CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Coming off of two weeks of national party conventions, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will hit the campaign trail with two months to go until Election Day, trying to convince voters that their plans will turn the economy around.
While issues such as health care, energy policy, gay rights, abortion and immigration will play a role, most experts feel the election will come down to who the voters feel has the best economic prescription and the leadership to carry it out.
A key ingredient in the mix is jobs — who has the best plan to create them and is able to sell them to the American public on the stump, through ads and in the presidential debates, set for Oct. 3, 16 and 22. There will also be one vice presidential debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan on Oct. 11.
Friday’s release of the August employment report could be telling, as will next month’s report, the last one before Election Day on Nov. 6. The overall economy added 163,000 jobs in July and the unemployment rate edged up to 8.3 percent from 8.2 percent, after peaking in October 2009 at 10 percent.
Obama had hoped the jobs numbers would improve at a more robust pace and his campaign will continue making the case that despite the slow job growth, the economy is better off than it was four years ago and, given four more years, the economic recovery will take hold. The campaign has touted that 4.5 million private sector jobs have been created in the last 29 months.
Romney will continue to hold Obama accountable for the high level of unemployment and argue that he has a better plan to help the recovery.
Obama, who is due to accept his party’s nomination for president here Thursday night, has touted economic solutions, such as an elimination of tax cuts for families with incomes above $250,000 and individuals with incomes above $200,000, a reduction in the corporate income tax, an elimination of tax breaks for companies that move operations offshore, and more scrutiny of trade agreements and unfair trade practices combined with more market opening trade initiatives.
Romney has put forth a plan that focuses on repealing regulations and laws enacted under the Obama administration, including the President’s signature health care plan and the Dodd-Frank financial regulations; shrinking the size of the government through federal spending cuts; extending tax cuts for everyone, including the wealthy, and passing more free trade deals, while cracking down on China’s undervalued currency.
Retailers and manufacturing have been two of the sectors hit hard by the downturn and slow economic recovery.
“I think both campaigns mention the need for tax reform and not raising taxes on the middle class,” said Bill Hughes, senior vice president for government relations at the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “We think that is very important for retailers because if consumers believe there will be a tax increase or there is uncertainty about taxes, that harms spending.”
As for the differences between them on extending tax cuts to the wealthy, which Obama opposes and Romney supports, Hughes said a lot of higher tax earners are small businessmen who file under the personal income tax code.
“Their decision on how much to grow business and whether to invest and create jobs hinges on their tax rates, so [the candidates’ policies] would affect those decisions,” Hughes said.
He said the narrative from the Romney campaign in the upcoming presidential debates will be: “[The President] has had four years and you aren’t better off than you were before. It’s time to make a change,” while the Obama campaign’s narrative will be: “The President arrested the free fall of the economy. Why do you want to go back to the policies that created the mess?”
For many U.S. retailers, apparel importers and manufacturers, the next two months leading up to the election will be vital as the candidates further carve out their positions on the economy and trade.
Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said he doesn’t expect trade to play a big role in the debates although it will be an issue over the next two months on the trail.
“It would be helpful if one of the candidates talks about the positives of trade and how it has helped the American consumer,” Burke said. “I think, though, that the candidates will spend most of their time talking about the economy. The unemployment rate, for example is still hovering above 8 percent.”
As for the hard-line stance Romney and the Republican platform have taken on China, Burke said he believes it’s primarily campaign rhetoric and that if Romney wins, he will not penalize China for an undervalued currency his first day in office as he has pledged and instead take a long look at the importance of the overall relationship with China.
Academics said the candidates presented plenty of differences to help voters choose.
Phillip Swagel, professor of international economic policy at the University of Maryland, said the Obama campaign will continue to draw a distinction with Romney over tax cuts for the middle class — Obama would let the tax cuts expire for high income earners to help pay down the deficit, while the Romney campaign will champion extending tax cuts for everyone, including the wealthy, which could help spur more investment and job creation.
Anita McBride, former chief of staff for Laura Bush and now an executive in residence at American University, said the presidential election “always comes down to the economy.”
She said former President Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic convention was highly effective because he said he, too, had to turn an economy around, and it took time. She said the campaigns will continue to drive home their differences on energy policies, which will resonate in industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Romney will focus on energy independence and domestic production, while Obama will favor more alternative methods like solar and wind and put less of an emphasis on domestic production.
“A lot in this election will hinge on the confidence people have in what they think their immediate futures hold,” McBride said. “Are they patient and are they willing to wait, or do they really think we are going off a cliff and need a change?”