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What’s At Stake

Whoever wins the presidency in November will face enormous challenges at home and abroad

By Patricia Smith | April 24, 2006

When President Obama was elected in 2008, expectations were incredibly high. It was a moment of national crisis—the country was suffering through the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression and fighting two wars. Obama looked to many like a potential savior. As the first African-American to win the presidency, he seemed to represent a changing of the guard. And his message of “hope and change” resonated with many Americans.

Now President Obama is running for re-election, but he’s no longer an upstart promising to shake things up. The economy, while no longer on the brink of disaster, is still on the mend.

In November, Americans will decide whether Obama is the best person to lead the country for the next four years, or whether his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, would do a better job.

With almost 13 million people still unemployed, the sluggish economy is the No. 1 issue for most voters. How Americans feel about the economy— whether it shows real signs of improvement or still looks fragile—may be the deciding factor in the election.

Underlying that issue, and many others, is a key difference between Democrats and Republicans in how they view the role of government.

“Much of this election boils down to one question: Do you believe that government should have a bigger or smaller role in the life you live on a daily basis?” says Bill Rosenberg, a political science professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Stark Differences

The two candidates have starkly different views on this question. President Obama sees government having a key role in stimulating economic growth and as the average American’s protector. Romney, on the other hand, views government as a nuisance: Its excessive regulations endanger individual opportunity and the free market, he says. This philosophical divide affects where the candidates stand on many issues (click here for a chart).

Many Americans are frustrated with everyone in Washington, including the president. For most of the last year, Obama’s approval rating has been stuck below 50 percent—dangerous territory for a president seeking re-election.

“You can only run as a national savior once,” says E.J. Dionne, a columnist for The Washington Post. “One of the challenges for Obama is trying to re-motivate voters, particularly younger voters, who played such a key role in his election.”

In 2008, young voters were crucial to Obama’s victory. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that just 45 percent of 18- to 34-year-old voters express “high interest” in this year’s election. That’s down 17 points from four years ago. If less enthusiasm translates to lower turnout among young people, it could have an impact in several swing states (click here for a map).

The Obama campaign seems to recognize this: It kicked off the president’s re-election campaign in the spring with a tour of college campuses and an appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.


Romney has an enthusiasm problem of his own. Many social conservatives and Tea Party members opposed Romney in the Republican primaries. Some Eangelical Christians were uncomfortable with the fact that he’s a Mormon. Now he’ll have to energize that conservative base without alienating independents, whose votes he’ll need to win in November.

“It’s no secret that the Tea Party’s first choice wasn’t Mitt Romney,” says Brendan Steinhauser of FreedomWorks, a conservative group. “But the one thing that unifies the Tea Party is that we want to replace Barack Obama.”

Most Americans already have a pretty good idea who Obama is. He’s the child of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya who left the family when Obama was very young. He spent much of his childhood with his maternal grandparents in Hawaii, where he was born. After graduating from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, Obama became a community organizer in Chicago. He was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996 and to the U.S. Senate in 2004.

Romney grew up in Michigan, where his father was governor. After graduating from Brigham Young University in Utah, he earned degrees from Harvard Law and Harvard Business schools.

Aside from his four years as the governor of Massachusetts, Romney has spent most of his career in business. As the co-founder and onetime C.E.O. of Bain Capital, a Boston-based financial firm, Romney became a wealthy man. In 2002, Romney was credited with saving the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City from financial disaster.

But Romney has a history of changing his political opinions, opening him to the charge that he’s a flip-flopper who adjusts his positions to suit the political circumstances. For example, when he was governor of Massachusetts, he supported health-care reform that requires everyone to buy insurance. Now, he rails against “Obamacare,” President Obama’s healthcare- reform law, which was modeled after the Massachusetts law.


Romney’s campaign will try to make the election about one issue: the economy. As a sign in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters reminded staffers in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid!” That’s been the case in presidential contests since then, and certainly seems to be in 2012.

“President Obama’s policies have slowed the recovery and created misery for 24 million Americans who are unemployed or stuck in part-time jobs when what they really want is full-time work,” Romney said during the primaries.

The Romney campaign has also been critical of Obama’s record on a variety of national security issues, including blocking Iran’s nuclear ambitions and dealing with China.

Obama has fulfilled his 2008 campaign promise to end the U.S. role in the war in Iraq. After almost 4,500 U.S. deaths, the last American troops left the country in 2011. He ordered the May 2011 raid that resulted in the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Now, after increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan, Obama is trying to wind down the U.S. role in that war as well.


In a recent speech, Obama said his foreign policy is based on the belief that “there’s no contradiction between being tough and strong and protecting the American people, but also abiding by those values that make America great.”

On the home front, the economy isn’t the only issue on voters’ minds. There are four Supreme Court Justices older than 70, so it seems likely the next president will have a chance to fill one or more vacancies. Any changes in the Court’s makeup could influence the lives of Americans for decades to come.

The 2012 election is expected to be the most expensive ever, costing $11 billion, according to Federal Election Commission estimates. A good chunk of that will come from outside groups known as super PACs, which can accept unlimited individual, corporate or union donations. Most of that super PAC money will go to attack ads.

Much of the ad blitz will focus on 10 swing states: Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Colorado, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Obama won them all in 2008, but this year they seem to be up for grabs.

The proportion of Hispanic voters is growing in these swing states, so both candidates will by vying for their support. In June, Obama issued an executive order halting the deportation of illegal immigrants brought here as children and allowing them to have temporary work permits. Romney has not said whether he would reverse the measure.

With the nation so polarized, voters seem to have a clear choice in November.

Dionne, the Washington Post columnist, says the difference between the two parties is so stark today that it feels like the nation is at a tipping point in terms of what direction it heads in.

“In every election, there’s this habit of commentators saying this is the most important election ever,” he says, “but this is one case where I actually think it’s not hype.”

This article originally appeared in the September 3, 2012 issue of The New York Times Upfront. For more from Upfront, click here.

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