage Mitt Romney’s response was unusually low-key—he just reacted and moved on. He did not want it to detract from the main issue and that is employment. Similarly when President Obama spoke to the students at Bernard College about the gender gap and the Republicans role in it, Mitt Romney gently reminded them as to how difficult the employment market was for recent graduates. It is also interesting that it is Gov Romney’s record at Bain Capital which has come under the fire rather than his record as the Governor of Massachusetts.

The competing narrative about his record as Governor goes like this. The Democrats say that for employment numbers Mitt Romney took Massachusetts from No.36 when he was governor to No. 47 when he left governorship. The Republicans, on the other hand, claim that he created more jobs during his governorship in Massachusetts than President Obama has done in all of the United States during his presidency. Which narrative is correct? One can only guess.   
        
So the battle lines are drawn. Mitt Romney realizes that unemployment is President Obama’s Achilles heel. Question is can Obama do an FDR?

(Harsh Desai has done his BA in Political Science from St Xavier's College & Elphinstone College, Bombay and has done his Master's in Law from Columbia University in the city of New York. He is a practicing advocate at the Bombay High Court.)

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    Gay marriage: President Obama’s bold move

    The president’s endorsement of gay marriage was a leap of faith but also had an eye on opinion polls. It actually may be Obama’s insurance policy if the economy tanks

    It looked as if it was well choreographed. First President Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan said that he supported gay marriage. Then Vice-President Joe Biden said in a “Meet the Press” programme that he was absolutely comfortable with gay marriage. And then the president stepped in and endorsed gay marriage. In a hastily called interview he told ABC’s Robin Roberts said that at a certain point, “I have just concluded that for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married”. He said that he had come to this decision after speaking with his wife Michelle and his daughters Malia and Sasha, some of whose friends’ parents were gay, and that his views on gay marriage had finally evolved and he was endorsing it.

    Democratic officials later commenting on the decision called it a matter of conscience and not a political calculation while Republican officials called it a distraction. It seems that the president had originally planned to announce it sometime before the Democratic Convention later in the year but the Vice-President’s comment and endorsement of views had forced him to endorse it earlier.

    It was immediately evident that America had come a very long way since President Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell” policy for gays in the military which effectively allowed gay soldiers to work in the military without harassment. The policy ensured that soldiers would not be asked to reveal their sexual orientation by the military and hence would be able to maintain their privacy. But they could not be openly gay. President Obama himself had been sitting on the fence about his support or opposition for gay marriage though the “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell” policy had been repealed as being too restrictive.

    America has also been moving in favour of gay marriage with now a simple majority favouring gay marriage, a number which is increasing with each passing year. The momentum seems to be only gathering steam and what used to be a plurality has now become a majority. A participant summed it up beautifully on the State of the Union Programme on CNN—she said that the fact of the matter was that her parents knew no openly gay people or had no gay friends but she has several. It seems that once you know someone who is gay your view on gay relationships and gay marriage change even if the people you ‘know’ are only characters on TV soaps.

    Immediately this announcement roiled the election campaign. Mitt Romney had tried to pre-empt Obama’s announcement by reiterating as stand that marriage was a union between a man and a woman. At Liberty University, an important Christian college, he reiterated his stand. Mitt Romney is not only against gay marriage but is also against civil unions between gay people something supported by President George Bush.

    The president’s announcement was a leap of faith but also had an eye on opinion polls. Recent opinion polls indicated that a majority supported gay marriage. Recent opinion polls also indicated that a majority of independent voters supported gay marriage—but no one quite knows how the announcement would play out. He seemed to have gained a boost in fund raising with gay couples stopping off on the highway to send money by the Internet and at least in the liberal press the coverage was mostly positive. They positioned it as a civil rights issue—perhaps the most important one since the Civil Rights Act. It was framed as an issue; as an issue of constitutionality Vs issue of Christianity. But they were jumping the gun a little. Congress leaders are no closer to repealing the Defence of Marriage Act which defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman and it was unlikely to happen anytime soon. In a mostly Christian nation theirs was as pushback. Some said this marriage in the Garden of Eden was between Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve. Some called for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between men and women.

    The airwaves across the world burst into frenzied opinionating . Some said that any couple in love should be allowed to make permanent their relationship whatever their sexual orientation. There were couples from Nigeria and India which supported gay marriage (the Indian couple said they were engaged and hoped to get married in 18 months. The floodgates seemed to have opened and everyone tried to get a word in.

    But Obama’s getting off the fence clearly has some risks. A lot of black churches who support the president are opposed to gay marriage. Also it is less than certain how swing voter states like in North Carolina (which passed an amendment defining marriage); Ohio, a key swing state; and Virginia will vote but Obama has clearly added another arrow to his election campaign apart from the economy. It actually may be Obama’s insurance policy if the economy tanks.

    (Harsh Desai has done his BA in Political Science from St Xavier's College & Elphinstone College, Bombay and has done his Master's in Law from Columbia University in the city of New York. He is a practicing advocate at the Bombay High Court.)

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    US presidency: The president and the Muslim world

    Early in his presidency Obama realized that the Muslim world would constitute the most important foreign policy challenge for the administration. It will be up to Romney to come out with an alternative vision to his advantage

    Within just a few weeks what was looking as a really troublesome aspect of foreign policy-the Iranian Nuclear Imbroglio-has at least for the moment settled down and it seems as if president Obama will carry the advantage in the foreign policy into the election. Generally it is the Republicans who have a foreign policy advantage-they are traditionally more hawkish which somehow seems to translate as foreign policy expertise while the Democrats are generally on the back-foot trying to explain their foreign policy. But the two wars that were started under the Republican administration of George Bush-the 'necessary' war in Afghanistan and the 'unnecessary' war in Iraq. Both of which have dragged on for many a year seem to have dulled the appetite of the American public for war and have taken a heavy economic toll, which combined with the Great Recession, has led to a greater appreciation of the "leading from behind" policy of president Obama.
        
    Early in his presidency Obama realized that the Muslim world would constitute the most important foreign policy challenge for the administration. He also realized that the relationship with the Muslim world was broken and that a new deal was needed with the Muslim world to make for a safer America and a safer world. He addressed the Muslim world from a University in Cairo on 4 June 2009. He greeted them with a Salaam Alekum. He said that the cycle of suspicion and discord must end. He stated that a tiny minority of extremists had taken over the agenda. He said that he came to seek a new beginning between America and the Muslim world-one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect and that America and the Muslim World are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Obama sought to find common ground between the US and Islam. He addressed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and said that he would bring back the troops from Iraq and that he would bring back the troops from Afghanistan as soon as he came confident that no threat was posed by extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He addressed the two state solutions for Israel-Palestine. He offered a dialogue on Iran so that Iran and the US could move forward. He addressed the issue of democracy in the Muslim world. He addressed religious freedom of religion and women rights and many other issues.

    The president has succeeded in winding down two wars that he had inherited-the war in Iraq which he had inherited and which he campaigned against and the war in Afghanistan which has gone on far more than a decade and though the resolution is less than perfect the situation is certainly better than what he inherited. Also the sustained assault on Al Qaeda has resulted in a considerable weakening of the extremist group. The most significant achievement in this regard is the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda who was holed up in Abbottabad, Pakistan. It was a particularly risky decision given that the agencies told him that the chances of it being Bin Laden were only 50%. Also the nuclear imbroglio with Iran has been tempered down with the latter returning to the negotiating table as the sanctions bite. This has considerably reduced the chances of a conflagration in the Middle East with a preventive strike on Iran by the Israel.

    Further is the remarkable Arab Spring which has spread from Tunisia to Egypt liberating wide swathes of people from years of Autocracy America can justly claim a share of the credit because they have generally played a helping hand in promoting freedom though Dick Cheney claimed that the Iraq war  was the catalyst for the Arab Spring. The spread of democracy has always been a goal of the US foreign policy and though this has also led to the citizens of these countries turning to Muslim parties; it seems that grassroots of democracy is taking root. Further the resolution in Libya which America supported has been satisfactory.

    All in all, these events should give president Obama an edge in the foreign policy in the coming election. The usual Republican advantage in the foreign policy should be neutralized. But there are serious problems that remain. One of the major problems is the insensitivity that the Americans show to their Muslim allies. Then the recent instance of the way their Afghan allies were travelled after a staff sergeant went on a rampage in Afghanistan, as also the stalemate in Pakistan about the apology demanded for the killing of 24 soldiers on the Afghanistan- Pakistan border.

    With the help of technology (read Drones) the Americans have been able to bypass their allies while carrying out missions from the sky to take out militants, though sometimes with tragic collateral damage. The results seem to be satisfying but the price that America might be paying in terms of resentment of the people for collateral damage as also the violation of sovereignty may be difficult to calculate. Its validity in international law is also troublesome at best.  Meanwhile the two long-drawn wars have ensured that at least in the foreseeable future there will not be American boots on the ground in terms of troops. The new defence budget stresses the use of special forces rather than full blown military operations.

    It will be up to Romney to come out with an alternative vision and Americans may not been on a mood for simple hawkishness. His stand against Iran as also China (regarding currency manipulation) may both turn out to be counter-productive and need to be more nuanced.

    In this topsy-turvy election foreign policy may well be a democratic advantage.      

    (Harsh Desai has done his BA in Political Science from St Xavier's College & Elphinstone College, Bombay and has done his Master's in Law from Columbia University in the city of New York. He is a practicing advocate at the Bombay High Court.)

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