In August 1999, I wrote a memo for Tony Blair entitled “Why George W Bush Will be the Next President of the United States.” It was not especially prescient. I just mooched around Democratic pals in Washington and New York and found that none of them could combine the words “President” and “Gore”. 13 years later, on two recent trips to both coasts of America and into the midwest, I found the same overwhelming underenthusiasm for Barack Obama. To be fair, he is not quite Jimmy Carter but the parallels keep surfacing. Obama’s best card is Mitt Romney who has taken some positions that would put him closer to Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage than the Eisenhower or even Reagan Republicans. Indeed, Jeb Bush, the thinking person’s George W, recently told a seminar in Manhattan that both his father and Ronald Reagan would “have a hard time fitting into today’s Republican party” as it has moved so far to the right.
Commentators are queuing up to trash Romney after his foreign tour. It will make no difference in the election. George W Bush famously couldn’t name the president of Pakistan in a TV interview in 2000, while Reagan thought François Mitterrand was a communist and laid a wreath on the graves of Waffen SS soldiers in Germany. Was Romney so wrong when he said Britain was not well-prepared for the Olympics? Boris Johnson got excited whipping up crowd fever against Romney in Hyde Park but he and other Olympic boosters are not doing well as the economic slump in London suggests. In Israel, Romney, promised like every wannabe US president, including Hillary Clinton in 2008, to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. It won’t happen. In Poland, a Romney aide told the press to “kiss my ass”. So what? The photo of Lech Walesa holding up Romney’s hand like a champion will do for the Polish vote in Chicago.
In America, the liberal-left dislike of Romney may not be enough to offset the Obama record. The “Yes we can” élan of 2008 has turned into the “No we couldn’t” morosity of 2012. Figures from the US Survey of Consumer Finances show that the median US family is now no better off than 20 years ago. The Clinton and Bush years made rich Americans ever richer but median family income has fallen from $49,600 in 2007 to $45,800 in 2010 under Obama.
Most Americans are just one serious illness or spell of unemployment away from financial disaster. American trade unions, which negotiated the creation of middle-working class America with high wages for industrial, office and public sector workers between 1950 and 1980, are no longer a force. Only seven in a hundred employees in the private sector are unionised. American labour’s attempt at a fightback have failed as auto firms and others slash wages and benefits, and threaten workers with closures if they resist.
Democrats and US trade unions will point to the vicious partisanship of Republicans in Congress and the relentless hostility by well-funded right-wing attack outfits and employers. That’s true and the elite east coast commentariat fret and wring their hands at the end of bi-partisanship. But a dominant president creates his own political weather and breaks apart opposition alliances. As the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s magisterial biography of Lyndon Johnson goes on sale, the necessity of politics as craft, dark art, and forging coalitions is never more evident. Obama is no LBJ.
Like Jimmy Carter persuading himself he could bring the Soviet leader Leonid Breshnev into a relationship with America, Obama thought that if he pressed the “reset” button with Russia, there would be harmony between the White House and the Kremlin. Putin has made no concessions and still believes America is out to get him. As a result, Obama has been quagmired on Syria, on Iran, on the Balkans, and has no foreign policy pluses to show. He has not moved on the Middle East and his war in Afghanistan drags on and on like the last years in Vietnam. Drone strikes have alienated Pakistan and while Osama Bin Laden is dead, jihadi terrorism isn’t. To be sure, Obama hasn’t been helped by the worst generation of leaders in Europe since the 1930s. Unlike Thatcher with Reagan or Blair with Clinton, Obama has little bond with Britain’s Old Etonian prime minister who is bored by foreign affairs and believes in economics most Americans think come from Downton Abbey times.
If American tax-paying men don’t like Obama, the president does have support from women and from the near half of US citizens who are not Caucasian. Romney’s Mormonism is compared to Kennedy’s Catholicism in 1960. But cultural issues like abortion and gay rights were not an issue in 1960. Today, the Mormons are resolutely anti-gay. Romney’s possible running mate, the Florida senator Marco Rubio, was also a Mormon in his youth though he reverted to Christianity. He is a telegenic right-wing American-Cuban but it is far from clear that Miami anti-Castroism matters any more to the bulk of Hispanic Americans. Romney’s endorsement of brutal crackdowns of Hispanic immigrants in Arizona has alarmed liberal Republicans. Romney won the nomination by being as close to the Tea Party as possible. But he will be packaged as a centrist for the election.
Nevertheless Obama may win a second term thanks to his opponent’s flaws more than his own strengths. But no one is as sure as in 1984, 1996 or 2004 that the sitting president will be re-elected. Thirty years ago, America elected a Republican president followed shortly by the arrival of a Socialist president in France. In 2012, might the same happen if in a different sequence? The left here and in Europe thought Reagan and Bush were too thick, too right-wing, and too, well, un-European, to become president of the United States. It may be making the same mistake about Romney.