Barack Obama tried to shift the struggling US economy back to the centre of the presidential campaign on Friday after a Republican national convention dominated by the politics of character and culture.
By Andrew Ward in St Paul
The Democratic presidential nominee chided Republicans for glossing over the country’s economic difficulties and accused his opponent John McCain of offering nothing but more of the same failed policies of the past eight years. Both candidates returned to the campaign trail on Friday hoping to carry momentum from their party conventions into the final two-month sprint to the election, with most opinion polls showing Mr Obama narrowly ahead.
Mr Obama is anxious to make the economy the defining issue of the campaign, amid deepening public concern about rising unemployment, stagnating wages and turmoil in the housing and financial markets.
The McCain campaign, in contrast, wants the race focused on character and experience, portraying Mr McCain as a battle-tested war hero and his running mate, Sarah Palin, as a champion of small-town values. The Republicans successfully seized the limelight during this week’s convention, as Ms Palin, the 44-year-old governor of Alaska, emerged as a political star.
But Friday’s sharp increase in the monthly unemployment to 6.1 per cent – the biggest jump for five years – jolted attention back to the economy and sparked criticism of how little the issue was discussed by Republicans at their gathering in St Paul, Minnesota. “These [Republicans] spent three days [in St Paul] and you wouldn’t know what people are going through in the neighbourhoods because they didn’t talk about it,” Mr Obama told voters in Pennsylvania.
The word “economy” was mentioned fewer than half the times in keynote Republican speeches this week than at the Democratic convention in Denver.
While Mr Obama focused much of his acceptance speech nine days ago on the economic anxieties of middle-class Americans, Mr McCain’s address on Thursday dwelled mostly on his military record and a call for Americans to put their “country first”.
Mr McCain promised to invest more in retraining for workers struggling to adapt to the globalised economy and portrayed himself as a maverick reformer who would tackle corruption and wasteful spending in Washington. But his economic policies are mostly consistent with the low-tax, free-trade agenda of the Bush administration and the Obama campaign dismissed his “change” message as phony.
“The truth is there’s not an economic policy that was pointed to last night or at all in this convention that’s one iota different from George Bush,” said Robert Gibbs, an Obama spokesman.
In contrast with Mr Obama, who has promised a $1,000 middle-class tax cut, Mr McCain’s tax proposals are centred on a large reduction in the corporate-tax rate, which he says would boost job creation.
Senior Republicans admit they are playing from a weak hand: “We are only going to win this election either by changing the subject or else by persuading people that Obama is an old-fashioned tax and spend liberal,” said the former policy adviser to one of the leading Republican opponents of Mr McCain.