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U.S. President Barack Obama and main challenger Mitt Romney | source: obama.network.hu and biography com

And the winner is...

Just over a week before the U.S. presidential elections, Tamás Magyarics, a Hungarian expert of international relations analyzes the prospects for Diplomacy & Trade online, highlighting some aspects that could be decisive as far as the outcome is concerned.

In normal times, winning the presidential election for the incumbent in the current circumstances should be a shoo-in. His opponent is trailing him in the likeability index; his party is able to ‘define’ his opponent as a heartless capitalist, a member of the business elite; the opponent’s religion is viewed with suspicion by at least a fifth of the American people; and even his own party is a bit uneasy with the opponent’s economic, political, and social views and his flip-flops on practically each of these issues.

In normal times, winning the presidential election for the challenger in the present circumstances should be a shoo-in. Unemployment is permanently over or just under 8%; more than 60% of the people believe that the country is on the wrong track; almost two-thirds of the electorate is unhappy with the president’s handling of the economy; while the incumbent’s approval rate is below 50%. No incumbent has won the election with such numbers before.

However, the race for the White House is practically tied. As running on their (highly controversial) records would be quite risky for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, what we have seen so far is predominantly negative campaigning: more than 90% of the Democratic and the Republican political advertisements alike before the two conventions were negative in character.

For running the No. 1 country

The fact of the matter is that the American people and the world at large should deserve more than that. Despite its decline, the U.S. is still the No. 1 country in the world – and is likely to remain so for some decades to come. Though power is being distributed more widely nowadays than before, each of the so-called rising powers is as one-dimensional as the Soviet Union was.

Nevertheless, there is no question about the fact that the U.S. will only be able to stay ahead of the others if it takes – and endures – some tough decisions. These include handling the current USD 16 trillion national debt, the high current account deficit, the low employment rate (in the mid-60s), the disappearance of manufacturing jobs (today, still one million fewer than in 2008), the skyrocketing social security, Medicare and Medicaid costs – to mention just a few economic problems.

'Red' states and 'blue' states

Meanwhile, the country is torn between ‘red’ (Republican) and ‘blue’ (Democratic) America, with a few ‘pink’ (swing) states in between. Although Governor Romney has pulled ahead of President Obama after their first TV-debate in most of the national polls, the presidential elections will practically be decided in about 10 states, mostly in the Midwest and around the Great Lakes. Mitt Romney should win in almost each of these battleground states but, at the moment,

President Obama is leading the opinion polls by a few points in most of them. The polls also indicate that the great majority of the voters have already made up their minds, so there are relatively few people who can be won over or – for that matter – lost in the remaining short time. A potentially significant change from the 2008 election might be the palpable disappointment with Barack Obama’s achievements in the White House among a lot of his former supporters.

However, Mitt Romney cannot really count on their votes, either; these people are likely to prefer staying away from the polling stations to switching allegiance. Both candidates seem to rely on the discipline of their core voters – the conventions clearly indicated such a tendency in both parties. In this regard, the Republicans are in real trouble: although, they attract the votes of about two thirds of white population, they are hopelessly behind the Democrats among African Americans, Hispanics, and a number of various minorities.

Social and political gridlock

The social gridlock is mirrored in Washington, D.C., as well: the Republicans in the House of Representatives have been busy obstructing President Obama’s initiatives in the past two years. The most likely outcome of the elections in November will be the perpetuation of this situation (plus the Republicans have quite a good chance of winning majority in the Senate too). This political gridlock means that neither side can implement its programs, while the lowest common denominator of their competing visions is not likely to solve any of the above mentioned (and other) critical problems.

The Democrats basically stand on the platform of a big, active federal government, strident government regulations, and higher taxes on the richest one or two percent of the population. The Republicans wish to do almost exactly the opposite: they are for a smaller state, for tax cuts across the board, for deep cuts in federal spending (would like to cap it at 20% of the GDP – today it is about 25%; in general, weakening the so-called welfare dependency), and the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Some Republicans prefer the expression ”Pelosicare” implying that President Obama (just like in the case of Libya) was leading ‘from behind’.

Foreign and security affairs have traditionally been among the strong points of the Republicans; this election may be different from this point of view as well. Mitt Romney offers a more assertive foreign policy and generously financed military forces to underline the seriousness of American activism, while President Obama promises the continuation of a cautious Realpolitik in essence. It seems that his views reflect more faithfully the general mood of the American public at large than Mr. Romney’s.

President Obama identified one of the most serious problems of modern democracy in his address to the convention: ”Trivial things become big distractions. Serious issues become sound bites. And the truth gets buried under the avalanche of money and advertising.” So if the winner of the presidential election is uncertain at the moment, the losers are certain: all the people inside and outside of the U.S. who would like to hear serious discussions about serious, vital questions and, later, serious, responsible, and strategically sound decisions implemented decisively by the Administration for the benefit of us all.

Tamás Magyarics

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