The US election and the economy

 

THIS YEAR'S extraordinary presidential contest in the United States has concentrated above all in its final stages on the perilous state of the US economy, how best to ensure it recovers and its fruits are fairly distributed. The economic issue has suffused arguments about employment, taxation, healthcare and education.

It has displaced into a secondary place the debate on national security, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and US foreign policy in an increasingly uncertain world. And the question of how to handle economic policy looks set to determine swing voters' attitudes on whether Barack Obama or John McCain has the better temperament and ability to lead Americans out of a deepening recession.

Last evening's announcement that US interest rates are to be reduced again in an effort to stop the recession tipping over into a much more long-lasting depression underlines the issues at stake. In fact both men have gone along with the emergency measures already taken by the administration with cross-party support to provide liquidity to the financial system and then to recapitalise the banks. Events are moving too fast to allow them differ on technical details. Rather has Mr Obama sought to pin responsibility for the economic collapse on President Bush's policies of relying on low taxation of the wealthy and the dubious trickle-down effects of that on more general public welfare. Directly associating Mr McCain with those Bush policies has been an effective strategy, made daily more plausible by the direction of events.

In response Mr McCain has been reduced to describing Mr Obama's emphasis on redistributing wealth in a fairer society as socialist. It is a mark of Mr Obama's confidence that he could joke about this yesterday, saying in that case his sharing of toys with friends as a child must have been communist. Fundamental inequalities and insecurities in US society have been brought to the fore in this campaign as much by their growing impact on voters as by the candidates' initial policy platforms. It is a mark of Mr Obama's more effective approach that he has fastened on to this reality and made it resonate with the electorate. This has helped him transform what could have been a much nastier race issue into one of class inequality which makes the American dream of social mobility more and more inaccessible for most of its citizens.

Healthcare, taxation and education have been framed as issues by this combination of economic crisis and the growing inequality of the Bush years. To be fair to both men, they have delivered a mature debate on these issues. If Mr Obama should win next Tuesday - and it clearly remains his election to lose - he will be confronted with huge expectations of change. But the economic turmoil would leave him precious little leeway to respond with more resources. That would call for remarkable qualities of leadership and vision as he steered between hopes and realities. The same problem would confront Mr McCain, should he pull off a surprise victory that few now see coming.