The US election: Why context is important

2012-06-12 13:25


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New York - Finding a significant low in US President Barack Obama’s general election campaign so far has been tricky, as it has been consistently sub-standard. Until Friday, however, when Obama dropped a gaffe over which Republicans got so excited some of the older ones had to sit down.

At a press conference on Friday, arranged by Team Obama, solely due to the lacklustre campaign so far, Obama said “the private sector is doing fine”. In a sluggish economy, that little sound bite played neatly into Republican hands – the party is doing its best to paint Obama as out of touch with the economy, and unaware of how it works. And so the media and Republicans went wild.

What Obama was actually trying to do was differentiate the recoveries between the public sector and the private sector. In terms of moving upwards, the public sector is being left far behind.

In fact if the public sector was the same size now as it was under Bush, there would be an extra 600 000 jobs and the unemployment rate would be 7.8%, below the magic 8.0% number which has been arbitrarily chosen by pundits everywhere.

According to the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, who crunched some numbers from the Bureau of Labour Statistics, public sector jobs have been culled since the Obama administration took office.

This is not all at the hands of Obama – most of this happens at state and council level and includes civil service employees such as teachers and policemen.

Missing the vital

In the private sector, since February 2009 (Obama took office on 20 January) private jobs actually show a net gain of 780 000. Paul Krugman, New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner (and admitted Keynesian thinker) said on CBS on Monday that if normal public sector job growth had continued under Obama, there would have been an 800 000 net gain (taking into account our aforementioned public sector stat from the Bush years, that represents a 1.4-million job swing).

In fact, Obama’s full statement was: “We’ve created 4.3 million jobs over the past 27 months. The private sector is doing fine. Where we’re seeing problems is with state and local government, often with cuts initiated by governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help they’re accustomed to from the federal government.”

But all of this detail, including the role the government could have played in job creation – temporary or otherwise – was ignored because the press (even before the Republicans) zeroed in on six words.

This is hardly the first time the US has missed what should be a vitally important debate because of gaffe-obsession.

In January Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” which was actually a part of a much larger debate about healthcare – a hot electoral topic in the USA.

Regurgitated clips

Romney’s full quote was, “I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn’t give me a good service that I need, I want to say I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.”

Romney was advocating a free-market proposal for national healthcare, in direct contrast to the Obama administration’s healthcare plan which relies on an individual mandate (in a nutshell, if you can afford medical-aid you have to buy it).

Regurgitated clips of “I like being able to fire people” add nothing to the countrywide political debate, unless you understand the context in which they were made.

Let’s take another mini portion of words: “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” which also fell from the chops of Romney. This was (and is) played across news networks and adverts ad nauseum, but the full quote was, “I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor — we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich — they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90%-95% of Americans who right now are struggling.”

To let public discourse be dictated by nothing more than minor excerpts is a disappointing manner in which to run an electoral campaign. The US media does not serve the interests of the population by focusing solely on silly sound bites.

It was quite obvious that Obama does not think the economy is in great health. It is patently obvious that Romney would not say that the poor don’t concern him, and it is absurd that someone would say they like firing people without some kind of reasoning following it.

Our job in the media is to inform our readers. This practice doesn’t.

Read more on:    barack obama  |  simon williamson  |  mitt romney  |  us  |  us elections 2012

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