By Farooq A. Kperogi
Worries over a progressively bad economy are drowning out the “culture wars” that had dominated the U.S. presidential campaigns these past few weeks. And Barack Obama is reaping tremendously from this turn of events. Several opinion polls now show that he is leading McCain by several points.
About two weeks ago, a poll of “likely voters” by the Daily Kos/Research 2000, showed Obama leading McCain by 48 percent to 44. But it got even better last week. A flurry of opinion polls shows that he now leads McCain by more than 50 percent, his highest so far in this campaign season. A Washington Post-ABC News poll out Wednesday, for instance, showed Obama ahead 52 percent to 43 percent.
This is especially noteworthy because polls in the previous weeks had shown that the two candidates were either tied or that McCain had a slight lead.
But the best hint yet that Obama may be on a sustained rebound is the indication from the polls that McCain is slipping badly on the economy. When likely voters were asked who would do a better job of handling the economy (which is now the top concern of voters), almost 50 percent chose Obama over McCain. Only 36 percent of likely voters think McCain would do a better job of handling the economy than Obama can. This represents McCain’s lowest rating on the economy since the start of the presidential campaigns.
Similarly, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, McCain is seen by voters as far less likely to bring change to the country than Obama. While 65 percent of Americans say Obama would bring “real change” to America, only 37 percent said this of McCain.
The poll also shows that Americans view McCain as a "typical Republican" who would continue or expand President Bush's policies. In fact, 22 percent of Americans say he would be worse than Bush. Only one third of respondents say he would be less conservative than Bush.
The same Times/CBS poll shows that 60 percent of voters said they were confident in Obama’s ability to make the right decisions on the economy, compared with 53 percent who felt that way about McCain. Sixty percent also said Obama understood the needs and problems "of people like yourself," compared with 48 percent who said that of McCain.
When asked who they thought would win in November, 45 percent said Obama and 38 percent said McCain.
Reaping political benefit from financial crisis
The renewed faith in Obama by American voters is the direct result of the ongoing crisis in the U.S. economy. The crisis has dramatically altered the narrative of the presidential campaigns.
"It allowed Obama to bring the dialogue back to where he expected it to be and where he wanted it to be, after a few personality driven weeks," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic poll taker who advised Hillary Clinton during her campaign for the nomination of the Democratic ticket.
While Democrats hope the presidential campaign will continue to be defined by the narrative of the economic crisis, Republicans are understandably scared stiff. "The tide came in, but the tide has gone back out. We're back to where we were [in early August],” said Alex Castellanos, a Republican Party strategist who was, by many American media accounts, one of the people that were instrumental in getting President Bush get re-elected for a second term in 2004. "Republicans are in for a tough week."
Perhaps they are in, not just for a tough week, but for a tough campaign season.
Why voters don’t trust McCain with the economy
McCain contributed in no small way in shaping perceptions of him as incapable of understanding, much less tackling, the financial meltdown that America is now contending with. Here is why.
At a meeting with the Wall Street Journal editorial board in January this year, McCain confessed, in a moment of involuntary candor, that economics isn’t his forte. “The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should,” he said. “[But] I’ve got Greenspan’s book.” Alan Greenspan is the immediate past chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, equivalent to Nigeria’s Central Bank governor.
This unintended but nonetheless candid confession, which he now obviously regrets, has come to haunt him.
It was not just that McCain had said he was ignorant of the workings of the economy and would need an on-the-job consultation with books to understand it; he had also repeatedly said that the anxieties over an impending decline in the U.S. economy were groundless.
During an interview with newsmen some months back, he dismissed notions that the U.S. economy was headed for a recession. “I don’t believe we’re headed into a recession,” he said. “I believe the fundamentals of this economy are strong and I believe they will remain strong.”
What was aworse, perhaps, was that on September 15, the day the revered firm Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch were crumbling like a pack of cards, McCain repeated his familiar refrain that “the fundamentals” of the U.S. economy “are strong.”
McCain’s hypocritical but politically expedient patriotic fervor about the strength of the U.S. economy in the face of evidence to the contrary riled many Americans not only because it uncannily coincided with the moment when the fundamentals of the U.S. economy officially weakened, but also because it came at a time when many Americans are smarting from home foreclosures (loss of homes to mortgage lenders because people can not keep up with paying their mortgage).
Similarly, voters recall that last month when McCain was asked how many houses he owned, he hemmed and hawed and finally said he would have to ask his staff to know the number of houses he owned.
"I think - I'll have my staff get to you," McCain told Politico.com’s reporters in August when he was asked how many house he owned. "It's condominiums where - I'll have them get to you."
Obama quickly jumped on this comment to cast McCain as “out of touch” with middle America. "Somebody asked John McCain: 'How many houses do you have?' And he said, 'I'm not sure, I'll have to check with my staff,'" Obama said with a look of disbelief during a stump speech in Richmond, Virginia.
"If you don't know how many houses you have, then it's not surprising that you might think the economy is fundamentally strong," he said. "But if you're like me, and you got one house, or you are like the millions of people who are struggling right now to keep up with their mortgage so they don't lose their home, then you might have a different perspective."
After a rapturous laughter and applause from the audience, Obama then added: "And, by the way, the answer is, John McCain has seven homes." The American news media have confirmed that McCain indeed has up to seven homes.
Perhaps Americans would have forgiven McCain if it were not that his exhibitionist smugness about the strength of the U.S. economy—and with it his disdain for people who disagree with this pollyannaish view—appears to be a deliberate, well-thought-out policy that even his top advisers mindlessly repeat.
In July this year, for example, McCain's economic adviser, Phil Gramm, angered Americans when he told the conservative, pro-big business Washington Times that the American economy was not in a recession; he said it was the American people who were in a state of “mental recession” because they had become a “nation of whiners.”
"We have sort of become a nation of whiners," he said. "You just hear this constant whining, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline" despite a major export boom that is keeping the American economy competitive and robust.
The comments were widely and roundly condemned. Democratic National Committee spokesperson Karen Finney was perhaps the most hard-hitting.
“What John McCain, George Bush, Phil Gramm just don't understand is that the American people aren't whining about the state of the economy, they are suffering under the weight of it -- the weight of eight years of Bush-enomics that John McCain and Phil Gramm have vowed to continue,” she said. “How dare John McCain and his advisers so callously dismiss the challenges the American people face. No wonder voters feel John McCain is out of touch. He and his campaign don't even understand the everyday issues Americans are dealing with.”
The McCain adviser resigned his position in the wake of the furor his comments generated.
Obama on the offense, McCain on the defense
Emboldened by McCain’s careless missteps on the economy, Obama has been emphasizing what he calls his superior grasp of the economy. About two weeks ago, he sponsored a two-minute TV ad about the economy in which he calls for "shared responsibility" and "real regulation" to stop the "anything-goes culture on Wall Street."
For the first time in a long while, McCain has now been pushed on the defense. He has been changing his positions on several key economic issues in order to reconnect with voters. For instance, he now admits that the fundamentals of the economy are far from strong.
“The fact is we have some tough times ahead,” McCain admitted to his supporters recently. But he expressed optimism that the U.S. economy would bounce back. “We will get through this rough patch,” he said.
But Obama has continued to stay on the offense by tying McCain to Bush. In several of his speeches he blamed the current financial meltdown, the worst since the 1930s, on Bush’s “failed policies” and argued that McCain would offer more of the same. "Unlike Sen. McCain, it didn't take a crisis on Wall Street for me to understand that folks are hurting out on Main Street," Obama said.
McCain is straining hard, sometimes too hard, to convince a cynical American electorate that, contrary to what he had said in moments of unguarded frankness, he actually understands the economy. In several interviews these past two weeks, he has bragged about being chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and about how that experience puts in a better stead than Obama to fix the troubled economy.
"I know how to fix this economy,” he said on Fox News, America’s most influential conservative TV news channel. “I have had great experience on these issues as chairman of the Commerce Committee."
McCain gets into more trouble trying to get out of trouble
While trying to make the case that he is more qualified than Obama to tackle America’s knotty financial crisis, and in an attempt to redeem his image as an out-of-touch economic illiterate, he entangled himself in a mesh of embarrassing gaffes.
For instance, during an interview with the CNBC (Consumer News and Business Channel) he overstated his qualifications and experience on the economy and exposed himself to ridicule.
"I understand the economy,” he said. “I was chairman of the Commerce Committee that oversights [sic] every part of our economy."
He was wrong. And he is was pilloried in the media for the gaffe. The Senate Commerce Committee that McCain chairs actually only oversees 13 areas of the economy, according to the committee’s own Web site, “except for credit, financial services, and housing"—the very areas of the economy that are now in crisis.
It is the Senate Banking Committee, not the Commerce Committee, that has oversight functions over "banks, banking and financial institutions; control of prices of commodities, rents and services; federal monetary policy, including the Federal Reserve System; financial aid to commerce and industry and money and credit, including currency and coinage."
This deliberate and deceitful padding of his credentials—an increasingly frequent occurrence in the face of his downward slip in the polls—is draining McCain’s credibility among voters even further. And Obama is maximally to cashing in on this.
Similarly last week Thursday, McCain said if he were president he would "fire" the Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Chris Cox. However, the U.S. president does not have the constitutional powers to remove the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is an independent regulatory commission.
This goof once gain exposed McCain’s ignorance of the workings of the U.S. economy. The press gibbeted him for this. While he was trying to recover from this bloomer the next day, McCain again got into more trouble when he confused the SEC with the FEC, the Federal Election Commission.
"I believe that the chairman of the FEC should resign and leave office and be replaced," McCain said during a speech to the Green Bay Chamber of Commerce, a verbal blunder immediately posted on YouTube.
But that was not all. On the day before the Federal Reserve System (America’s central bank) bailed out American Insurance Group with an $85 billion loan, McCain had argued that it was inappropriate to use taxpayers’ money to help AIG. But it is American taxpayers’ investments that were in danger of perishing at AIG. The following day, when his gaffe was drawn to his attention, he retracted his statement.
Evidence that McCain’s attempts to cast himself as a latter-day economic guru are not yet convincing emerged when an influential advocacy group for older Americans, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, recently questioned his economic judgment and sincerity.
The group’s president, Barbara B. Kennelly, in a widely publicized statement, said among other things, that McCain "continues to support plans to turn Social Security money over to the same Wall Street financiers he now criticizes."
McCain’s missteps, Obama’s opening
In many ways, McCain’s flubs in the face of the current crisis have helped to situate Obama as the only candidate who can lead America in these perilous times.
"The question is who in this crisis looked more presidential, calm and unflustered?” Sam Donaldson, political analyst, asked on ABC News. “It wasn't John McCain."
Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a well-regarded politically unaffiliated newsletter, said the current turn of events has turned McCain into a fish out of water.
"I do think McCain is more comfortable talking about foreign policy issues," he said. "But the news of the day is forcing him to talk more about economic issues and pushing him outside that comfort zone.”
A bad economy, strangely, is good politics for Obama. But will this last till November 4 when the general election will be held?