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Obama's 'Fair Go' strategy

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Tuesday, 11 September 2012

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic Party convention Barack Obama put the case for greater economic equality and fairness in America at the centre of his bid for re-election. He claimed the election offered "a choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future": his vision of a federal government that can stimulate job growth and attempt to reduce economic inequalities and the Republican vision of bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations.

This argument is very familiar as it was at the heart of Democratic Party presidential campaigns in 1980, 1984, 1988, and 2000 and each time Republican candidates prevailed. Since Reagan's election in 1980, Democrats have only gained office when the economy has tanked under a Republican president as it did in 1992 and 2008. In other words, they have won when the central issue was basic economic competence not fairness. Further, when Clinton won re-election in 1996, in the brightest of economic times, inequality was not a central part of his campaign as it was thought that the American economic pie would simply keep expanding for everyone.

So why is Barack Obama fighting an election on traditionally losing ground? The reality is he has little choice because one of the central causes of the Democratic Party throughout its history has been the fight for greater economic equality. Backing the losers of American economics and wealth is central not only to his party but also to Obama's own career before entering formal politics.


As Michelle Obama reminded the audience in her convention speech: "He's the same man who started his career by turning down high paying jobs and instead working in struggling neighborhoods where a steel plant had shut down, fighting to rebuild those communities and get folks back to work." So for better or worse this is what he will campaign on.

Central to this case will be the arguments that Romney's tax plan is unfair and that Romney does not truly care about the unemployed because during his business career he put former employees out of work in a ruthless manner.

Why is the case for greater economic equality generally such a hard sell in America and will things be different in the tough times of 2012?

Economic fairness is politically difficult to campaign for because Americans have been inclined since the 1970s to turn their backs on the losers of economic change, the working poor and the unemployed. Bruce Springsteen can sing moving and popular songs about these people, but the average voter has consistently supported presidential candidates who promise low taxes and who talk up America's economic winners. This mentality is not that surprising in a country with significant wealth and largely unrivalled global power since WWII.

However, after a financial crisis caused in great part by greedy and imprudent American banks and other finance companies, the American tendency to back entrepreneurialism with few ifs or buts has been challenged in 2012. First there was the Republican primaries where the "When Mitt Romney Came to town" ads challenged the morality of Romney's entrepreneurialism as the CEO of Bain Capital (where he was co-founder and CEO from 1984-2002). The attacks by Newt Gingrich and other Republicans may have been opportunistic, but it was nonetheless remarkable to see Republicans focusing on the human costs of a successful economic company like Bain.

The Democrats have not surprisingly continued this line of attack. The Romney campaign has defended Bain Capital's record by talking up its role in helping expand chains like Staples (a ubiquitous American stationary company similar to Officeworks) and therefore creating jobs. The Democrats will highlight Bain's role in bringing successful companies like KB Toys to their knees as Bain saddled them with debt, charged them costly consultancy fees and shared little of the burden when things went wrong. Former employees from such companies have featured on political ads throughout the year.


The problem for Obama is that while he claims to be on the side of America's economic losers, in their eyes he has done too little to solve America's unemployment crisis.

Obamacare, as the sweeping healthcare reforms of 2010 are often called, in fact did a lot to help the working poor, offering coverage to 50 million Americans who were without any health insurance or right to government coverage. However, Obama is reluctant to talk too much about this often demonised achievement.

What he will talk about from now to November 6 are Romney's plans to keep income taxes on wealthy Americans at historically low levels at the expense of the vast majority. Obama will claim Romney and Ryan's ideas will increase unemployment, debt and inequality in America. He will claim there are signs of an economy bouncing back into shape and that better times are not far away.

Obama will claim he saved the American economy from being burnt to the ground in 2009. However, he has yet to rebuild America's economic house in any meaningful way, making him open to the "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" question. As a result, Obama is reduced to talking not about hope and change in 2012, but fear and hope.

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This article was first published in The Australian on September 10, 2012. 

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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