How will we remember this election in 100 years’ time?

By Timothy Lynch, University of Melbourne

President Obama addresses a rally in Concord, New Hampshire.


With just days to the election he looks likely to win a second term. EPA/CJ Gunther

I recommend David Malet’s excellent breakdown of what to expect on Tuesday (either side of noon on Wednesday, Australian time). I agree that it looks like Obama. He has more routes to the 270 electoral college votes than does Romney. “Mittmentum” slowed after the presidential debates. His performance in the first one remade the Governor’s campaign but did not decisively shift the maths in his direction. President Obama has an 83 per cent chance of winning, Romney only 16. These numbers have never been less than 60:40. Those holding a candle for a Romney have a very small, flickering flame.

On the basis that I have never met a poor bookie, and barring some remarkable event in the final 48 hours (including most pollsters being in error), Obama will become a two-term president. Republican-leaning editorials – which delighted in Romney’s rise in middle-October – are now written more in hope than expectation. For an example of going out on a limb see Michael Barone’s swing-state-by-swing-state estimate of a Romney victory and Janet Daley’s claim that there are Republicans out there who have been systematically hiding their voting intentions from pollsters – possible but very, very unlikely. Believing that the election is close only makes us “stupider”, said Paul Krugman.

Instead of predicting the winner and his margin – which is increasingly the preserve of a polling technocracy – we might consider how far the result matters at all. Are we reaching the end of one of the most or least important campaigns in American history? Obama’s victory four years ago was supposed to begin a transformation of US and global politics. That has not happened – at least not along the lines Obama contended. We will not remember his election as the Revolution of 2008. If anything, we are now seeing the Reality of 2012.

In the last four years the pattern of the preceding forty continued. At home and abroad, President Obama has been subject to enduring structures and realities; he has not been a key agent of their demise. For sure, his personal credentials – history, family, race, and style – altered some of the optics of the US government. It remains testament to his nation’s desire for and embrace of transformation – if not its actual capacity to so do – that within eight years of 9/11, a majority gave the presidency to the son of a Kenyan Muslim with two Arab names. “I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” He has yet to make a speech to match the power of the one from which this central claim is drawn.

But did his presidency really transcend politics as usual? I think the answer is a clear “no”. These arguments are by now well-rehearsed. Lacking executive experience (okay, except running the Harvard Law Review), Obama struggled to tame the office. His initial appointments – Rahm Emanuel for example – tried to create the illusion of toughness to cover the fact that Obama just wasn’t tough. He was/is no Lyndon Johnson. He twisted not a single Republican arm to secure passage of Obamacare. Of course, GOP intransigence played some role in this. But candidate Obama promised to restore bipartisanship if not create a “post-partisan” politics. Instead, his governing style and especially his campaigning rhetoric has become boilerplate Democratic.

If continued political competition at home was not ameliorated by the force of Obama’s story how about abroad? Was he the un-Bush of leftist (and not a few conservative) hopes? Hardly. He’s given us a competent and cheaper version of the Bush Doctrine. It is one which ends wars (in Iraq), keeps Guantanamo Bay open (because it serves a national security purpose) and kills the real bad guys (Osama bin Laden most gratifyingly).

The rogue opponents he inherited from Bush (which Bush inherited from Clinton) remain. Count them. Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela. Russia and China did not amend their national interests to reflect Obama’s experiment in soft power. They remain strategic competitors. His unilateral multilateralism – offering open hands without the requirement that fists unclench first – was no more successful than Bush’s cowboy unilateralism (and that was at best a caricature). Indeed, Obama’s Muslim war (in Libya) was waged in a smaller coalition than Bush’s (in Iraq).

A President Romney was (is) likely to be subject to similar domestic and foreign constraints. His track record in Massachusetts (essentially a one-party Democratic state) does suggest, however, a greater capacity to get things done on a bi-partisan basis. Abroad, Romney wanted a tougher version of Obama’s approach (itself, a Bush Doctrine in sepia). During the last presidential debate on foreign policy they were on the same page, differing stylistically not substantively.

So if this election does matter and will count in history it is for something other than foreign policy, national security and counter-terrorism. Where might its historical salience reside? 2012 will not stand alone. Rather, in 100 years’ time academics may well recall it as one in a series of contests – perhaps the last – that pitted against each other two contrasting notions of America’s future, though they are often misunderstood.

The first accepts that national power should be increased in proportion to the demands of fairness and equality. The second accepts the utility of such power, will extend it, but has a conscience about doing so. Ever since the 1960s redefined the relationship between citizen and state, presidents of both parties have used the federal government to realise “progress”. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon gave America the Environmental Protection Agency and institutionalised affirmative action. In the following decade, Ronald Reagan, claiming government was the problem, nevertheless increased its spending on welfare (from $106.1 billion in 1980 to $173 billion in 1988) and defence (from $325.1 billion to $456.5 billion).

The last two-term Republican, George W. Bush, spent prodigiously (on foreign wars and national education reform) all while increasing spending on welfare. It was the Democrat Bill Clinton who initiated welfare reform and balanced the budget.

So 2012 is not a battle between big and small government candidates (as Charles Krauthammer argues), between Obama’s European welfare state and Romney’s rugged individualism. Instead, it would be more accurate to see the election as another, and perhaps the last, contest between those who openly embrace the beneficence of big, expansive government and those that have a conscience about that expansion (big government conservatives) – but commit to it nonetheless.

The debt crisis facing the United States may well render 2012 the last year in which candidates could pretend that the spending patterns and expansion of government of the last forty years could continue. 2012 will presage a reality we can believe in.

Timothy Lynch does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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