The Prez Debate: Asking What Voters Want Answered

Robert Borosage

As Wednesday’s presidential debate approaches, the pundits are starting to handicap the event. There’s much talk about the horse race: Romney needs a knockout; Obama has to avoid a big mistake. Much talk about styling: Romney is practicing zingers; Obama is too professorial. Will both men turn to face each other when they are making a point?

Or there’s much talk about forcing the two candidates to be clear about arithmetic. How would they deal with deficits? Romney’s plan doesn’t add up. Obama’s $4 trillion in deficit reduction includes savings from winding down the Afghanistan War, but those aren’t in the budget baseline. And on and on.

Please. How about a debate that asks questions the voters want answered? Every poll shows that voters are most concerned about jobs and the economy. Who has a plan to create good jobs and put people to work? What is the strategy that will make this economy work for working people?

Romney remarkably has managed to make this election a referendum on him and his economic views, not Obama’s economic record. The man from Bain – with assists from Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry in the primaries and the Obama campaign in the general – has made himself into the personification and champion of the 1%. Voters aren’t buying his hoary conservative agenda – top end tax cuts, deregulation, more military spending, more corporate trade –the same voodoo that got us in this mess. His commitment to savage cuts in government spending immediately is a recipe for another recession. Does he have any clue about how to lift the economy other than “trust Mitt?”

Obama saved the economy from free fall. After his premature turn to deficit reduction and the idiocy of a grand bargain, he put forth a good jobs program last fall that Republicans largely blocked. Yet, at the convention, he and Bill Clinton seemed to argue that his policies were in place and just needed more time. And his aides have indicated the president is ready for another grand bargain focused on reducing deficits after the election. But Europe has already demonstrated that inflicting austerity on a weak economy is ruinous. So what would the president do to get the economy going and to put people to work?

Federal Reserve Governors are talking about a “jobs trigger,” suggesting that they should commit publicly to sustain extraordinary measures until unemployment comes down to 5.5%. Does either Romney or Obama agree with a jobs trigger – that efforts to slash spending or hike taxes should be deferred until the economy recovers and people go back to work?

Finally, austerity and stimulus are two sides of the same coin. Both assume that a jolt of stimulus or a gasp of austerity can revive the economy. But the old economy – built on debt and speculation – is no more. And it didn’t work for most Americans in any case. We need a fundamentally new strategy to get the economy moving. What would Obama or Romney recommend to end the unsustainable imbalances that blew up the old economy? How would they curb Wall Street (the big banks are more concentrated and bigger than ever)? How would they end unsustainable trade deficits (back over $1 billion a day)? What would they to counter extreme inequality (the richest 1% captured a staggering 93% of the nation’s income growth in the year after the collapse)? How would they improve our schools, make college affordable, insure every child has a fair start? How would they fix our broken health care system – which is in fact the sole source of our staggering long-term deficit projections?

These are the questions that Americans have. They are looking for answers. So let’s skip the gotcha questions. Lets’ get beyond the beltway fixation on reducing deficits, and sharing the pain. Let’s focus on jobs and growth, and what each candidate would do to make this economy work for working people once more. That debate would be worth listening to.

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