Obama positioned to beat the odds

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Obama positioned to beat the odds

Whereas the U.S. presidential election was hard to predict during the spring and summer, the race has now settled into a fairly stable trajectory, with President Obama leading his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Barring a major external event that causes Obama to stumble, or a significant self-inflicted wound during the final five weeks, Obama is very strongly positioned to win re-election.

That makes this a highly unusual election as history dictates Obama should lose by a sizable margin. The U.S. unemployment rate remains intractably high, stuck above 8 percent for 43 consecutive months; home prices are down; household income remains depressed; and the overwhelming majority of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

No incumbent president should be expected to win under those conditions, and yet, against all the odds, Obama has emerged as the favorite to win in November.

The primary reason for this turn of events was Romney’s miscalculation that the struggling economy alone would be enough to sink Obama. Romney sought to make the election a referendum on Obama’s failed economic policies, urging voters to consider the president’s track record and decide whether he deserves a second term.

Sensible though this strategy was, it failed because more voters still blame former president Bush, not Obama, for the dire economic situation. The economy was hemorrhaging 750,000 jobs per month when Obama took office, and in his first year the negative momentum continued with the loss of 4.2 million jobs. In the two and a half years since then, however, 4.6 million jobs have been created in over 30 consecutive months of growing employment.

Given the mess that Obama inherited, that turnaround is good enough to satisfy much of the U.S. electorate. As such, Romney’s attempts to make this a referendum on Obama’s economic stewardship failed, and the election has become a choice between the two candidates’ visions for the future.

This played directly to Obama’s strengths. It is terrain on which the Obama camp wants to fight, because they know that, for all of Obama’s weaknesses, voters are not sold on Romney. In terms of which candidate would improve the economy, Obama has a narrow edge over Romney in the key battleground states of Ohio, Florida and Virginia, states without which Romney cannot win the election.

Moreover, in national and swing state polling, Obama is rated more highly on almost all of the key issues and personal attributes, ranging from Medicare and taxes to likability and empathy with middle-class problems.

A subsequent strategic blunder stemmed from the Romney campaign’s miscalculation of trying to make this a referendum on Obama’s economic policies. Since Romney thought the economy would sink Obama, during the Republican primary he made the tactical decision of attempting to embrace increasingly conservative positions in an effort to put a quick end to the nominating contest. He assumed that middle-of-the-road voters would forgive his social positions because they were so disenchanted with Obama’s economic performance.

However, the product of Romney’s rightward shift in the primary is that Hispanics now favor Obama by a greater than two-to-one margin, and women prefer Obama by double-digit margins.

The “gender gap” has grown to 25 points in Ohio, 20 points in Florida and 15 point in Virginia, according to some surveys. It will be impossible for Romney to win these three states without substantially narrowing the deficit with Hispanic and female voters.

And without the electoral votes of Ohio, Florida and Virginia, Romney will come up short in his bid to defeat the incumbent president.

Obama’s likely re-election would have important implications for Korea. As the public knows, President Lee Myung-bak and Obama have developed a uniquely strong friendship, closer than any two leaders of the respective nations have ever had before. Korea has benefited from that newfound closeness, for instance, in the form of this year’s Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.

Also, senior U.S. officials, mindful of the close relationship between the two leaders, were more attentive to Korean views and more careful in their dealings with Korea. This of course helped enhance Korea’s influence in the United States. Hence, a top priority for the next Korean president must be to build upon Lee’s successes in Washington, in an effort to institutionalize the enhanced bilateral relationship so that it may transcend individual leaders for generations to come. This would bode well for the future of Korea.

* The author is a senior partner at the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Washington.

by Kim Suk-han
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