x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Rhetoric aside, the US candidates are awkwardly alike

Despite the efforts of each of the two US presidential candidates to depict the opposing candidate as a nightmare, there is little daylight between their policies.

Don't tell America's voters, but when it comes to governing, President Barack Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, may have more in common than either man's camp would dare admit. Despite each camp's efforts to depict the opposing candidate as a nightmare, there is little daylight between their policies.

That could be one of the reasons behind the wild swings in the polls that make the 2012 presidential election too close to call. Likely voters appear fairly evenly divided between the two men, with only some 6 per cent undecided - and a further 12 per cent decided, but still open to changing their minds.

That's a dramatic contrast to the 10-point lead Mr Obama enjoyed at this stage of the 2008 race, but it's hard to get voters excited about the status quo. An anaemic economic recovery offers little relief to many millions of Americans out of work, or underemployed - no president since Franklin D Roosevelt has won re-election with unemployment above 7.2 per cent. The White House last week celebrated its fall below 8 per cent for the first time since Mr Obama took office.

The president is not without substantial achievements, of course, mostly in the realm of stabilising an economy headed for a crash, and in the promise of expanded healthcare coverage, the biggest part of which takes effect in 2014. Vice President Joe Biden sums up the administration's track record in a not-exactly-inspirational slogan: "Osama bin Laden is dead; General Motors is alive!"

Many economists credit Mr Obama for policies that averted a full-blown depression after the 2008 financial crisis, pumping money into the economy through stimulus spending. Things could have been much worse, but that's not a rallying cry among those voters who continue to suffer under the status quo.

On foreign policy, Mr Obama's term has seen more continuity than change from the Bush administration's more chastened second term. The prison at Guantanamo remains open despite his promise to close it; the war in Afghanistan drags on while the prospect of another with Iran might be drawing closer. The US is conducting four times as many drone strikes today as it did under the previous administration. An end to Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands remains as elusive as ever.

Sure, Mr Obama pulled US troops out of Iraq, but that was required by Mr Bush's 2008 agreement with Baghdad. For all his vitriol about Mr Obama's alleged foreign policy failures, when it comes down to practical policy choices, Mr Romney's are barely distinguishable from those being pursued today.

Their plans for fixing the economy differ on a number of specifics, but follow the same broad brush strokes - boosting exports, energy independence, education reform, deficit reduction, tax reform. Economic governance in the US has remained locked into a centre-right policy consensus for the past three decades.

But Mr Romney's campaign needs Americans to believe Mr Obama is the ghost of Stalin, while Team Obama needs to paint Mr Romney as the acceptable face of the Tea-Party Taliban. That's campaign politics.

Back in March, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom was asked whether the extreme positions the Republican candidate had taken to beat off more conservative rivals for the nomination would hurt Mr Romney with moderate voters in November. He answered: "You hit a reset button for the fall campaign ... It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."

There may even be reason to believe that the more moderate face Mr Romney has begun to adopt is closer to the real thing. He was chosen by the Republican hierarchy and donors, despite the lack of enthusiasm he elicited among the party's base, in the belief that the economy is so bad that beating Mr Obama simply required a candidate capable of appearing competent and sensible.

Mr Romney governed Massachusetts as a centre-right technocrat, willing to cut deals and compromise with his Democratic legislature where necessary to realise his agenda. Exhibit A: his healthcare reform law, which became the model for the "Obamacare" plan he now promises to repeal in line with the sentiments of his party.

The scary thing for many Democrats is that Mr Obama may be the same. The ambitious young senator from Illinois had encouraged a restive Democratic Party base to imagine him as a progressive liberator who would break with the centrism of the Clintons. Of course, there was nothing in Mr Obama's voting record to suggest he was anything but a moderate centrist.

Once in office, however, Mr Obama approached governing as "a series of concrete problems to be solved", gathering around him Clinton veterans, ducking conflict and making whatever pragmatic compromises were available. His handling of everything from the Afghan troop surge to healthcare reform suggested that Mr Obama, too, is at heart a centrist technocrat. There are differences between him and his challenger on a number of issues, but neither candidate is offering a plausible prospect of significant change.


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York

On Twitter: @Tony Karon