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America's choice through Australian eyes


Obama and Romney

If citizens of other nations could vote, it should be Obama by a mile! But Obama’s many supporters abroad have wondered uneasily whether it just might go the other way. Recent polling was suggesting a cliffhanger in the swing states that will determine the outcome. I now sense that superstorm Sandy will save Obama, but it could still be close.     

This is a vital election for Australia, as we begin to digest what the reshaping global power balance in the Asian Century means for us. The emergent decline of American global hegemony forces Australia to move beyond the easy simplicities of lockstep strategic alliance with the US combined with highly profitable favoured economic ties with a resurgent China. 

As the US feels the psychological pangs of power contraction, Australia needs to help her weather her midlife crisis. It would be easier with Obama than Romney. Obama – and perhaps Hilary Clinton after 2016 – are in a better position to use the power of the presidency to help guide the US through this transition because they have a better grasp of the challenge for America of a rapidly changing world. 

Those disappointed in Obama’s performance in office since 2008 underestimate the huge constraints on him. These include an often hostile Congress, a deep-rooted public belief that the world exists to serve US interests and a false ideological consciousness of the proper roles of the state and private sectors. 

Obama proved his strength and patriotism through the symbolically vital removal of Osama bin Laden. On this, we now know that, though a naked Osama bin Laden with his hands up in surrender would not have been shot, killing him was the presidentially approved plan in every other possible contingency. For most Americans, this was justice seen to be done. 

Obama’s evident empathy towards the plight of poorer people in an economy in trouble has been reaffirmed by this week’s storm. Memories of the federally mishandled Hurricane Katrina of 2005 were not far beneath the surface, as shown by the Republican Governor of New Jersey's unstinting praise for Obama’s role in this week’s crisis. The Governor said all that needs to be said. Obama is too shrewd a politician to leave any room for suggestions that he might be politically exploiting the crisis. But the suspension of campaigning plays to his advantage. 

Romney has been forced in recent months to turn turtle, presenting himself as the candidate of change and dynamism, against Obama as a tired, ineffective status quo candidate in office who has done little. 

Romney has his own troubles. The Republicans remain deeply split between tea-party right-wing ideology and what is left of the moderate (read McCain) centre. Romney finally emerged as the least bad choice this year from a field of ideological extremists and the mercurial Newt Gingrich. He has to calculate every policy nuance against his uneasy coalition of less than enthusiastic backers and financiers. No wonder he sounds and looks so unsure of his ground on many issues. 

The matter of Obama’s race is still lurking there in white lower-income voting booths in the swing states — in the Midwest and Florida. There are those who will vote for the white man, regardless of their real interest.

The economy is not good for the underemployed or jobless poor. In the slow recovery from the GFC, jobs are expanding but rising GNP has mostly benefited the super-rich. Life is no easier for embattled middle-class Americans.  But it seems likely that voters will reject Romney’s strategy of getting the state out of the way and encouraging entrepreneurship. These are no answer to deep-rooted problems of structural transition. 

America remains the centre of world technological progress and marketing innovation. As Chinese and Indian wages and living standards rise, global competitiveness is creeping back to the more traditional areas of US industry. If America does not lose its nerve over the next decade, it will, I believe, weather the transition to a more secure, self-sufficient country that can maintain public living standards despite increasingly challenging world markets for its products and services. America remains rich in natural and human resources.  

Voter apathy is, as always, a vital issue in an election where voting is optional. The challenge for Democrats has always been to get out the vote — especially now when the Republican Right have lifted their game in mobilising votes.   

Romney’s verbal aggression towards China is risky. But here too, Obama seems to have carved out safe ground with American electors, with his much-publicised ‘pivoting’ of US strategic weight towards Asia. Through the Obama and Gillard speeches in Canberra on 17 November 2011 regarding upgraded US basing in Darwin, Obama established new markers of strategic firmness towards China that left no room for Republicans to accuse him of weakness. 

These are the issues. They are clear, but the outcome is not, and I won’t try to call it. We only need wait a few more days to see if Americans choose a weak and therefore dangerous new president over an incumbent who failed to meet unrealistic expectations.

Tony KevinTony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Cambodia and Poland.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Obama, Romney, US Election



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Existing comments

I will admit I haven't been following the US Presidential tussle with much interest. What I do find slightly troubling is the utter dominance of the two-party system. I believe The Greens in Australia provide a credible alternative to the major parties. I think Obama has done enough to warrant a 'second go' - although he seems to me to be a fine orator and intellectual who finds politics a bit messy. Perhaps with a second term his political skills will refine and sharpen.

Pam | 05 November 2012  

I hope Obama wins; he has the potential to be a great president , at least relative to the hand he was dealt (by the Republicans!). Pam:you really must be dreaming about the Greens who are our version of the Tea Party. Agressive, destructive idealogues; and Fascists of the right and left always look remarkably similar.

Eugene | 05 November 2012  

It would be fair to say that the Greens have the capacity to "keep the bastards honest", irespective of what one might think of their ideology.

Trouble is in the US that there is no other significant poitical aprty and it is along time since an independent candidate ran for office. The only one in my memory was the late George C Wallace (one time Southern Democrat and former Governor of Alabama) who had quite a following in the days when the South was solidly Democrat.

JR | 05 November 2012  

I have read on several websites that the black vote will go to Obama at around 95%. Do they also have a problem with skin colour? Or is it only whites who have such issues?

MJ | 05 November 2012  

Thanks for the feedback Eugene! I rather think, instead of being tea drinkers, the Greens are more latte-sippers.

Pam | 05 November 2012  

Tony Kevin mentions the federally mishandled Hurricane Katrina of 2005, and says that President Obama is too shrewd to exploit the crisis caused by the present storm.
However the black American journalist, Thomas Sowell, writes that at Hampton University on June 5, 2007, in a speech delivered by Obama in a “ghetto-style accent” he reserves for black audiences, Obama accused the federal government of not showing the same concern for the people of New Orleans as they had for the people of New York after 9/11, or the people of Florida after hurricane Andrew. Obama mentioned the Stafford Act which requires communities receiving federal relief to contribute ten per cent, and said that this Act was waived for New York and Florida because those people were considered “part of the American family” but for the people of New Orleans, who are predominantly black, “they don’t care about as much.”
Yet Sowell notes that less than two weeks earlier the US Senate had voted 80-14 to waive the Stafford Act requirements for New Orleans and that Obama was one of the 14 Senators who voted AGAINST the legislation that included the waiver. Sowell’s article was headed “Phony in Chief.”

Ross Howard | 05 November 2012  

We have devolved, rather than evolved, into a rigid two-party system, and both parties are flawed and dinosauric; interestingly the Republicans, the Grand Old Party as they are called here, the party of Lincoln, are changing in strange ways as their right wing(s) take over utterly. Had they had any sort of centrist moderate calm substantive energy this time they would have swept the election, oicking up all the voters disappointed with Obama's abandonment of much of his vision -- on environmental matters, for example, on which very little has been done. But the GOP is now essentially trapped by its slavish courting of any fringe votes it can get -- Tea Party, anti-tax, billionaires furious that rules apply to them also. I predict Obama by the thinnest of hairs; and then again a stalemate. The healthiest thing for my country's politics would be a serious third party -- be it Green, or the Children's Party, or a Blue Party led by Bruce Springsteen, in the same manner that Australia would be better off with a Music Party led by Prime Minister Paul Kelly.

Brian Doyle | 06 November 2012  

Thank goodness. A divided America gives itself another chance!

tony kevin | 07 November 2012  

And Obama through my Australian Catholic eyes! (Reuters) - The Vatican congratulated President Barack Obama on his re-election but reminded him on Wednesday of the thorny differences between the Catholic Church and his administration over abortion and healthcare. The Vatican hoped Obama would be able to serve law and justice "in respect of the essential human and spiritual values and the promotion of the culture of life and freedom of religion, which have always been so precious in the traditions of the American people and their culture," a spokesman said. The "culture of life" is a phrase covering the Church's opposition to abortion. Obama supports abortion rights and made women's health issues a key part of his campaign. The Catholic Church in the United States has been at odds with the Obama administration over his healthcare law. The Church has seen this as a threat to the freedom of religion enshrined in the U.S. constitution, a cry that was taken up by Pope Benedict this year. The Vatican said Pope Benedict sent Obama a private message but did not release its text. The pope told the president he prayed that Obama would be able to carry out the ideals of freedom and justice, the Vatican added.

father john george | 10 November 2012  

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