What if it’s Obama vs. Romney in 2012?

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It’s November, so the presidential election is a year away. We’ve got 12 months ahead of political spin, debates, posturing, commercials, charges, and policy statements.

Throughout, a fundamental question will loom: Does it really matter what politicians say while campaigning?

After all, some people believe politicians are going to do whatever they want once in office anyway. Others think most elected officials rank as liars.

But I believe what politicians say on the campaign trail matters a great deal. Indeed, it is central to elections and governing. The ideas, promises and agendas offered by candidates provide the most critical information for voters. The electorate listens and assesses what’s said according to the candidates’ backgrounds and what’s deemed best for the nation. And in the end, the winner’s eventual performance is based on what was pledged.

Interestingly, the anger at President Barack Obama, including from the business community, cannot be based on shifting positions. Barack Obama was a liberal senator from Illinois, who presented a left-wing agenda on the presidential campaign trail in 2008, and has largely governed that way in the White House.

For example, the costs and uncertainty created by ObamaCare should surprise no one. He campaigned for big-government health care.

Increased taxes and the threat of still higher taxes — particularly on upper income earners who include a large number of business owners and investors — were not sprung on the nation. To the contrary, Mr. Obama spelled this out when campaigning.

What about energy policy? Largely in name of fighting global warming, the Obama administration has pushed increased taxpayer subsidies for various non-economic forms of energy, such as solar and wind, while being hostile to more efficient energy, such as oil and coal. And though the EPA’s efforts to impose caps on CO2 emissions would mean diminished domestic energy production and higher costs, no surprises exist here when compared to what candidate Obama said.

On economic issues, the lone change in policy undertaken by Obama has been a recent small positive for businesses and consumers. While in the Senate and campaigning in 2008, Obama was clearly protectionist on trade. Once in the White House, he did nothing on trade, that is, until this year, when he finally sent trade accords with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, initially negotiated under President Bush, to Congress. Large bipartisan majorities quickly approved them.

Looking ahead, it’s hard to detect, based on what the president has said and done, any other significant and positive changes in policy positions.

But what about the Republican side of the presidential campaign? Here lies a mystery.

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, has been the one Republican candidate remaining at the top of the pack as other candidates seem to come and go. As of early November 2011, Romney was the GOP favorite, as he had been polling as the most consistent candidate. Ironically, however, Romney creates the biggest challenge for voters due to his inconsistency on many issues.

For example, on health care, it’s clear that RomneyCare in Massachusetts, with its individual insurance mandate; play-or-pay health coverage mandate on businesses; expanded government role; and increased costs, served as a forerunner to ObamaCare. But Romney says that while RomneyCare works for Massachusetts, ObamaCare does not for the nation, and he would repeal the president’s health plan.

On taxes, Romney’s impulse seems to fight tax increases and reform the corporate income tax. He also has called for eliminating the capital gains tax, but only on those making less than $200,000. Given that the capital gains tax reduces returns on entrepreneurship and investing, eliminating the levy makes sense. But why not for upper-income earners as well, who have the resources to invest and tend to be business owners? In addition, during his losing 1994 Senate race against Ted Kennedy, Romney opposed efforts to reduce the capital gains tax.

As for energy, Romney has sent confusing signals. His campaign energy plan hits solid notes of streamlining regulation, and removing barriers to domestic energy production. However, on the issue of global warming and its potential causes, as governor, he imposed costly rules on coal-burning power plants, and negotiated emissions caps in the Northeast. But then he backed out of that compact. And as a presidential candidate, he went from saying that global warming is man-made to saying he does not know.

Finally, on trade, the Romney economic plan’s primary focus is pro-opportunity, calling for expanding free-trade agreements with other nations. At the same time, though, Romney falls in with the protectionists who demand that China manipulate its currency in a way deemed beneficial to the U.S. or face trade sanctions. That’s a troublesome position that could invite a costly trade war.

If Romney winds up as the Republican candidate, the business community and voters will need to figure out if Romney is a conservative who ran and governed as a liberal in Massachusetts; or a liberal adopting conservatism to gain the Republican nomination and White House. Either way, what does that say about his principles?

If it is Obama vs. Romney in 2012, voters will choose between the Democratic liberal they know, or the Republican they really don’t know, a candidate viewed as flexible by supporters or a flip-flopper by critics?

Raymond J. Keating is the chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council. His new book is “Chuck” vs. the Business World: Business Tips on TV.