Small business owners hope presidential debate sheds light on economic policies


This combination of file pictures shows Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) addressing a large audience at Centro Incorporated, December 28, 2011 in North Liberty, Iowa, and US President Barack Obama (R) speaking during the National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton on February 3, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP - Jewel Samad/AFP-/AFP/GettyImages)

When Lana Nguyen watches Wednesday’s presidential debate, she’ll be keeping an ear out for discussions of the issues affecting small businesses.

Owner of Washington-based furniture retail site Lana Furniture, Nguyen has already eliminated one candidate. She’s a registered Republican and said she won’t vote for President Obama because of the slow economic recovery these past four years, which has been hard on her business.

But she isn’t convinced Mitt Romney would give her small businesses a boost, either. On Wednesday night, she hopes to discern how her business would be affected by either outcome in the election.

While 47 percent of U.S. small business owners plan to vote for Obama compared to 39 percent for Romney, according to a poll conducted by the George Washington University of Political Management and Thumbtack.com, some local small business owners are skeptical about the details they’ll get from the debate.

“I’d like them to tell me what happened a couple of years ago when the housing market collapsed, and how many heads they’re going to hang. And what kinds of laws they’ll implement so it won’t happen again,” Nguyen said. But she said she doesn’t expect that level of detail during the debates, which tend toward rhetoric.

“Tell me how you’re going to create jobs, don’t tell me you will,” she said, adding that she believes both candidates — as well as their detractors — are focusing too much on outsourcing policies.

“You have to outsource. You don’t have a choice,” she said. “In the furniture business, which is what I know, if we didn’t outsource, we would have a much higher rate of unemployment.”

Tom Natan, who operates an online-only wine business based in Washington, said he hopes candidates will address credit availability for small businesses.

“It’s very difficult in these times when merely being able to keep your doors open and break even is a good thing in today’s economy,” he said. “It’s more difficult to raise the capital.”

As a wine importer and retailer, Natan also said he hopes the candidates will discuss the recovery of consumer spending and how quickly the economy can get to a state in which consumers feel more comfortable buying discretionary products like wine.

Echoing Nguyen’s skepticism, Natan said he thinks the issues likely won’t be addressed on stage Wednesday.

“Am I going to hear that? No. I expect to hear more about tax policies that don’t really affect me,” he said. “When you’re not making a lot of money, you don’t pay all that much in taxes. I’d like to be a big enough business where I have to worry about health plans for employees, but I don’t have any employees. Businesses like mine don’t make it to the radar screen of either party or either candidate.”

Becky Roberts, president of Waterford, Va.-based business management firm Catoctin Consulting, is also looking for specifics about economic policy.

“I have a real concern about the federal procurement environment putting more and more emphasis on price over quality,” she said. Getting federal contracts “isn’t small business-friendly. There’s so much emphasis on just low price rather than solutions that will work.”

While she said she’s concerned about tax, general employment and health care issues, Roberts said she’d like to see a holistic proposal addressing how each policy interacts with the next instead of “addressing each issue in a vacuum.”

But Roberts said she thinks she might be expecting too much from the campaign discussion. “I suspect that I’m looking for more detail than they would give in a debate.”

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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