Battle for the White House: Final arrangements

Mit Romney file photo
File Photo of Vladimir Putin Leaning Towards Barack Hussein Obama With Flags Behind Them

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(Valdai Discussion Club – Nikolai Zlobin – November 2, 2012 – Nikolai Zlobin is Senior Fellow and Director of Russian and Asian Programs, World Security Institute, USA)

The presidential campaign in the United States has entered the home stretch. In just a few short days, Americans will elect their next president, setting the country’s course for the next four years.

Immediately after Barack Obama won in 2008, Republicans set themselves the goal of making him a one-term president. Today this prospect seems fairly realistic, but not long ago it was unthinkable ­ Obama won by a wide margin and gave his country and the world cause to hope for change. That hope, unfortunately, has not been borne out, and disappointment with Obama runs deep not only among Republicans but also among many Democrats. Some believe that Obama has veered too far left, seemingly forgetting that he was one of the most liberal members of the Senate. Others say he is a shortsighted politician who does not grasp the core of the problem, because economics is not his strong point, and this is true to an extent. Obama never worked in the private sector, and came to the White House straight from the Senate.

As a result, Obama could lose this election. I personally don’t think he will, but predictions are a tricky thing. Mitt Romney, a seemingly weak candidate, has proved, contrary to popular perceptions, to be well versed on issues of foreign and domestic policy, such as education. His competence on the issues has come as a pleasant surprise to many.

I think the course of this campaign was strongly influenced by several factors. First is unemployment. Historically, no U.S. president since FDR has won re-election with such a high unemployment rate, which has been hovering around eight percent. For that reason alone, Obama is unlikely to be re-elected. The problem is not just that unemployment is high but that it has been so high for so long. This means that the middle class is financially spent, bank accounts are depleted and property has been sold or mortgaged. People are tired of struggling and blame their misfortune on Obama.

Second, opinions on the signature piece of legislation of Obama’s first term, healthcare reform (popularly known as Obamacare), remain mixed.  Elements of the law run counter to core American beliefs, such as the mandate that all citizens who can afford to buy health insurance do so. In general, the idea of the government compelling them to do anything rubs Americans the wrong way. Many believe that by pushing through this legislation, Obama and his allies in Congress were not just taking the next step toward a full liberal democracy, but undermining the foundations of American federalism by burdening states with new obligations.

States enjoy independence on a range of issues in the United States, and health insurance had traditionally been one of them. However, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the mandate in Obamacare as constitutional under Congress’s taxing power. People are wondering why economic issues and unemployment haven’t played an even larger role, even though Romney has made it the centerpiece of his campaign. Republicans have a point when they claim that a vote for Obama is a vote to change the foundations of America.

Now Obama and Romney are neck and neck. Much will depend on swing voters that account for some 20%-30% of the electorate. The candidates are targeting these voters, specifically in the battleground states that will decide this election. This is where the campaigns are devoting their resources.

There is one more “but” that has to be considered. Which party will control the House of Representatives and the Senate is also at stake in this election. If the Republicans win Congress, Obama’s win will not be as meaningful. Under a divided government, it will be hard to get things done. It will be necessary to orchestrate win-win deals, but both candidates have a reputation as an uncompromising politician. Therefore, the prospects of the next president will depend on the outcome of the congressional races. The White House is by no means the center of power in the United States. In reality, Congress has greater power, because it represents various interests and regions, and has the power of the purse. And it is domestic policy that has a greater impact on citizens than foreign policy. Therefore, it is much more important for Americans whom they elect to Congress rather than the White House.

Russia will have to work together with the next administration, regardless of who wins, although our bureaucrats tend to find it easier to deal with Republicans. Obama is better for Russia, but it is unclear what to expect of him in a second term.

Romney is a different story altogether. If elected, he will realize in a year that he won’t  be able to make international decisions without Russia and will have to compromise, whether he wants to or not. Either administration will have to deal with issues such as the Magnitsky List and the situation in the post-Soviet space, Georgia in particular. These issues won’t go away.

As long as the economic component of  Russian-American relations remains non-existent, defense issues will continue to be the foundation. Neither side will be able to force its business community to open up to cooperation; neither candidate will be able to change this in the next four years. Russian-U.S. relations will continue to be both predictable and unpredictable ­ any escalation in tensions will prompt us to continue counting missiles.  Our countries still have not found a new agenda or managed to work together on economic issues, over the years after the end of the Cold War.