November 1, 2012
The voter enthusiasm which had swept Barack Obama to office in 2008 has cooled into apathy in 2012. Over the past four years, the economic situation of the African-American and Latino communities, as well as that of young college graduates, has deteriorated markedly. In a recent op-ed, Reuters columnist Joel Kotkin notes that as a result of the crisis the African-American community has lost some 11 percent of their wealth (twice as much as the whites), whilst the Latinos have experienced one of the highest rates of unemployment nationally, many of them left with no choice but to return to Mexico. As for college graduates, 43 percent of them are currently working in jobs that do not require tertiary qualifications.
At the opposite end of the social scale, the 700 billion-dollar TARP program, which helped banks in difficulty, has benefitted America’s top 1 percent of earners. According to the same source, these have pocketed 92 percent of the resulting gains, of which 37 percent has gone to the top 0.01 percent of the US elite. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the latest opinion polls are very discouraging for the Obama camp.
Viewed from Europe, the Republican Party’s alternative looks even more disquieting. Mitt Romney seems convinced, however wrongly, that he can fix a US economy which has become dependent on the financial sector, on imports & distribution and on the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing binges. The Republican candidate’s foreign policy options could see the US involved into armed conflict with Iran – a possibility that is unsettling for Europeans and the Islamic world alike. He opposes to Obama’s soft power foreign policy the spectre of the US military stick, arguing for the doubling, to some 1 trillion dollars, of the defence budget.
Sadly, since 2000 the choice of candidates who compete for the US executive office seems to conform to the slogan “our president, your problem”. Thus, the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the worst since the Great Depression, would have called for a strong US president, an FDR-type Democrat belonging to the mainstream elite of the party. Only a consummate insider, like Roosevelt was in his time, could have shaken things up and offer Americans a New Deal/ Fair Deal alternative. (At the adoption of the TARP program, both Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have asked President Obama to nationalise the banks in trouble, to no avail). This truth is illustrated by the election in France of François Hollande, who was able to very quickly introduce unpalatable reforms such as the 75 percent tax rate for the top 1 percent earners. Unlike Obama, President Hollande has a well-established support network of friends and former ENA colleagues, which makes him a much more effective political leader, as well as less dependent on opinion polls.
The Republican Party, on the other hand, has chosen as its candidate a member of yet another minority, religious this time, who is at odds even with the Republican religious right that consider Mormons non-Christians.
Neither presidential candidate seems able to build broad consensus, first within their own party ranks and then within the American society as a whole. To be sure, the choice of candidates belonging to ethnic or religious minorities might work in less turbulent times, but could prove highly counterproductive now. If anything, the two parties’ unorthodox choices might in effect be the symptom of a political system in crisis.