Voting With Your Money by Mark Wagner

The 2012 presidential election will go down in history as the election that was all about money.  The failing economy, taxes, spending, unemployment, the rising national debt – all things money took center stage in the minds of voters and in the mouths of the candidates on the campaign trail. The national unemployment rate is currently at 7.9% (Raum, 2012) and the national debt sits at over $16 trillion (U.S. debt clock, 2012). According to Democratic pollster, Doug Schoen, “ultimately, it’s the economy” that will be the determining factor in this election.  “If Romney wins, it’s the economy.   And if Obama wins, it’s because he’s been able to blunt the impact of the economy” (Raum, 2012).  If the current state of our national economy and the solutions proposed by each candidate are what steered voters at the polls, it is important to understand the economic platforms U.S. citizens had to choose between and how the candidates arrived at their positions.

The Democratic incumbent and election winner, Barack Obama, believes the best way to invigorate the U.S. economy is from the middle class outward.  Addressing the Congressional Joint Session on February 24, 2009, Obama expresses his faith in the power of the middle class:

The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach.  They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth.  Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure (Barack Obama Quotes, 2012).

Obama’s current plan for economic recovery outlines several approaches that echo the points made in his congressional address.  He is committed to increasing Pell Grant funding, keeping student loan interest rates low, and loan repayment affordable so more middle class Americans can pursue their career goals by obtaining a higher education, making for a better-educated work force.  Likewise, he supports federal funding of community colleges in order for Americans to receive quality training for the manufacturing jobs he hopes to bring back to the United States.  Obama proposes doing this by eliminating tax breaks to companies who move their manufacturing out of the country and creating tax incentives for those companies who bring their operations back to the U.S.  He also has been instrumental in lowering taxes for small business and agriculture – the businesses of the middle class – so they can afford to expand in new directions such as clean energy, which Obama strongly supports as an industry ripe for job creation.

Obama’s economic recovery plan is the work of a community organizer, something he spent two years doing in Chicago.  He felt called to become an agent of positive change in places where change was needed but seemed inaccessible. “Change won’t come from the top, I would say.  Change will come from a mobilized grassroots”, Obama (2004) writes in his autobiography, Dreams from my Father.  This vision of positive change as a “bottom-up” process is seen in the direct impacts Obama’s plan offers the middle class.

A community organizer works with a local group of citizens in identifying solutions to key problems affecting them, and then connecting the community with those who have the power to help initiate the solutions.  Grassroots organizing focuses on solutions existing within the community circle of influence, and organizing the group in asserting its influence on key decision-makers outside of the community when necessary.  Obama’s plan keeps the solutions within the middle class sphere – for instance those focused on education and training – while providing influence over power brokers outside the community, as seen in the tax incentives for large businesses who bring overseas jobs back into the community.  It is truly a grassroots plan keeping the solutions and government support as localized as possible with those who are feeling the effects of the recession the most – the middle class.

This is in contrast to Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s five-part economic recovery plan, which focused on government cooperation at higher levels of influence in the hopes of support “trickling down” to the middle class in the form of more jobs at better pay.  “The invisible hand of the market always moves faster and better than the heavy hand of government”, remarked Romney to the House Republican Conference in 2009.  Lightening the hand of government was prominent in Romney’s plan to grow the economy.

The first of his goals was for the United States to be energy independent by 2020, with a focus on accessing more fossil fuels located on U.S. land.  Second, Romney proposed adjustments to international trade agreements that would open up new markets for American goods and services while cracking down on agreements that are currently being abused by other countries.  Next, Romney would support education by providing better public schools, better access to higher education, and better re-training programs for out-of-work Americans.  Fourth, he planned to cut the national debt by reducing government spending.  And finally, he would cut taxes for all Americans while deregulating business in general.

Romney’s five-part economic recovery plan reflected his previous work as a business consultant with a reputation as a successful turnaround artist, most notably with Bain & Company and the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics (SLOC).  According to Frontline, Romney attended Harvard during a time when they emphasized a business consultant model focusing on an individual coming into an organization to offer a detached analysis of the problem and objective list of solutions before moving on to the next organization to assist (Kirk, 2012).  (This is in contrast to the in-house model where the consultant is vested in the organization and works with different departments in addressing organizational problems, such as Greenleaf at AT&T.)  Romney could be characterized as a reluctant prophet in his involvement with the SLOC.  “I got a call asking whether I would consider taking the helm of the troubled Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Olympic Games,” writes Romney in his memoir, Turnaround.  “I dismissed the notion out of hand.  It was a preposterous idea.  I had no background in sports administration” (Romney & Robinson, 2004).  However these initial apprehensions are what would give Romney the necessary distance to objectively scrutinize the organization and lead it toward positive changes.

Romney’s approach to the nation’s economic crisis was that of the outsider who has observed and offers a succinct list of five solutions. Most of these solutions, with the exception of Part Three, focused on bolstering the top of the pyramid in an effort to address problems lower in the hierarchy, hence the term “trickle down” economics.

When comparing both candidates’ plans for the economy one can hear echoes from their personal lives as well as their approaches to community service.  For example, education figures prominently in both plans.  An analysis of the key talking points from their campaigns on this subtopic identifies the gap in perspective these two men have from their lived experience.

Obama specifically supports government educational funding through Pell Grants, federally subsidized loans, and direct funding to community colleges.  Obama attended Occidental College, Columbia University, and Harvard Law School.  While his decision to attend Occidental was “mainly because [he’d] met a girl from Brentwood while she was vacationing in Hawaii with her family” (Obama, 2004) and he applied for a transfer to Columbia because he “figured that if there weren’t any more black students at Columbia than there were at Oxy, [he’d] at least be in the heart of a true city, with black neighborhoods in close proximity” (Obama, 2004), one can surmise financial aid packages played into his decisions given his mother was solely responsible for his and his sister’s welfare.  According to the StarTribune, Obama received Department of Education funded student loans (Crumb, 2010) to help pay for college.  Obama’s economic recovery plan includes federal education funding support because he personally understands how important this funding is in making higher education accessible to those who will eventually drive our economy as consumers, manufacturers, business leaders, and even future presidents.

Although education also had a place in Romney’s economic recovery plan, he offered no specifics on how his administration would support it on a federal level, if at all.  This may be in part to the mixed messages on education Romney gave during his campaign.  In the presidential debates he insisted he had no plans to cut federal education funding.  However Romney also spoke in support of his running mate Paul Ryan’s federal budget plan, which calls for billions of dollars in cuts to educational funding (Strauss, 2012).  Romney attended Stanford University, Brigham Young University, and the Harvard School of Business.  He came from a wealthy family and had no need for financial aid support for his education.  On the campaign trail, Romney advised students to get as much of an education as they could afford (Hibbard, 2012).  His advice that young people should “take a risk, get an education, borrow money if you have to from your parents” was often misinterpreted as advising students they should borrow for education costs from their families.  The Romney campaign clarified he was speaking in terms of business loans (Trinko, 2012), however this also indicated his plan limited opportunities to those with private financial resources, i.e. those higher up the economic pyramid.  This is understandable considering Romney’s perspective as a member of an affluent and influential family, both on the political scene and within the Mormon Church.  In a “top-down” economic plan, recovery does not need to trickle far in order to impact those who would be considered Romney’s peers and associates.

The 2012 election is over and Obama has been declared the winner by a narrow margin, winning only 50.5% of the popular vote compared to 48% for Romney (Kanalley, 2012).  With virtually half of the nation still believing in the importance of grassroots change, and the other half considering a return to “trickle down” economics as the solution to our nation’s problems, we are sure to have an interestingly contentious four years until the next election unless Obama can successfully reach across party lines.  One can hope the almost equal divide in the popular vote will be a catalyst for a new era of bipartisan cooperation.  Our nation’s future depends on it.


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