[email protected]

July 29, 2012, Sunday

Obama’s grip is still strong

I love going to the United States. As a Brit, I always feel at home there, not least because of the special bond between the countries.

Having just spent the past couple of weeks there, I had the opportunity to listen to many conversations about the forthcoming November presidential elections when President Barack Obama will battle it out with Republican presumptive candidate Mitt Romney. With the country buzzing with election fever, most people were delighted to find an interested ear to listen to their thoughts. Not surprisingly, views differed enormously, from those who rather radically branded the president a thieving Marxist who opposes capitalism, declaring him to be more interested in lining the pockets of his friends than helping the ordinary folks, to those who thought Obama had “given it a good go,” that he had pushed to bring about change to benefit ordinary people. Although his efforts had not been as fruitful as he would have hoped, many people I spoke to believed he remained the only man for the job.

Today, the polls put Obama and Romney almost neck and neck, with Obama currently having a tiny lead. While voter disapproval of Obama’s handling of the economy is hurting his prospects, at the same time a recent national poll carried out by The New York Times/CBS News concluded that 63 percent of Americans said that Obama cares, while 53 percent say the policies in a Romney administration would favor the rich.

Obama’s slogan during his 2008 campaign was “Change we can believe in.” He inherited an economic disaster and when the US, under George W. Bush, had seen its credibility on the world stage disintegrate. The challenges facing him were great, probably the greatest any new president has faced for decades. He made big promises including serious health reform; slashing unemployment; closing down Guantanamo Bay, immigration reform; the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010; repealing the tax cuts for the rich brought in by Bush; setting up a new financial watchdog that would help prevent another economic meltdown of the kind he inherited; and so on.

Obama has faced opposition from the Republicans on many issues. In January 2009, he ordered Guantanamo to close within a year, but the Republicans blocked it. While Obama has now ensured reviews should be held at least every four years for prisoners held indefinitely without charge or trial, today Guantanamo continues to hold some 171 people. In March 2010, Obama signed a revolutionary bill to overhaul the healthcare industry. This followed months of squabbling and horse-trading with the Republicans, who vehemently opposed many of the changes. The law made it obligatory for Americans to have health cover, otherwise fines would be enforced. It also offered subsidies to low and middle income families. Something that seems like the right thing to do has been challenged by at least 14 states, and a few days ago the Supreme Court ruled that it was up to states to choose whether to participate in an expansion of Medicaid, meaning that many Americans will remain uninsured. Obama’s promise to bring an end to the tax breaks given to the rich were also strongly opposed, with debate on tax reform ongoing this week with Obama urging the Republican-led House of Representatives to follow the Senate’s lead and “do the right thing,” including extending middle-class tax cuts, and so on.

On foreign policy, which actually has little influence in elections, Obama failed to deliver on the Middle East, he has “upset” the Israelis with his policies on settlements, and it so far has proven impossible to mend fences with Iran, which still remains, as one man told me, the US’s bogeyman. And while he “reset” relations with Moscow, Russia remains a tricky partner -- no more than when it comes to global problems such as Syria and Iran.

Obama’s campaign received a boost this week when two new polls showed him pulling ahead of Romney in some 12 key battleground states including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. His promise to give a partial amnesty to the children of illegal immigrants and some powerful TV campaigns have helped. Moreover, his efforts on health and taxes, as well as injecting more capital into college aid have been welcomed by many, as is the fact that he got the US out of Iraq and soon Afghanistan; plus Osama bin Laden was killed under his watch.

While a tough battle lies ahead, Obama has the advantage of being the incumbent. Being the president, he is well placed to find creative ways to spend taxpayers’ money in the coming months that should help him win votes, and because he is the guy sitting in the Oval Office, he is far more visible than Romney, and will also have pole position when it comes to choosing where and when he speaks.

My instinct is that Obama will return for a second term, but of course in politics everything and anything can happen, with the coming months set to test Obama to the max.

Previous articles of the columnist