For Candidates, Economy Is Major Focus Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke today warned Congress that an economic recession is possible. Many Americans say the shaky economy is their biggest concern this election year. But what are the candidates saying about the economy?
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For Candidates, Economy Is Major Focus

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For Candidates, Economy Is Major Focus

For Candidates, Economy Is Major Focus

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From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Today, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned Congress that an economic recession is possible. That's no surprise to many people who've been feeling scrapped for cash for months now. Many Americans say the shaky economy is their number one issue this election year, but how well do people research the candidates' positions on issues like the economy, and who's responsible for making sure that voters have clear and accurate information?

To answer these questions and more, we've got Robert George. He's an associate editorial page editor for the New York Post. Also joining us, Mary Frances Berry, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. She's also the former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Hi, folks.

Dr. MARY FRANCES BERRY (Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania; Former Chair, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights): Hi, Farai.

Mr. ROBERT GEORGE (Editorial Page Writer, New York Post): How is it going?

CHIDEYA: It's going great. So, you know, we're going to talk horse race. But first, I want to ask about issues.

Dr. BERRY: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: I mean…

Dr. BERRY: Issues.

Mr. GEORGE: Issues.


Mr. GEORGE: Whatever happened to them?

CHIDEYA: Exactly, those things. You know, we keep hearing that the economy is the number one issue for Americans right now, but how do people - and I'm going to start with you, Robert — how do you think people get their information? And are people at this point really focused on trying to parse out the candidates' exact plans, or are they going more on these ideas of who's more charismatic and what are peoples' character and have they scored points?

Mr. GEORGE: I think it's a mixture. I think, though, when it comes to the economy, I think it is the number one issue because it's the thing that the average person encounters or engages in their everyday life, on a daily basis. I mean, people are worried about Iraq, but unless they actually have somebody who's a family member in the military or something like that, it's far away from them. Whereas the economy, when they're seeing these headlines about the swings in the stock market, you know, Bear Stearns collapsing and so forth, that is front and center.

And so I think they are worried about it, but I'm not quite sure if they are necessarily focused on what Hillary Clinton's five-point plan is versus Barack Obama's 10-point plan versus John McCain's - whatever plans he might have.

CHIDEYA: That's 13-point plan perhaps.

Mr. GEORGE: Thirteen-point plan. But - so it is the number issue. But people tend to kind of tune out the actual policy issues of politics until it's getting - it get closer to making their choice for a specific candidate.

CHIDEYA: Mary, when you think about how people process information, whose responsibility is it to really make sure that people have information? I mean, is it just the voters' responsibility to hunt through Web sites? Is it journalists' responsibility? Is it the campaign's responsibility? Who should make sure that voters have the right information?

Dr. BERRY: Well, the campaign obviously will put out what they think will be persuasive, so I wouldn't rely completely on what they put out, although it's good to check it out. Journalists have a responsibility to do it. But where people get their information from - and the voters have a responsibility to find out. But where they get their information from depends on what kind of media they either listen to or watch or read.

If you're a newspaper reader and you read major papers, you may see some detailed analysis of something. If you read local papers, usually they don't have much of anything — as I travel around the country — that you could make up your mind about. If you're just an Internet news reader and you don't listen to NPR or anything, you may not know specifically what these people are doing. And all you'll catch is the sound bites that come on, you know, the shows on television about their plans. And you may - you'll just have to have sort of gut reaction, a visceral reaction - is this person going to fight for me or not? And do they understand my situation or not? And so, I think it's up to all three, but it depends on what kind of media you access.

Mr. GEORGE: Yeah. And of course, you know, and we've got situations where the newspaper, as a regular entity or regular medium, is sort of falling by the wayside.

Dr. BERRY: Right.

Mr. GEORGE: And now, some of these younger voters who are the ones very much engaged in, say, the Obama campaign, they maybe getting their information from, say, articles posted on Facebook, for example, or another application — another Internet application. So, we don't know how detailed that gets either.

CHIDEYA: Well, before…

Dr. BERRY: I have to tell you, Farai, that most of the young voters that I encounter aren't making their decision about who they're voting for based on their detailed economic plans. It's their gut and visceral reaction, about who's charismatic, who has potential, and who they think they'd like to see in office and live with for four years.

CHIDEYA: Well, I have a bunch of campaign stuff I want to talk about. But just very briefly before we move on to that, is there anything that has stood out to you? Given that the economy is such a huge issue for most people, has anything stood out among the candidates distinguishing them in terms of what they presented? I'll go with you first, Robert.

Mr. GEORGE: I would say that in some of the debates, it's very, very clear that Hillary Clinton still has mastery of the health care issue. Whether you agree with her or not, you can see that that is something that she's incredibly passionate about and she knows the issue inside and out. So, that's something that sort of stands out. I would say, you know, Obama's speech on the economy last week kind of stood out in terms of putting him in a rather — an elevated setting, and it wasn't bad that he, you know, he was introduced by Mayor Bloomberg as well. But those are kind of the two things that kind of jumped out of me right away.

Dr. BERRY: Well, what jumps out of me is that Obama's position is closer to Paulson and the administration's position; a lot of emphasis on regulatory agencies and reorganization as a way to get rid of some of excesses, say, in the housing problems, which at bottom, what's going on now with the economy according to everybody who talks about it. Clinton was more, I'll fight for you and the little guy and save your house for you. And McCain was more, well, the economy will ride itself and the free market, you know, in the end will come out. So, those three - those stuck out for me in terms of the differences.

Mr. GEORGE: He doesn't want to be bailing out either lenders or borrowers.

Dr. BERRY: Right.

CHIDEYA: I want to go to a very specific example of some of the wrangling that's going on right now. You know, there've been these various calls. You know, Hillary Clinton should step out of the race. Oh, no, she shouldn't. Even Barack Obama who's basically said, you know, go for it. Let's, you know, fight this out. But, we've seen these cases of superdelegates switching sides. And there is an interesting situation. The Missouri Representative Emanuel Cleaver publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton last year. He still supports her, but he said in an interview that he believes Barack Obama will be the next president. He said he's not shifting his endorsement, but if the race is tight at the convention, he might have to consider voting for Obama for the good of the party.

So, that's a lot of mixed messages right there. Is that a sign of some softening support for…

Dr. BERRY: Can I jump on that one…

CHIDEYA: Please.

Dr. BERRY: …because I've been following Mr. Cleaver. What has happened to him is he's been beaten up on by people in his district just like John Lewis was and other people who I know personally were beaten up on by people who said your district voted this way or your district has. You have black supporters who have this. You should be with these guys.

So I think what he was trying to do was to say something in public to stop people from beating up on him and to sort of play both sides against the middle. And that, I think, accounts for - because he's generally a straight shooter. But he's trying to get these people, you know, off him who keep leaning on him about this.

But then I also think, Farai, that the best way to get Hillary Clinton out of the race is to beat her. And I was glad that Obama is campaigning hard in Pennsylvania, because if you were able to beat her there then we wouldn't have anymore calls of who should get out or who should get in. I mean, that would be the, you know, the end of it. So, but I think calling for her to get out — I was with Jackson's campaign in 1988 and he had about 1,200 delegates; Jackson didn't get out of the race. He had no intention to, and he had great power and influence at the convention and on the platform committee and all the rest of it. So, I don't think she's going to get out.

Mr. GEORGE: All right. Yup. Hillary Clinton is certainly getting political sniper fire from all directions right now. However, I think, I have to agree with Mary Frances Berry that the - she, Hillary Clinton, is certainly more of a - pardon the expression - a more serious, a full candidate than Jesse Jackson was in 1988.

Dr. BERRY: Right.

Mr. GEORGE: And the margin between Obama and Clinton is so narrow that it would be foolish to drop out now when you've got, what, about 10, I think, 10 primaries and caucuses left. So it's, you know, let it play out. As we saw in the last couple of days, there seems to be a little bit of a backlash hitting Hillary Clinton over the Bosnian sniper fire stuff, and her once huge lead in Pennsylvania has now front to single digit. So, you're right. If Barack Obama wins Pennsylvania, it will be basically impossible for Hillary Clinton to have any claim on the nomination.

CHIDEYA: All right. We only got a quick moment to touch on this, but John McCain is doing a week-long biography tour, talking about his military service.

Dr. BERRY: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: What advantages and disadvantages are there?

Dr. BERRY: Well, Farai, I love the biography tour at first, and I thought he's going to make great hay out of it, but then I just saw a poll just taken, which indicated that in matchups in Florida, Ohio…

Mr. GEORGE: Pennsylvania.

Dr. BERRY: …and Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton was beating him. Obama was, too, but she was beating him by a larger margin. This is while the biography tour is going on. And by the way, it's after Casey has endorsed Obama in Pennsylvania. I thought that was all very interesting.

So, the biography tour, apparently, didn't reinforce - I think he should continue it. He should modify it a little bit. He should probably try to raise some money, too, instead - in addition.

But McCain has shown us that you can win without money, so maybe he thinks he can win the general election without much money. But I, sort of, like the biography tour.

Mr. GEORGE: I think it's true. Well, actually, the poll in Florida has McCain losing to Clinton, but beating Obama by about seven…

Dr. BERRY: Aha.

Mr. GEORGE: …or eight points right now. I think this is actually a good time for him to be doing this biography tour because the Democratic contests is been so prolonged that they're sniping at each other. He has this great opportunity to reintroduce himself to the rest of the electorate and do some fundraising at the same time. So I think it's a - I mean, he's got a great story. And Obama is actually being rather canny in - when he critiques him now, he says, you know, he always starts it with John McCain is a great American hero, and we respect his service to his country, you know, we love the life he's lived, but we disagree with his policies. And I think that's a rather smart way to…

Dr. BERRY: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GEORGE: …get it to, kind of, try and counter the biography of - the biography presentation.

CHIDEYA: Well, Robert and Mary, that's it for today. Always great to talk to you. Thanks a lot.

Mr. GEORGE: Thank you, Farai.

Dr. BERRY: Thank you, Farai.

Mr. GEORGE: Nice talking to you, Mary.

CHIDEYA: Mary Frances Berry is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. And she spoke to us from our NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. Robert George is an associate editorial page editor for the New York Post. He joined us from NPR's bureau in New York.

And just ahead, Condoleezza Rice used the phrase birth defect to describe the legacy of race in America that set plenty of folks on fire. That's all in our Bloggers' Roundtable.

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