Candidates show stark differences on economy

John McCain and Barack Obama kicked off their campaigns to reach the Latino community June 28, providing a unique comparative view of their sharply different philosophies and programs.

The two candidates separately addressed the annual conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) in Washington, with an audience of mayors, school board members, state legislators, congresspersons and others involved in the nuts and bolts of government.

The speeches and question/answer session covered a wide range of topics from taxes to immigration.

The stark differences between the two are best highlighted with some comparisons.

On the economy, health care, the mortgage crisis and other topics, Obama placed the emphasis on how government policies could make a difference in the everyday life of the average American by closing the extreme wealth gap between Wall Street and Main Street.

Speaking of building economic change from the “bottom up,” Obama offered a comprehensive infrastructure program with renewable energy sources at its center. Ending the Iraq war, he said, would free up resources for solutions to the economic and energy crises. He presented a tax program favoring larger tax breaks for middle and lower-income earners.

A central theme for Obama was this “bottom up” approach, both politically and economically. He emphasized empowering workers and families. “The election could depend on how large the Latino vote is,” he said. “Changing the political map will empower your communities.”

On the other hand, McCain stressed themes similar to what the country has heard during the eight years of the Bush administration. He urged “unleashing the competitive forces of the free market” and rejected rolling back Bush’s tax breaks for the super-rich and corporations.

Adopting language of the alternative energy movement, he also said the country should end its “dependence on foreign oil.” But how that squares with his foreign policy approach that advocates an ongoing presence in Iraq is unclear.

Appealing to the 2 million Latino business owners, he offered a tax program similar to Bush’s, although questions exist as to how that would help small and family-owned businesses struggling with high fuel and food prices.

Declaring, “We have the best health care system in the world,” McCain proposed a $5,000 tax break for health insurance and emphasized wellness and fitness promotion as long-term solutions, saying athletes like Shaquille O’Neill should speak to our youth about them.

Obama said he wants all Americans to have health coverage like members of Congress have. He prioritized preventive care, no denials for pre-existing conditions, and negotiating lower drug costs. Health gaps experienced by Latinos and African Americans must end, he said. A giant coalition effort, with Latinos in the center of it, is needed to fight for health care reform because profit-hungry insurance and pharmaceutical corporations and HMOs will try to block it, Obama said.

The two expressed sharp differences on the war in Iraq. McCain supported Bush’s troop surge. He tried to distance himself from the Bush administration by saying there had been “mistakes” in the beginning but now efforts he suggested are succeeding. Obama said the war itself was a mistake and could be ended in an “honorable and respectable way” within 16 months, releasing billions of dollars each month for health, education and other needs.

Both McCain and Obama backed immigration reform, but McCain favored a “verifiable temporary worker program” and did not mention employer sanctions or a path to citizenship.

Obama said “a path to citizenship” must be a priority, with a review of enforcement and punishment of employers who exploit undocumented workers. America has nothing to fear from immigrants today and we should have “no serving class in our society,” Obama said.

Despite massive job displacement, McCain said we should fully embrace trade agreements like NAFTA. He proposed stronger junior college training programs but criticized unemployment benefits as “outmoded,” and displaced worker programs as “worthless.”

On the other hand, Obama said trade can help but any agreements need labor and environmental protections. “The goal is prosperity for everyone, not just the corporations,” he said.