In “Advantage, Obama” Mr. Blow has a question: Wasn’t this election supposed to be a nail-biter? Recent character moments and poll numbers suggest that President Obama is ahead. In “Two Days in September” Mr. Nocera says Lehman Brothers fell four years ago, and Occupy Wall Street rose last year. Where are we now? Ms. Collins looks at “The Lows of Higher Ed,” and says oh, to be young and gifted and $100,000 in the hole. Is that what going to college is about these days? Here’s Mr. Blow:
Elections often turn on character moments and the slopes of lines.
They are about who a candidate reveals himself to be under pressure more than who he says he is on stage. And they are about the direction of change when the time comes to vote for change — or to forswear it in favor of continuity.
Taking that into account, at this moment, President Obama’s chances of being re-elected look stronger than they have in months. The Romney campaign seems to be coming off the tracks with no clear vision for how to get back on.
Romney’s panicky, premature excoriation of the Obama administration over violence in the Middle East — a response that was factually flawed and widely panned — only served to shake the fragile faith of those who might be holding their noses to support him. “Anybody but Obama” used to be an effective rallying cry. Lately, it’s been more like “anybody but Mitt.”
Remember: character moments.
It also doesn’t help that Romney seems incapable of concealing his anxiety. He too often looks like a boy who just stepped on a nail and can’t remember his last tetanus shot.
On a side note, it is a poetic twist of fate that a Republican candidate’s crude response to irrational violence resulting from an anti-Muslim video could boost a president who nearly a third of Republicans irrationally claim is Muslim.
Now to the polls. A New York Times/CBS News poll released Friday found that President Obama had a three-point lead over Romney among likely voters and an eight-point lead among registered voters.
And NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist polls released Thursday found that the president had significant leads in the critical swing states of Ohio, Florida and Virginia.
Romney needs to win those states, especially given that his supporters are giving up on Michigan and Pennsylvania. Last week, The Associated Press reported that “Mitt Romney’s allies have pulled their advertising from Pennsylvania and Michigan while redoubling efforts in other battleground states.”
And, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out about its polls, “Mr. Obama’s support as a candidate is at or near 50 percent in all three states, suggesting that Mr. Romney must peel off voters who now support the president to win.” In southern farm culture we would call that a hard row to hoe.
A CNN/ORC poll released Thursday found that 68 percent of Americans expect the economy to be “very good” or “somewhat good” a year from now, the highest percentage saying so since 2002. (It’s not clear how many people think it would be better with a change in leadership, but I’d say that growing economic confidence benefits incumbents.)
According to a Gallup report released Wednesday, 30 percent of Americans said that they were satisfied with the way things are going. That wouldn’t seem to be something to crow about, but last year that number was 11 percent.
And a Gallup report released Thursday found that Democrats were tied with Republicans on the issue of who would do a better job of protecting Americans against international terrorism. This is a change after Democrats had trailed Republicans on this measure by as much as 13 points during Obama’s presidency.
That same poll found “the Democratic Party leading the Republican Party, 51 percent to 42 percent, in Americans’ perceptions of which of the two parties would do the better job of keeping the country prosperous. This is a switch from recent years, as the Republican Party was narrowly favored in 2010 and 2011 on this measure.”
Remember: slopes of lines.
The most stubborn line for Obama is the unemployment rate. It’s stuck above 8 percent, which is not good. But a flat line is not nearly as deadly as one moving in the wrong direction. Whatever voters think of the jobs picture — slowly improving or hopelessly stagnant — it’s already cooked into their calculations. And Romney has veered so far from his strategy of keeping the economy at the center of the campaign that he’s losing the only advantage he had. According to the Times/CBS News poll, Obama has now erased Romney’s edge on the economy.
The Christian Science Monitor asked Friday: “Is Mitt Romney running out of time?” It continued: “Should we just call this thing for President Obama now? We’re kidding, of course (hold your outraged comments, Romney supporters!). But, as the old saying goes, there’s some truth in every jest.”
Truly, there is. No one can predict the result on Election Day — overconfidence could devolve into complacency among Democrats — but, at this point, it’s hard to see a path to victory for Romney.
Charlie Cook, an independent political analyst, wrote Thursday, under the headline “Obama’s a Good Bet,” that “Mitt Romney could still win, thanks to the debates and outside events, but the president has the advantage.”
Now here’s Mr. Nocera:
Anniversary No. 1: Exactly four years ago, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection. In the days and weeks that followed, we saw the unfolding of the dramatic — and ultimately successful — effort by the federal government to rescue the banking system. But, once the dust settled, we began to see something else: like the stock market crash of 1929, Lehman wasn’t an isolated event. Rather, it was a signal that deep problems had enveloped our economy — problems that wouldn’t be solved quickly or easily. That is why the Lehman bankruptcy still resonates. It was the moment everything changed.
Prior to Lehman, it was easy to believe that housing prices could only go up and that we could always rely on debt to maintain our standard of living. We shrugged as manufacturing jobs disappeared — 5.8 million just since 2000 — and good middle-class jobs became harder to find. We didn’t talk much about income inequality. Nor did we care much that Wall Street had developed a mercenary trading culture, which had little to do with providing capital for companies, ostensibly its reason for being.
Post-Lehman, economic reality set in. First came the Great Recession, followed by a recovery so weak that unemployment remains at around 8 percent. The huge debt overhang is a yoke holding back economic growth. Millions of homes have been foreclosed on. The Federal Reserve has continually opened its monetary spigots to boost the economy — as it did again this week — but the problems are simply too big to be fixed by monetary policy alone. That’s the world we live in now.
Inevitably, this sense of never-ending economic struggle has led to a great deal of anger. On the right, that anger found its voice in the Tea Party. Its core belief is that government is the enemy, and that a more hardhearted approach — slashing government spending and forcing people to fend for themselves — is the best way to get back on track. However misguided, its conviction cannot be doubted.
On the left, that anger led, a year ago, to the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Thus, Anniversary No. 2: Sept. 17, 2011, was the date Occupy Wall Street took over Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, which soon led to similar actions in cities across the country. The movement’s primary issue was income inequality — “We are the 99 percent,” they used to chant. Reporters swarmed into the park, interviewing Occupy protesters and speculating on whether Occupy had the potential to be a lasting force. “Can Occupy Wall Street Become the Liberal Tea Party?” asked The American Prospect magazine.
A year later, we know the answer: It can’t, and it isn’t. For all intents and purposes, the Occupy movement is dead, even as the Tea Party lives on. But why?
One reason, it seems to me, is that the Occupy protesters were purposely — even proudly — rudderless, eschewing leadership in favor of broad, and thus vague, consensus. It’s hard to get anything done without leaders. A second is that while they had plenty of grievances, aimed mainly at the “oppressive” power of corporations, the Occupy protesters never got beyond their own slogans.
But the main reason is that, ultimately, Occupy Wall Street simply would not engage with the larger world. Believing that both politicians and corporations were corrupt, it declined to dirty its hands by talking to anyone in power. The takeover of the park — especially as the police threatened to force the protesters out — became an end in itself rather than the means to something larger. Occupy was an insular movement, whose members spoke mainly to each other.
The Tea Party did just the opposite. It, too, believed that politicians were venal, but rather than turning away from politics, its adherents worked to elect politicians who believed in the same things they did. Yes, the Tea Party had wealthy benefactors, but their money would not have succeeded without enormous grass-roots support. Two years ago, 87 new Tea Party-elected candidates showed up in Washington. Much as you or I may not like it, they have largely succeeded throwing sand in the wheels of government. That was their goal.
Timothy Noah, the author of “The Great Divergence,” a fine book about income inequality, says that Occupy Wall Street did succeed in “massively raising the issue’s profile,” as he put it to me in an e-mail. There is more discussion now about income inequality, he added, than during the entire quarter-century the income gap was widening.
That is nothing to sneeze at, I suppose, but raising the issue is the easy part. The hard part is doing something about it. Without political engagement by those who want to reverse income inequality, it will continue to widen.
Occupy Wall Street gave us a memorable slogan — “the 99 percent.” But you know what they say. Talk is cheap.
Now here’s Ms. Collins:
Welcome back, college students! Always nice to see you.
Although we are sort of worried by those bleak stories about student debt, which suggest a lot of you may graduate owing a ton of money and unqualified to do anything more remunerative than selling socks.
This year, Newsweek cheerfully welcomed the Class of 2016 by asking, “Is College a Lousy Investment?” And in The Times, Andrew Martin reported that the Department of Education is paying more than $1.4 billion per annum to folks whose job it is to collect on $76 billion in defaulted student loans. “If you wait long enough, you catch people when their guard’s down,” one debt collector told Martin after garnishing the savings of a disabled carpenter.
Look on the bright side, students. Perhaps when you graduate, some of you will be able to qualify for a good job in the booming accounts receivable management industry.
Higher education is still the key to most good jobs, but the nation is starting to ask some questions about the way we finance it. Shouldn’t there be more of a match between the cost of school and the potential earning power of the graduates? Who speaks for the art history majors? And why is tuition so high, anyway? (Parents, if your kid is planning to take out student loans, you might want to avoid any college where the dorm rooms are nicer than your house.)
“People don’t believe much any more about the altruistic motives of colleges and universities,” sadly noted Pat Callan of the Higher Education Policy Institute.
Not without some reason. In his reporting, Martin uncovered a newsletter aimed at college admissions officers that advised them to avoid using “bad words” such as “cost” or “pay” in their admissions materials. Instead, it suggested: “And you get all this for …”
In Washington, Congress is holding hearings! The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is considering a bill — co-sponsored by Democrat Al Franken and Republican Charles Grassley — that would require all schools to fill out the same form telling the student loan applicants useful facts like exactly how much per month they’ll be forking over when they start paying.
That would be the superminimum, right? How amazed are you that this isn’t happening already?
“Some of the packages don’t delineate what’s a grant, what’s a scholarship, what’s a loan,” said Franken. “And the information all comes in an award letter, so you’re thinking: Award!”
The Obama administration, which can’t do much about this without Congress, has been working to get the schools to voluntarily adopt a “shopping sheet” that would provide clear basic information so students could compare different schools’ financing before making a choice. “We’ve been encouraged by the feedback from the higher-ed sector,” one of the experts working on the program said. “I think we have 100 individual colleges and universities.”
The good news is that controlling college costs really does seem to be an administration priority. The bad news is that there are more than 4,000 colleges and universities.
People, don’t you think young adults should get the clearest, most easy-to-compare information conceivable before they sign a huge, life-changing loan deal? Don’t you think there should be somebody in charge of calling them up once a week and yelling: “Eight hundred dollars a month until you’re 51 years old!”
Maybe I’m underestimating the ability of teenagers to make serious, well-thought-out decisions about their higher education. All I can tell you is that when I was 21 years old, I signed up to go to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts because I had always wanted to live in Boston. I had no idea the main campus was on the other side of the state until I got there.
Franken is hoping the Senate might take up his proposal next year. I presume you weren’t expecting anything sooner. Congress can’t even get it together to keep the Postal Service from defaulting. And the Senate leaders admitted the other day that they’re not going to be able to pass a bipartisan bill to legalize Internet gambling on poker, which seems to be a really high priority for some important people. If they can’t do poker, they are not going to get to student loan transparency.
The House is planning hearings on student loans, too. The chairwoman of the subcommittee assigned to this task is Representative Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican who once said that she worked her own way through college and had “little tolerance” for people who complain about their huge student loan debts.
“New ideas to advocate for financial aid transparency are always welcome in this discussion,” Foxx said in an e-mail on Friday. “But we have to question whether the federal government’s dictating the terms of every college and university’s financial aid communications will actually achieve the desired results.”
So maybe a little less sense of urgency there.