The United States presidential election hangs on statistically insignificant polling trends. Neither the incumbent, President Barack Obama, nor his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, is in a position to be completely confident of victory. Though the two candidates are positioning themselves as stark ideological choices, the truth is that the external constraints that both of them face would blur the lines of their policies. A second Obama administration and a Romney administration would overlap far more than electoral rhetoric would lead one to believe.
The first constraint would be legislative. Most of the US Congress is going to elections as well. There the poll figures are much clearer. The lower house will be Republican, the upper one Democrat. The next US president will face a legislature divided and one much more polarised on ideological lines than normal. Comp-romise will be inevitable. The second constraint will be financial.
Whether Mr Romney or Mr Obama, the next president will have to raise revenue and cut expenditure. The Republican says he will toss out the new healthcare legislation and preserve the Pentagon. Mr Obama says the opposite. The truth is that the new White House will trim both and probably slash homeland security as well. With the US public debt topping $16 trillion, there will be no wiggle room for the next president. The third constraint will be in foreign policy. Both candidates acknowledge the war weariness of their country. They both say that the US must slowly wind down its commitm-ents to the Afghan war and keep a bayonet’s distance from the civil war in Syria. There is little space between them on the need to ens-ure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon and even less on the need to both engage and constrain a rising China.
And there will be no electoral mandate to be anything other than centrist. Mr Romney tacked right to win his party’s nomination and has now been rowing back to the middle of the river alm-ost as fiercely. Mr Obama, similarly, has worked hard to sound tough on foreign and fiscal policy. The two disagree on social issues like abortion and gay rights. But the open secret in US politics is that while candidates talk about this every election, when in office they let the states and the courts decide.