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Obama and Romney are Politicians, not Philosophers

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The Exchange

By Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research

The fact that President Obama and Governor Romney are first and foremost politicians is probably evident to most voters. After all, that is why they are the presidential nominees of their respective parties.

Yet somehow many in the media are convinced that Obama and Romney are philosophers. For example, the New York Times headlined a front page piece following the debate, "A Clash of Philosophies." The article goes on to tell readers that President Obama and Governor Romney have different philosophies about the roles of the government and the private sector.

It is truly bizarre that the New York Times and others in the media would believe that either Obama or Romney would have well developed philosophies about the government and the economy. After all, neither has taken years to study political philosophy or economics, they have not written important books or articles on the topic, nor have they given any major speeches that opened up new lines of thinking.

The idea that politicians act based on philosophical positions is largely if not entirely an invention of the elite media. The more obvious story is that politicians take the positions they do in order to gain the support of powerful interest groups who will advance their political careers.

It's All About the Money

For example, the most obvious reason that Governor Romney supports large tax cuts for the wealthy is that he hopes to get multi-million dollar campaign contributions from millionaires and billionaires, which in fact he has. He may say to the public that, contrary to all the evidence, he believes that cutting taxes for the wealthy will spur growth.

This of course sounds better to the vast majority of people, who are not rich, than saying that rich people gave him campaign contributions so that he would cut their taxes. While it is certainly possible that Romney does believe that tax cuts to the wealthy will spur growth, even if it is not true, reporters covering the campaign are in no position to know what Romney really thinks. Therefore rather than weaving whole philosophies out Romney's public statements, responsible reporters would simply tell us what Romney says and does and leave us to draw our own conclusions about his motives.

Of course the same would apply to President Obama. He must also garner the support of powerful interests, which means that the positions he advocates will also be influenced by the need to garner money and votes. Undoubtedly his desire to raise money from Wall Street banks was a factor in his decision not to break up "too big to fail" banks in the financial reform bill he pushed through Congress. No doubt it also plays an important role in his opposition to a tax on financial speculation like the ones imposed in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Politicians Act for Political Reasons

To a large extent Romney and Obama will be competing for the support of the same groups of people. Both of them will need more than one billion dollars to run a successful campaign. They can only get this sort of money by appealing to the small group of very wealthy people who are able to raise large sums of money for their candidacy.

However as a Democrat, President Obama also has ties to unions and other organizations who represent working people and the poor. This means that President Obama, unlike Governor Romney, must make at least some effort to appear to represent their interests as well.

This undoubtedly explains President Obama's opposition to Medicare vouchers, his support for extending health insurance coverage and his stand against large cuts to Medicaid and other programs that serve the needs of the middle class and the poor. Since Romney is not counting on much support from these groups, he is more able to support cuts to programs that are essential to the middle class and poor so that he can have larger tax cuts to the wealthy.

All of this seems fairly straightforward: politicians act for political reasons. It would be nice if the media started reported on political races this way and stopped trying to pretend that we are seeing great philosophical debates.

Dean Baker is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He has written extensively on a wide range of topics, including the housing bubble. His most recent book is The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive (free download available here).