At a Grumpy Old Men’s lunch the other day the discussion got around to the elections, first those for the ACT, then for Australia, then for the US. I did a quick straw poll. ‘Just suppose for a moment that you are an American. For whom would you vote?’ The response was one for Obama, five for Romney, two who wouldn’t vote because they wouldn’t have to (in the US) and two, including me, who were unsure. There’s eight weeks to go.
I was a bit surprised at the result, because on the whole the President has a good press in Australia, and Romney has on the whole a bad one. But maybe we old grumpies find Barack Obama just too handsome, too polished and too well-spoken. He is, after all, the least experienced President since Eisenhower in terms of his previous career learning, and one cannot say that the USA has recovered well from the GFC, even if he cannot really be blamed for that disaster.
The Obama term has not been distinguished by strong results, and the US, which was deeply in debt when his term started, is now so much further in debt that one wonders from time to time whether or not the US dollar can remain the standard world currency. I can write the debt down — it was, when I consulted the US National Debt Clock at 13 September 11.42 AM GMT, $16,061,071,011,201.51. But I’m not sure I can pronounce it. Its size, and the high American unemployment rate, don’t work in the President’s favour. That debt, incidentally, works out at more than $50,000 for every man, woman and child in America.
Romney is the son of a former Governor of Michigan, and has been a Governor himself in Massachusetts. He has had a long political career, worked as a Mormon missionary in France, and is a successful businessman. But he is virtually unknown in Australia, and gets most flak from his business career, and because his personal fortune is around $250 million.
I have seen the candidates’ replies to questions about science topics. I thought Romney’s were as good as, and in a couple of places better than, Obama’s. Neither candidate, of course, wrote the answers. Otherwise I can’t really comment. I do like watching and listening to President Obama. He has the same kind of charisma as John F. Kennedy had, and he is the ultimate Hollywood President. But after four years, I am beginning to wonder if there is much more to him than that.
I know something about the American political system. I lived and worked there, and have taught students about it. Most Australians don’t realise just how different US politics really is. They speak English there too, but the system is quite unlike ours. To begin with, not only is there no compulsory voting, but turnout is really low. On average, about 55 per cent of the voting-age population will actually vote for the President, and the proportion that even registers to vote is not much larger. You don’t have to. In the mid-term elections, the voting proportion is not much more than a third. What does that tell you?
Then there is the party issue. Party lines in the US are not much like ours, and a great deal of politics crosses apparent party divisions, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. More, to elect the President is to elect a king, a monarch. The founding fathers only had the monarchical model to work with, so they set up a system where the king could be removed by popular decision. They still have it. When Americans come to vote for their President the party-political issues are confounded by leadership ones: whom would you feel more comfortable with as your king?
And there is great respect for the office of President, if not always for the incumbent. I was in North America at the time of 9/11 when George W. Bush made a fine speech a few days after the destruction. I commented to my host at lunch in California that the speech was much better than I had expected, and was given a chilly reproof: ‘It was the President’s speech!’ I had forgotten my place, too: I was an alien, who had no standing in the matter.
Who will win? There is a general expectation that Presidents will serve two terms, and most have done since the rule that two was the limit came in after Franklin Roosevelt’s four terms. So on that basis Obama has the edge. What do the opinion polls say? The Rasmussen daily (!) Presidential Tracking Poll has Romney at 47 per cent with Obama at 46 per cent. When ‘leaners’ are included the score is Romney 49 to Obama 47.
On balance, I do not think that Obama is doing well. Many of the other indicators are negative: his standing — strong approval as President minus strong disapproval — is -13, not positive at all, and this can affect turnout. Even the weak support (‘somewhat approve/somewhat disapprove’) measure for him is negative. And it is the Republican voters who seem to be exercised, and therefore more likely to turn out.
OK — there are still eight weeks to go. I think this election is going to be much closer than people in Australia are likely to think, given what we learn from our newspapers, radios and television. And it is worth remembering that no matter who gets to be President, he will look a lot more impressive in that office than he did as a challenger. The same is true in our system too. Leaders of the Opposition can seem boring, negative and repetitive. Translated into being Prime Minister they become larger somehow. They have more to say that is positive, and for a time, at least, they carry our hopes with them.