Belfast Telegraph

Obama's hapless opponents give him a timely boost

As Barack Obama prepares to embrace all things Irish for a day next week, the odds have improved that this year's belated White House St Patrick's bash on March 20 won't be the last he'll host as president.

That's because the whacky antics of the field of Republican presidential wannabes and their hangers-on have boosted Obama's re-election prospects.

From Newt Gingrich's daft idea of a 51st US state on the moon, to Mitt Romney's inability to strategically dampen his Mr Moneybags persona, to Rick Santorum's back-to-the-future dream of transplanting 1950s America into the 21st century, this Republican pack appears hell-bent on driving independents into Obama's arms.

Add in the recent off-the-rails misogynistic attack on a female Georgetown University law student by Rush Limbaugh, America's top pro-Republican radio talk show host, and it's no surprise that Obama's fortunes are rising - particularly among the key constituency of women voters.

Still, as helpful as Republican bumbling may be, the fly in Obama's re-election ointment is still the economy.

On the face of things, Obama has had some encouraging news of late. Although felt on Wall Street far more than on Main Street, the US economy has officially been out of recession since mid-2009.

Housing and employment sectors remain the chief bellwethers of economic fortune and, given some recent improvements in both sectors, the Obama administration is right to claim statistics indicate the economy is revving up. However, last month five of the biggest banks reached a deal with the government and foreclosures are set to increase again.

That will, in turn, lead to a dramatic spike in the number of houses for sale, which, in turn, could once again send the housing market into a new tailspin.

According to Standard -amp; Poor's Case-Shiller Home Price Index, housing prices in America have slid for eight months running and are now at the lowest point since late-2002.

On the employment front January's unemployment figures were positive. It was the 23rd straight month of private sector job-growth in the US. The unemployment rate dipped to 8.3% - a significant drop from the Great Recession's high of 10.2% in October 2010. But Obama administration critics on the Right and Left contend that the drop in the unemployed was skewed by the 1.2m workers whose unemployment benefits ran out, or who gave up looking for work altogether.

In addition, many of the jobs created were for positions of fewer than 40 hours per week (some 700,000 jobs created in January were of this kind). All in all, there are still 12.8m unemployed in America - some 5.6m fewer jobs than existed then the Great Recession began in late-2007.

Last but not least, US petrol prices, while still lower than European levels, have risen to near-record levels. And, if predictions of further hikes this summer prove true, America's tenuous economic recovery could quickly slam into reverse.

Still, none of this automatically spells doom for Obama's re-election bid. Economic minefields aplenty remain.

But, thanks to the lacklustre performance of his challengers to date, Barack Obama's prospects of retaining the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are better than they've been for a long time.

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