Economics takes a front seat in US race

By J Brooks Spector

The beach resorts on the Delmarva Peninsula, located between Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, are popular with Washington's "chattering class" throughout the muggy Washington summer, but the area also has small towns whose roots go back to before America's Revolutionary War in the 18th century.

And so this area was a good place to digest a week of Washington meetings with congressional aides, international economists and foreign policy analysts.

A year ago, most people thought this election would be a referendum on Iraq, but America's growing economic difficulties have now made the economy an even bigger concern for American voters.

Moving in right behind the economy is a growing clamour for health care reform, fuelled by rising medical costs and the inevitable gaps in coverage - even for those who have medical plans and health insurance (and nearly 50 million Americans do not). Concerns about the economy and health care are usually issues that help Democratic Party candidates win elections.

These economic concerns also have important foreign policy aspects, however. One is growing support for protectionist trade policies that supposedly are a shield against the continuing loss of manufacturing jobs in America, even though some experts argue automation and increasing productivity are as important for job losses as competition from nations such as China or Mexico.

Hillary Clinton's call to negotiate better terms for America under the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) made a contribution to her victory in the recent primary in Ohio and these same views may also give her an April 22 win in Pennsylvania, keeping her candidacy alive throughout the American summer.

Officials of the Democratic National Committee said they look forward to the moment the Obama/Clinton fight is decided so the party can take on Senator John McCain in the general contest. But, because the Obama/Clinton struggle has generated such interest and so many financial contributions and because it has brought so many new voters into the system, some states that have been reliably Republican for a generation could be "up for grabs" in the general election.

Senators Obama and Clinton remain close in the all-important delegate race - Obama has more elected delegates, Clinton still a few more of those super-delegates, current and former Democratic officials. So, there remains a slim chance either will win the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination, unless either candidate can somehow convince the nearly 800 super-delegates as a group to support him or her.

The Florida and Michigan primary results previously were declared off-limits in the delegate race because both states violated a party decision to keep the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucus and races in two other small states as the first steps in the campaign. But gaining these delegates might be the way to the nomination.

The essence is: can the Democrats effectively disenfranchise more than 5 million voters in their primary campaign, even as the party tries to draw new voters nationally?

Michigan's job losses and protectionist sentiment and Florida's many Hispanic voters could push both delegate totals substantially into Clinton's column if new primaries take place. As a result, the Obama camp may yet oppose new primaries, or procedural and financial difficulties could sink plans to redo these primary elections.

Regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination, some analysts argued to me that a Democratic victory might mean difficulties for an easy renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or even a successful conclusion of the Doha trade round. (A liberal international trade regime remains important for South Africa as this country continues to try to gain access and market share for manufactured products globally.)

Obama's foreign policy team is well populated with advisers with an interest in Africa, including Anthony Lake, the former national security adviser, Susan Rice, the former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and - at least until she resigned after calling Hillary Clinton "a monster" in the British press - Samantha Power, journalist and Harvard academic. Power is best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide.

Several unpaid advisers to the Obama camp spoke privately about efforts to get the campaign to focus substantively on Africa - beyond Darfur and genocide, that is.

But, Susan Rice may have finally begun to do just this with a recent article in The Washington Post that highlighted the problems of weak African states and America's need to pay more attention to poverty alleviation and re-establishing partnerships with key African states in support of stability and growth.

Clinton last month called for the need to end genocide in Darfur and to intensify anti-HIV/Aids, TB and malaria programmes.

Both candidates have, in effect, acknowledged some positive impacts of the Bush presidency on Africa. But, as one conservative policy analyst noted, upgrading Africa's ranking in the overall American foreign policy agenda is important. Yet what exactly can be downgraded to make more room for Africa on this crowded and contentious list?

  • J Brooks Spector is a senior visiting lecturer in international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand and a former American diplomat. He recently returned from a month in the United States. He writes in his personal capacity