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Sunday 22 July 2012

Obama hands an early gift to Republicans

President's toe-curling speech is a weapon for Romney -- but only if he knows how to use it, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Do you remember the excitement of the 2008 American presidential election? All those nail-biting months as one of the most famous women in the world, Hillary Clinton, fought and ultimately lost in the primaries to the hitherto unknown Barack Obama?

The moment when the phenomenon (whatever you think of her) that was Sarah Palin was revealed to a surprised world? The way 'Yes we can' caught the world's imagination? And the ease with which the Young Pretender, an academic with little political and no executive experience, trounced the war hero and admired veteran senator John McCain?

Being generally in favour of using your head when it comes to voting, I thought it foolish of the US electorate to put someone untried into the most important job in the world. But my feelings when Obama won were mixed. In 1979 my heart made me vote Liberal, because I couldn't stomach my Conservative candidate's enthusiasm for capital punishment, but when I saw Margaret Thatcher standing outside Number 10 Downing Street, I felt joyful that against all the odds a woman was prime minister. I felt a similar burst of euphoria when Obama's victory was announced, and later, when I saw this mixed-race man and his black wife take possession of the White House.

But while I became a great fan of Thatcher, Obama has been the kind of well-meaning but generally poorly performing president I feared he would be. Naive abroad and financially incontinent at home, he has disappointed many of his fans and reinforced the scepticism or down-right hostility of his critics. Despite a trillion-dollar stimulus, the economy is in bad shape and debt and unemployment are rising. It's not just the opposition who say sourly, "No he can't."

There were some thrills and spills during the Republican primaries, but the 2012 presidential election is a sad affair compared to that of four years ago. If the GOP had come up with a half-way decent candidate, he would defeat Obama with ease in November, but Mitt Romney will struggle. He has a blameless domestic life and an impressive business and political CV, but his plastic personality and general dullness are the despair of his supporters. And being a Mormon hasn't helped, since the religion is widely perceived as weird.

Obama is leaving nothing to chance. A ruthless campaigner, he has unleashed ferocious anti-Romney TV advertisements and Obama-friendly media are full of allegations about tax avoidance and various kind of brutal business practices. That Romney refuses to release more than two years of tax returns isn't helping. "What does he have to hide?" is the Democratic refrain.

Counter-allegations that the Obama administration is too close to Wall Street and that it goes in for crony capitalism (investing in the firms of political donors) have been so far too vague and complicated to do much damage.

Still, the polls show a tight race and Obama has made a serious gaffe that enemies are exploiting joyfully. In a speech in Virginia, on June 11, without the teleprompters that accompany him almost everywhere, he extemporised a bit in justifying tax increases. People didn't become successful through being unusually smart or industrious, he explained. There were plenty of smart and industrious people about.

"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

Now this might play well in many parts of the world, but most voters still subscribe to the American dream that all things are possible if you only try hard enough. Critics are falling over themselves to point out that socialist countries have roads and bridges but that without free enterprise, ambition is stifled. They're tuning in to widespread suspicion that Europe is in trouble because of its big-spending governments and considerable nervousness about what many see as Obama's profligacy.

People who allege that Obama doesn't understand America are unfairly accused of racism, when in fact they feel uneasily that his thinking is foreign. In truth, he has more in common with a European progressive than with the average bloke in a mid-western shopping mall. In this he resembles cosmopolitan Nick Clegg, who thinks like the EU official and MEP he once was rather than the ordinary English Joe whose deputy prime minister he is.

The toe-curling phrase "if you've got a business, you didn't build that" is a gift to Romney's campaign. Whether Romney knows how to use it is another question. But in a dreary, negative campaign, at least there is at last a bit of excitement.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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