Photo courtesy BBC

The outcome of the United States Presidential elections is too close to call.

Yet, three presidential debates reinforced the perception among informed voters that Mitt Romney is both a weak and most unpredictable candidate.  He does not grasp the complexities of the economy—a failing he obscures by refusing to be clear about his policies. His continual self-contradiction and his appeal to the fears of voters highlights an insincerity.

Mitt Romney’s small government is a travesty

Mitt Romney’s scapegoating of “big government” for all our economic and social woes is not backed by a meaningful definition of big government, nor does it seem to be based on an historically informed understanding of the government’s role in the economy and its implications for development. His five-point plan could not possibly address any of the issues he falsely attributes to big government. Romney even knocks policies that he admits are successful, if they have anything to do with the “big government” that he vehemently detests.

Romney’s idea of a small government is a dangerous caricature.  Romney’s corporate approach to the role of government, his sound bite complaints, and his five-point solution argued during the past two presidential debates deprived the voters of a space to think reflectively of the role of government. Instead his rhetoric instills a culture of fear of big government, deflecting criticism from the same corporations backed by Republican presidents and their lobbyists — the ones who continue to secure state power for the service of corporations.

The truth is that Romney is not against big government. His proposals will make the government even bigger by blurring the distinction between the roles of the government and corporations. Such a de facto government constrains the space for basic human freedoms because it deprives the people equal access to the basic necessities of life irrespective of their social and economic status. It is far more intrusive into all aspects of social life because its raison d’etre is to shift the role of government from one that creates a balance between social objectives and private economic objectives to one that focuses exclusively on private interests, hoping — against all evidence to the contrary — that the social benefits will automatically trickle down from the pursuit of private interests.

Romney is more than willing to expand government to support the military-industrial complex, to subsidize corporations with tax breaks and to bail out “too-big-to-fail” corporations. Given his disinterest in the 47 percent, it’s hard to believe he thinks those benefits will trickle down to the rest of us. He’s more than willing to reduce or deny social benefits to seniors, the unemployed, the sick, the young and many American women. Philanthropic business activities and recruiting more women to the Massachusetts legislature are certainly not evidence that he understands social inequalities and do not compensate for what his big-corporation policies have taken away from marginalized groups.

A “small government,” defined solely by the amount of taxes it collects and the size of the bureaucracy it maintains, gives rise to a powerful minority of elites at the expense of the public good, and its use of excessive non-material power and safeguarding of private interests far outweigh the benefits of lower taxes and subsidies. Increasing inequalities, corporate betrayals of society, military expenditures, foreign-policy manipulations, agricultural subsidies and currency manipulation are all examples of small government in action.

Romney’s small government actually resembles big government in the era of the Cold War. This concept marries corporate and government interests, precisely what motivated Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. The government has constantly grown bigger not only because of the necessity of meeting the security needs of the United States alone, but because it continues to bankroll and bail out the very corporations in the military-industrial complex that proved to cause the decline in U.S. competitiveness in today’s global economy.

Romney is oblivious to the fact that, historically, low inflation, low unemployment and high productivity were more common in the United States before globalization integrated our economy with the world market. Then, gains from economic growth were usually reinvested in the United States, and wealth stayed here. Responses to economic policies could be more easily predicted and managed because national boundaries were not forcibly opened to international trade. Few countries could compete with the United States in terms of wealth, resources, productivity and technical innovation, and it was rare for a U.S. corporation to abandon its home country in search of cheap labor and markets on foreign soil. The rest of the world simply had less ability to compete economically and politically with the United States. The kind of global corporatism presented by Romney, his foreign bank accounts and corporate off-shoring, is in large measure responsible for the decline of U.S. prosperity, our vulnerability to financial speculators and our lower standard of living compared with virtually all other developed Western nations. Today’s world is a different place, and the United States no longer enjoys the luxuries it used to.

When President Obama took the reins, he faced an economy wrecked by a financial sector run amok — one represented well by the machinations of Bain Capital. Economic crashes in global markets must be explained in terms of economic fundamentals that are beyond the control of any one president, and especially a president handicapped by an intransigent Republican party whose members in Congress moved heaven and earth to block virtually all actions intended to pull the economy out of a tailspin. Today, the unemployment rate has dropped to 8 percent, and the real estate sector is making slow progress toward recovery. Currently, the levels of employment and mortgage borrowing are flat, meaning layoffs have declined and there are few new hires, and low interest rates are finally beginning to stimulate borrowing. Given the intensity of the global crisis, no more could be expected, and Romney’s five-point plan is no different from the policies that got us into this mess in the first place.

One of Romney’s many misguided economic arguments is that further cuts in expenditures and taxes will encourage private sector investments in areas critical for future development. Historical evidence provides little support to this claim, and it is certain that the social costs of these cuts will outweigh any economic benefits. So far, the private sector has failed to respond to tax cuts and trillion-dollar government investments, and they are unlikely to change their tune. Nor does evidence suggest that increases in wealth due to tax cuts will automatically increase employment because the rich often invest in non-employment-generating investments such as financial markets that have brought us to the present crisis. The tax cuts, government investment guarantees and subsequent bailouts resulted in a shameful increase in the division of wealth in America, and yet, politicians like Romney have the audacity to blame the government for the crisis.

Romney was vague in his definition of small business, as he seems to think both Joe the Plumber and Donald Trump are small-business owners, and he appears clueless about the complex factors affecting the growth of small businesses. Tax cuts cannot conceivably grow small businesses and help them to add employees. Big corporations, not big government, have caused the collapse of small businesses, and giving more breaks to corporations certainly won’t bring small businesses back. Tax cuts won’t offset the cost of health care and other expenses or make it possible for small producers to compete with cheap imports. No amount of tax cuts will enable small businesses to invest in research and development, and it’s highly doubtful that big corporations will generously come forward to help them.

The crisis of the economy today is not due to a lowered capacity to produce; in fact, today’s crisis is about overproduction and lack of consumer demand. At one level, limits to spending are inevitable as societies develop. Consumers aren’t spending money because they don’t have money to spend. Debt, uncertain employment and lowered expectations are the new rule. Big government is not to blame for this; global capitalism is, and the best way for a nation to navigate the bumps of the world market is to have a good social support system — the right kind of big government — at home.

Returns from government investments do not materialize during a single presidential term. They take longer and include a great deal of uncertainty, particularly when the president’s party does not have majority control of Congress, and his policies are subject to the influence of corporate lobbyists. The public’s assessment of Obama’s potential for success during his second term should be based not on the policies of a previous government that once brought the “prosperity” that is now responsible for many of the nation’s economic and social woes, but on his ability to set the country on a course to sustainable economic recovery.

Reclaiming the government for the people is the voters’ responsibility as much as it is the president’s. Obama’s success depends on whether he has a Senate, House and broad-based social movements willing to embrace and support a radically different role of the government that is inconceivable under Romney’s leadership or his five-point plan. Without such support, a second Obama term is not likely to accomplish very much, as he would succumb to the powers of lobbyists who generally take over political agendas after election. But it is better than not reelecting him.

Foreign Policy

The third Presidential debate between Romney and Obama was boring and did not give much hope for the world to expect a change in the status quo. It seems that for both candidates the center piece of US foreign policy is Israel.  There was hardly any mention about Palestinians, certainly neither candidates called Palestinians or other Arab States “a true friend.”  For both candidates the foreign policy was not so much about foreign countries but about domestic interests of the United States.  Yet, Obama appeared to be far more reflective and have the patience to bring change bring about change in the status quo by following strategic diplomacy.  Romney dislike Obama for is patient and diplomatic approach, being critical of the United States, and associating with world leaders critical of the US policies or Israel.

Obama opposes military strike on Iran most appropriate option but holds is willing to use it if it is the only way to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. He rejects unilateral US intervention trouble spots like Libya and Iran, instead seeks international pressure against them.  At times he has also chastised Israel for continuing to build housing settlements in disputed areas and continue to demand for a new round of peace talks based on land borders established after 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.  At the same time he also signed law to expand military and civilian cooperation with Israel.

Romney is all about threats to United States and need to take preemptive actions and has spoken in more permissive terms about Israel’s right to act against Iran’s nuclear facilities; although not explicitly approving military action against Iran would be last resort. Romney associate more closely with hardline Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has indicated more military assistance to Israel. For Romney Russia is still the “No. 1 geopolitical foe” of the U.S. and accused label China a currency manipulator in a move that could lead to broad trade sanctions, despite fact that Romney’s own company invests in China.  Obama also advocate penalties against China for unfair trade practices but opposes branding China a currency manipulator.

It is hard to see much difference between the recent racist and genocidal comments of Iranian President Ahmadjian against Israel and Romney’s comments about Palestinians. Romney’s comments (about what) could be far more lethal than the recent film that sparked protests around the world, even if he loses the election. Such comments are likely to affect United States’ relations not only with the Middle East but also the rest of the world because protesters do not attribute Romney’s words only to Romney but to American foreign policy and most Americans. Not electing him is perhaps the best way to control the damage.

Romney’s foreign policy appeals to the emotions of his constituency and includes unexamined beliefs that shaped US foreign policy during the Cold War. The fact that his campaign invokes the now globally discredited images of an “empire” runs the risk of isolating the United States from the global community, deprives it of playing a positive role, and even leads the country toward another war. Romney does not articulate a coherent foreign policy, but attacks certain isolated events during the Obama administration without considering their context and the fact that the origin of most of these events predates the Obama administration.

The Obama administration’s foreign policy approaches are more nuanced and seem to rely more on strategic intelligence and patience than “cowboy”-style emotional responses to international crises. Obama seems to understand and be sensitive to the complexity of the contemporary world and does not celebrate US achievements in the language of a “mighty empire,” which the Republicans are notorious for. Hillary Clinton has shown considerable skill, courage, and success in building consensus among otherwise difficult international states on vital human rights issues.   As with all economic strategies, Positive and sustainable le responses to these foreign policy initiatives take time beyond the period of a presidency, involve a degree of uncertainty, and require a citizenry to accept change.

One important challenge for the next US president is to lead Americans to develop a more critical perspective of the country’s role in the contemporary world, which is unlikely to happen under a Republican presidency. Based on the first presidential debate, there is no reason to trust Mitt Romney because he lied and contradicted what he said during the debate and on other occasions.

Sincerity and Ability to Govern

Romney failed to provide a coherent message and a clear road map to the economic change he espouses. His rhetorical and often factually-incorrect attacks on the Obama administration failed to provide any clear message as to how his policies would be different from those of previous Republican presidents. Also troubling was Romney’s statement to a closed-door fund-raiser that 47 percent of Americans see themselves as “victims” entitled to handouts and unwilling to take “personal responsibility” for their lives. The implication that these 47 percent are “lucky duckies” raises doubts about Romney’s knowledge of the economy and respect for his fellow citizens. These remarks are not simply “off-the-cuff” or “less elegantly stated” but revelatory insights into the true character of a man who is willing to say anything to collect votes.

Obama’s message was far more coherent. Rather than blaming the past, he acknowledged that he is not entirely happy with the economic recovery thus far and reiterated that there is a difficult road to changes in economic and political affairs and that tough choices are needed to make change possible.

There is an argument that Obama missed many opportunities in the first debate by not pointing to the lack of clarity and contradictions in Romney’s claims, hence making Romney a better candidate. These “missed opportunities” are, in fact, further demonstrations of Romney’s weakness and lack of sincerity and provide a better idea of what voters should expect from Romney if he is elected. Perhaps Obama thought it would be an embarrassment to all Americans to focus on the contradictions in Romney’s policies and his inability to provide any clarity of the many “reforms” he proposed and that it would not help the public to make an informed decision when they vote. Instead, Obama deliberately used the debate to educate the voters about his policies.

Change is a responsibility of voters as much as of the president, and they need to think beyond the rather theatrical, technology-affirmed “performance” during these debates. Voters need to keep in mind that they should not expect to reap the same globally-taxing benefits from favorable terms of trade that they enjoyed during the Cold War. Whether Obama can make a difference could be tested only if he has a Senate and the House majority willing to work with him as well as the willingness of the voters to embrace change. There needs to be a broad-based, active social movement after the election to support the president’s policies and override the powers of the lobbyists who generally take over political agendas after elections. Without such support, a second Obama term is not likely to accomplish very much, but it is still probably better than not electing him.  With all these Obama would have far more power to maneuver and implement changes that he has always wanted to make since he would not need to make decisions with the hopes of garnering enough support for the next election?