What’s at stake in the US election?

As the presidential debates approach, voters focus on health care, women’s issues, and – most importantly – the economy.

Kathleen Gallahger and Courtney Byers
Kathleen Gallagher, left, says her priority this election is the economy and creation of jobs [Sara Hassan/Al Jazeera]

The conventions are done and the nominations accepted. Now the real race for the White House begins. Americans will watch the upcoming debates closely, when both presidential and vice-presidential candidates face each other and the nation in a bid to win votes in November.

The overwhelming majority of Americans say their biggest concern this election season is the state of the economy. But other concerns include women’s issues, security, and health care.

Kathleen Gallagher is an architect living in the northeastern US state of Pennsylvania. She says she affiliates herself with libertarians and independents, but tends to vote Democratic. She says women’s health issues are important for her, but her top concern this election is the economy and the creation of jobs. She herself is debating whether to apply to a graduate programme or enter the shrinking job market.

Scarce jobs

“My field has evaporated,” she says. “I’m renegotiating my career. It was never hard to find a job. Now there are simply not enough jobs to go around for the demand of employment.” While she does not expect the economy to blossom over the next four years, she hopes it will at least turn around.

Tony Hazel from Columbia, South Carolina, believes that job creation is a top concern[Sara Hassan/Al Jazeera]

Gallagher explains that Obama’s presidency did not meet her expectations. “I feel like he’s backed down on some issues,” she says. “He extended Bush-era tax cuts. And his health care bill was not representative of Democrats, but rather conciliatory to Republicans.”

Her thoughts on the economy are echoed by Tony Hazel, 52, a structural engineer and a Republican from the southern state of South Carolina. He believes the economy should be the top priority for the next president. Hazel has had his house up for sale and hopes to move into a bigger one. He says he is in no rush, but that it does not seem to be a buyers’ market.

Hazel agrees that job creation is essential. “I think the government needs to stop spending money, whatever that looks like, and cut taxes,” he says. “Those who create jobs in the private sector give people the opportunity to get off social programmes so they can fend for themselves.” He believes there should be a national energy policy for alternative energy sources. “We need to explore wind, solar, and bio-fuel components to get off oil. I think oil is fuelling lots of problems in the world, our fault and others’ as well.”

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney have sparred over their plans for the economy. One of the main points of contention is taxes.

Recently, Romney has been criticised by Democrats for pointing out that 47 per cent of Americans live off government benefits. Obama has responded by saying that the group includes veterans and the elderly.

And Republicans have rebuked Obama for his plan to roll back tax cuts on wealthy Americans, and for not turning the economy around during his four years in office.

Hazel says Obama inherited a bad economy, and that it may be partly the fault of the former Bush administration. He says Obama’s term wasn’t necessarily better or worse, but that it just had different challenges. He does not agree with Obama’s health care programme – the centrepiece of which requires all Americans to purchase health insurance or else pay penalties – and says that the government should not force anyone to do anything.

And while privacy rights have been a contentious issue in the US, Hazel says airport screenings are fair, and he doesn’t mind full-body scans to check for explosives. He says that Obama has maintained Bush’s security policies and that there have been no terrorist attacks in the US since he took office as a result.

Dorothy, who lives in the same neighbourhood, is also hoping for a better economy. She is a Democrat and says her views are not very popular in the South. “I feel like I’m always defending my ideas here,” she says. Dorothy voted for Obama and plans to vote for him again this year. She says many of the economic woes of the country stem from the preceding Bush era and that Obama’s term in office was much better.

And on the other side of the country, Danny Kish, 23, an executive assistant at a law firm in Los Angeles, California, says he is closer to the Democratic Party but that it doesn’t define all of his political beliefs. He agrees with Dorothy that Obama’s term in office was better than the previous administration.

But he says Democrats and Republicans need to stop fighting each other and work together to find solutions to serve the American people. “I want to see the economy improving, more jobs created, and fewer people living in poverty,” he says. 

And in Obama’s home city of Chicago in the Midwest, Andrew Fedele, 24, says, “I don’t care what you do in your personal life, but I prefer a more fiscally conservative government.” Fedele is an accountant and a libertarian. He says the issue of taxes is essential, but that the most important issue for him is repealing Obama’s health care programme.

Sherrod Bridgers, 25, also says health care is an important issue – but, in contrast to Fedele, supports most of Obama’s health care plan.  “I have a low-paying job and have expensive medication I take every month,” says Bridgers, a data coordinator at a women’s liberal arts college in the South . “I cannot afford it and depend on someone else to pay for it.”

But for Bridgers, the most important issues are women’s rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ( LGBT) rights. “My rights are being stripped away from me every day as a woman and it’s appalling and dangerous. I want to take steps to stop this movement.”

As for Gallagher back in Pennsylvania, she says, “This election is going to be very telling about the American people and where they stand”. She says both candidates will become less extreme and find a middle ground. “By election day we will have two pretty centrist candidates, one black and one white.”

Source: Al Jazeera