Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Counting Down

Voting for the November election in the United States has already begun. As an overseas voter registered in the state of Washington, I have already received my ballot. I can fill it in and post it back anytime between now and Election Day.

I take my vote seriously. I always vote as if my vote was the only one that counted. On the other hand, I have no illusions about the practical effect of my vote. Washington is not a battleground state. My vote will have absolutely zero effect on the fact that all of Washington’s electoral votes will go to President Obama.

If the media and polls are to be believed, nearly half the country has firmly made up its mind to vote one way, and nearly half has made its mind up to vote the other way. The election then comes down to a relatively small number of voters who can be seen and heard in news stories telling reporters that they don’t know which side to believe and they don’t have enough information. Of course, in this day and age no one can realistically say that there isn’t enough information out there. What they really mean, I think, is that they don’t have enough time to investigate it in depth and to weigh it.

Personally, I think most people arrive at their voting decisions out of habit or through their gut. They generally stick with the party or the candidate that makes them feel comfortable. To the extent that they read up on issues, they tend to seek out facts that support positions their heart has already taken. I don’t say this as a criticism. I think it’s just human nature.

But what if you were starting out as a blank slate and were trying to figure out whom to vote for? How would you go about deciding? Here is the process I would—and actually do try to—use.

First, if there is an incumbent, you would have to give him preference. He is a known quantity and he has experience in the job. If he is doing the job well, why toss him out in favor of someone who has no experience being president and would have to start with a learning curve?

But what if things are not going well and the country is on a trajectory toward disaster? Then you have to weigh the alternative. And, as far as I can see, that is where the U.S. is. The gap between government revenues and outlays keeps widening. The point where Medicare becomes insolvent is clearly viewable on the horizon. The deficit has grown close eclipsing the entire economic output of the country. And the current administration has put forward no plan that makes any serious attempt to correct the situation and has offered none for a second term. The administration’s plan is very short-term and does not address the Medicare problem.

The problems that aren’t getting solved aren’t just ones looming in the future. Right now today unemployment remains high. This is causing real hardship throughout the country. Yes, the official rate is edging down, but the rate that includes people who have stopped looking for work has remained constant at over 14 percent.

Of course, responsibility for the lack of progress in solving the country’s problems has to be shared between the White House and Congress. But only the president is in a position to exhibit the leadership to reach a resolution. And in this area, the president’s striking lack of experience has clearly proved to be an impediment. Remember that, before his election, his federal experience consisted entirely of three years and ten months in the Senate. And during that time he authored no significant pieces of legislation and spent much of his partial term campaigning for president. Exhibit A for how this lack of experience has been detrimental can be found in Bob Woodward’s recent book The Price of Politics, in which he describes how the president botched negotiations for a debt deal.

Still, even if the president came into office with little experience, he certainly does now have the experience of being president for nearly four years. But has he given any indication that he has actually learned from his presidential experience? I see no sign that he would do anything differently in a second term.

The president’s own defense of his first-term performance consists of a couple of basic points. One is that he was blocked from solving problems by Republicans. The problem with that argument is the fact that, as of the end of this term, in addition to controlling the White House, the president’s party will have controlled the Senate for six years and the House of Representatives for four of the past six years. The other basic point in the president’s self-defense is that electing a Republican president would amount to a return to the policies that created bad economy. But on examination, this argument devolves into the notion that low tax rates caused the 2008 financial crisis. That makes absolutely no sense.

So there is plenty of justification to at least consider replacing the president. But would that actually be the best thing to do? There is no way to know for sure. A change could well improve things. On the other hand, no matter how bad things seem, they can always be made worse.

In the end, the decision comes down to a leap of faith. Many will put their faith in the idea that President Obama will perform better in a second term. Many others will put their faith in the fact that Mitt Romney has successfully run large organizations, including the mostly Democratic state of Massachusetts, and demonstrated his problem-solving abilities with turning around the 2002 Winter Olympics.

In the end, though, most of us will go along with what our heart tells us. Or, as political journalists put it, the “direction” we want for the country. Personally, at this point I am not too interested in “directions.” My main priority is not having the United States turn into Argentina.

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