By Steve Howell

It’s make-or-break for Mitt Romney this week as the US presidential election enters its final stage with the first of three televised debates between the two candidates

The gaffe-prone Republican has lost so much ground to Barack Obama recently it is hard to see him coming back into contention.

But you never know: the debates are likely to be watched by upward of 50 million people, giving Romney a chance to regain some credibility after remarks dismissing 47% of the electorate as ‘welfare dependents’.

That attack on nearly half the voters was not only inaccurate, it also alienated key groups such as pensioners who are now turning strongly to Obama.

According to a Washington Post poll conducted in three key ‘swing’ states and released last Thursday, voters trust Obama over Romney to handle Medicare, the US health insurance system for people over 65, by wide margins.

Respondents preferred Obama on the issue by 53% to 38% in Florida, 56% to 37% in Ohio and 52% to 39% in Virginia. More than 70% of voters in each state said they consider Medicare either “very” or “extremely” important to their vote.

The interesting thing is what this says about the political mood in the United States and the prospects for the world’s largest economy.

Even before the 47% gaffe, Obama was pulling away from Romney after making a speech at the Democratic Convention arguing the private sector alone could not solve the country’s problems.

He said: “We honour the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, but we also believe in something called citizenship – the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations towards one another and to future generations.”

Obama’s theme was that markets can’t solve everything and government has to act on big challenges such as healthcare, global warming and the financial crisis.

Romney, on the other hand, is appealing to the electorate on a traditional Republican ticket of small government, lower taxes and ‘freeing’ business from regulation, including the repeal of banking reforms introduced after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

His problem is that the events of 2008 and endless revelations of criminal market fraud and corruption still loom large in the minds of most of the electorate. Free enterprise has lost its gloss in the land of the free.

In any other election year, Romney’s credentials as a successful venture capitalist might have worked in his favour. In this one, with the US economy still flat-lining, they are a target for attacks on him as a profit-hungry, job destroyer.

A few months ago, most pundits thought the poor state of the economy would count against Obama. Now it looks like he will be the first incumbent since Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s to win re-election with unemployment above 8%.

And that may be the rub. In the long depression of the 1930s, public opinion in the United States moved strongly against big business. Today, it seems Obama is benefiting from a similar shift in sentiment.

The irony, however, is that Obama – if you read his books and speeches – is no socialist and actually wants to save capitalism from itself, as Roosevelt himself did.

In social terms, Obama’s commitment to public healthcare, job creation and education could reassure people that the system can work for them.

Economically, his less austere strategy and plans for big investments in infrastructure – and particularly green energy – could deliver recovery and growth.

Looking at it from this side of the Atlantic, and leaving politics aside, a continuation of Obama’s strategy of pump-priming the US economy is likely to create a bigger market for our exports.

Two weeks ago, the head of the US Federal Reserve announced another round of Quantitative Easing, and world markets received it well. The US economy is so huge that just a tiny percentage increase in GDP is worth billions in export opportunities.

I happen to like the idea of citizenship. But, even if you think that’s wet, Welsh businesses have much to gain from a growth-orientated US economy.

 

Steve Howell, chairman of Wales World Wide, writes a monthly column – Business Talk – for the Western Mail newspaper. This article on the US elections appeared today. The views expressed are Steve’s and not necessarily those of WWW.  We welcome comment and debate, both on individual articles and through our forums.

 

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