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Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente at the Globe and Mail studio on Front St., Toronto March 30 2012. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente at the Globe and Mail studio on Front St., Toronto March 30 2012. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Margaret Wente

Why Obama doesn’t deserve to win Add to ...

If Barack Obama loses the election, my friend Jim will be one reason why.

Four years ago, Jim voted enthusiastically for hope and change. This year, he’s voting for Mitt Romney. “I like Romney,” he says. “When folks saw and listened to him right next to Obama, he looked and spoke more like a president than Obama did.”

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Up here in Canada, a large majority of us still belong to the Obama tribe. If Americans were smart enough to think like us, Barack Obama would win by a margin of at least three to one. We can’t fathom why fair-minded people would vote for Mitt Romney. Most of my Canadian friends believe that Romney voters are either callous capitalists or dupes and fools – mouth-breathing Tea Partiers, country-club Republicans, closet racists, or working-class types who’ve been tricked into voting against their own interests.

Jim is none of these. He was thrilled to help elect the first black president. He choked up at the inauguration. He believes that universal health care is a moral imperative. He thinks the Bush regime’s reckless misadventures in foreign lands were total disasters. He believes in a decent safety net and sensible business regulation. But President Obama isn’t the postpartisan, centrist bridge-builder he told us he would be. “Obama is, in fact, a lefty, and given a free hand we really would become a debt-laden, sinking, entitlement-heavy, socialist basket case,” Jim says.

Mr. Obama’s appeal among minorities remains as strong as ever. But white Americans are breaking up with him across the board. In 2008, he was behind by 12 percentage points among white voters. This time, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC tracking poll, he’s trailing by 21 percentage points. (Mitt Romney with 59 per cent, Mr. Obama at 38 per cent.)

Plenty of Americans feel overlooked by both parties. Jennifer Erickson, a married mom in the swing state of Iowa told the Des Moines Register that the way she sees it, Mr. Obama champions the poor and Mr. Romney is for the ultra-rich. “Either way, the middle class loses.”

She’s not the only one who feels abandoned. The pro-Obama punditocracy is full of misery and reproach. They generally agree that the man in whom they had invested so much hope has been a crushing disappointment. “Obama never espoused a cause bigger than his own political survival,” wrote Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen in a poignant cri de coeur. “I will vote for Obama with regret. I wish he was the man I once mistook him for.”

Camille Paglia is harsher. In her view, the Democratic Party has lost all connection with the working class. As she told Glenn Reynolds, “I don’t see progressives. All I see is white upper-middle-class liberals who speak in this unctuous way about the needs of the poor.” (She’s voting green.)

To Canadians, Mr. Obama’s achievement in rectifying the barbarous injustices of the U.S. health-care system is reason enough to re-elect him. Americans don’t see it that way, though. A large number of them liked the system pretty much the way it was. They would have preferred small fixes, so that people with pre-existing conditions would be covered and nobody would go bankrupt paying for their kid’s cancer treatments. Instead, they got Obamacare – a bloated monster of a bill that only a bureaucrat could love. Nobody understands it and nobody knows how it will play out. Maybe it’s better than nothing, and maybe it’s worse. At any rate, it will do nothing to control costs, which are soaring.

But the worst thing about Obamacare was that it was awful politics. By ramming it through Congress when he did, Mr. Obama sacrificed the chance to carry out serious financial reform, and also to build consensus with the Republicans on other vital issues. Obamacare may have been a moral victory, but it was a failure of strategic leadership. As Democratic congressman Barney Frank told New York magazine, “I think we paid a terrible price for health care.”

Then came the campaign. Mr. Romney moved to the centre, but Mr. Obama didn’t. The President’s entire campaign had been built on demonizing his opponent as a charmless, rapacious plutocrat. It all went off the rails when Mr. Romney showed up at the first debate and impersonated a normal human being. Now Mr. Romney’s flip-flopping, which used to be regarded as a flaw, has become an asset. Democrats have tried to portray him as a heartless opportunist who will say anything to win. Instead, voters like my friend Jim see him as a pragmatist who will govern from the centre, despite his campaign platform. They also agree with David Brooks, the conservative columnist who used to admire Mr. Obama’s temperament and character. Mr. Brooks now says that Mitt Romney is “more likely to get big stuff done.”

The trouble is, this time around Mr. Obama hasn’t bothered to campaign on the big stuff. He has campaigned on little stuff. We know where he stands on free contraception (not exactly the biggest priority for voters these days), and we know he wants to tax the rich. But what’s the long-term plan? What’s his vision for the next four years? If he has one, he’s kept it to himself. Amazingly, both candidates have managed to spend the entire election campaign avoiding any mention of the fiscal cliff, or the fiscal abyss that America is falling into even if it avoids the fiscal cliff, or the steps the nation will have to take to save itself from economic oblivion. There’s a herd of elephants in the room, and they’re all invisible.

The more I listen to my American friends, the more convinced I am that Barack Obama doesn’t deserve to win. Sure, he was dealt a rotten hand. But he squandered his political capital and his opportunities. The trouble is, I’m pretty sure the other guy doesn’t deserve to win either. Good luck, Jim! You’re going to need it.

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