The US now has a formal choice between two presidential candidates who, based on their party platforms, represent different views about the right medicine for their troubled country. The US remains the world’s richest and most-powerful nation, still 2.5 times wealthier than China in nominal GDP terms. But its present economic malaise, with a stubborn 8.3% unemployment rate being its outstanding feature, has undermined belief in the ever-increasing prosperity and rapid social mobility that underlay “the American dream.” It is the credibility of the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, and the incumbent Democrat, President Barack Obama, in restoring this dream, at least in part, that will determine November’s election.
Mr Obama is the clear favourite. He is a known factor. He makes the argument that he inherited the bulk of the economic migraines that bedevil the US. He has or is unraveling the country from two unpopular wars. By killing Osama bin Laden, Mr Obama is in the unusual position of being a Democratic candidate with a higher national security rating than his Republican rival. The US president has been able to come across as far more personable than Mr Romney and easily leads the latter on ‘likeability’ and similar subjective indices. Yet, with less than three months left, Mr Obama leads by thin margins in the polls — his average lead in the run up to the conventions has been less than two percentage points. The president’s Achilles’ heel is the economy. Mr Romney is seen as more credible on the economy and that happens to be the number one election issue. The one issue where the two candidates do differ is whether fiscal austerity or further stimulus is the answer to the US’s economic problems.
At the heart of all this is that the recession has brought out raw ideological, some would say class-based, differences within the US electorate that have long been papered over by the country’s prosperity. There is an angry white working class which has driven the Republican Party to take up extreme far-right positions. And there are minority voters and suburban liberals who have moved the Democrats leftwards in response. The fallout has been years of congressional gridlock and a degree of political extremism that the US has not experienced in decades. Thus Mr Romney’s biggest problem is the deep suspicions his own party members have regarding his past record of liberal social policies. Mr Obama’s problem may be a continuing inability to find Republicans to work with on ushering legislations of national importance. Whoever wins the coming election will find that until the US economy heals, US society will remain a polarised and difficult polity for a president to lead.