April 14, 2011 12:39 am

Obama fires the opening shots in 2012 campaign

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Barack Obama does not yet know which Republican will challenge him in the 2012 presidential contest, but his speech on deficit reduction marked his first campaign salvo, and it was a direct plea to independent voters.

The address delivered a withering criticism of a budget proposal introduced by Republicans last week that would fundamentally alter Medicare, the popular government healthcare programme for the elderly that is also one of the biggest drivers of America’s long-term fiscal crisis.

But Mr Obama also sought to convince the independent swing voters, who elected him by an 8 per cent margin in 2008 and abandoned Democrats in the congressional elections last year, that he understood their concerns over the ballooning size of government.

“Our debt has grown so large that we could do real damage to the economy if we don’t begin a process now to get our fiscal house in order,” he said.

“I guarantee that if we don’t make any changes at all [to Medicare and Medicaid], we won’t be able to keep our commitments to a retiring generation that will live longer . . . than those who came before.”

It was a speech that underscored just how drastically the political mood has changed since 2008, when Mr Obama captured the electorate on a message of hope and change. If his address was a preview of his election message for 2012 it was a fundamentally bleaker call for their support: that a vote for him will salvage the social contract the US has enjoyed for generations while a vote for a Republican would lead to the abandonment of basic American principles.

“Whether he is re-elected or not will depend upon whether independent voters identify with him and see him as attacking the problems that they think are important, which right now is getting spending under control,” said Charlie Cook, a non-partisan pollster.

“I don’t think there is a Republican who can beat him. But I think he can beat himself.”

Paul Ryan, the Republican who authored his party’s budget plan, said the speech was a partisan cry for class-warfare that ignored the fiscal crisis. He accused the president of “exploiting people’s emotions of fear, envy and anxiety”.

Republicans can fairly argue that, unlike their plan, Mr Obama’s proposal to reform Medicare is vague. It also relies on assumptions of cost savings that have yet to be proved.

If Mr Obama’s effort was designed to win over independents, it did not appear to anger the left. The speech was warmly received by one important Democratic constituency: labour unions, who broadly accepted Mr Obama’s call for shared sacrifice.

“We are encouraged by the president’s thoughtful approach to preserving and protecting Medicaid and Medicare from the radical cuts proposed in the Republican budget,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the SEIU service employees union. “These sacrifices must be shared by all and not directed at those among us who can least afford it.”

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