The U.S. presidential debates certainly stirred things up. What they didn’t do is present us with an accurate picture of the presidential role, or of the United States’ position in the world.
A win, a loss, and a draw. That’s how I would characterize, in 10 words or less, the three debates between U.S. President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. The highlights are now well known – from Romney’s clear victory and the president’s somnambulant performance in the first debate through to the governor’s “binders of women” gaffe in the second and Obama’s “horses and bayonets” zinger against Romney in the third.
Although the final debate was generally more substantive than the first two, what struck this outside observer was the air of unreality in the content and the positions of both candidates and their respective parties. And I’m not talking about the hurling of “facts” and the genuine efforts of media and online fact checkers. No, of greater concern is public non-recognition of the relatively limited capacity of any president to deliver on electoral promises given the toxic partisanship in Congress, the hollowing out of the political, as well as the economic, middle, and the limited room to manoeuvre given tax-increase anathema. It’s not simply a matter of unwillingness to implement what’s pledged in the stump speech, the budget math not adding up, or a lack of leadership quality.
There is a general assumption that the leader of the free world must have a lot of power domestically: in reality, not so much. The “friendly dictatorial” power (to paraphrase Jeffrey Simpson) of any majority government prime minister or premier in Canada, and her or his ability to rule with an iron hand and trample over the legislature, far exceeds the institutional capacity of the American president. (And then we have this nifty little proroguing trick, but I digress.)
The U.S., for all its indispensability and lone-superpower status, is remarkably inward focused. Not much evidence was adduced in any of the debates as to the actual American position in the complicated reality known as the global economy and the multipolar world:
Energy production and security came up a number of times, but let’s be clear: The United States, let alone its president, does not have the ability to “control” oil prices. The train left that station in about 1973.
The U.S. does not have the “best education system in the world” at the elementary or secondary level.
Even with Obamacare, spiralling health costs and profound inequality of coverage will remain the norm.
No president, and no Congress, can bring back lost manufacturing jobs, and much-heralded new manufacturing jobs – even skilled – will only contribute a relatively small fraction of overall job growth.
Violent extremism (the more politically correct term for terrorism) cannot be solved or eradicated solely with the leadership of one state, even with dozens of eager and like-minded allies.
In any event, neither terrorism nor a nuclear Iran is arguably the biggest national-security threat facing the United States: A bigger contender might be cyber-attacks – most inconveniently, those that come from China.
And while on the subject of China, the U.S. doesn’t have the leverage it would like in negotiations on any issue, let alone something as vague as “getting it to play by the rules.”
The American body politic is not well-served by candidates and parties that do further harm to the quality of public discourse rather than educating voters. Sadly, to do otherwise is not a winning proposition, and runs directly contrary to civic religion, which requires constant repetition of the mantra that the United States is the best country in the world. Super PACs, spending wildly in the wake of the Citizens United decision, have saturated the airwaves with irresponsible partisan venom. The media, especially those primed to report “gotcha!” political spinning and horse-race speculation, or the talking heads and pollsters who feed the beast known as the 24-hour news cycle, only make matters worse.
Furthermore, the twin forces of globalization and the technology revolution, combined with policies of deregulation and low taxation, have exacerbated social dislocation felt by the beleaguered middle class. The concentration of wealth at the very top is greater than at any point in American history since the Gilded Age. As Canadian business journalist Chrystia Freeland reported in her recent book Plutocrats, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates – great philanthropists, to be sure – have a net worth of almost as much as the bottom 40 per cent of Americans. She describes the 2009-2010 economic comeback as the “1% recovery” – for 99 per cent of Americans, incomes grew by a tepid 0.2 per cent, but for the one per cent, incomes grew by 11.6 per cent. You don’t have to be a class warrior to recognize that the challenge is not one of simply sustained growth, but also one of redistribution. Both candidates need the support of middle-class voters to win. Thus, Obama must make the difficult case for a balanced approach for deficit reduction and tax increases, while Romney must play up his businesslike stewardship and play down his earlier disavowal of the 47 per cent who don’t pay taxes.
At the end of the day, the debates did provide Americans with a stark choice, but on two levels. First, there are the very different policy proposals offered by the two candidates. Second, the more difficult choice for all voting Americans is whether to squarely face the truth: that the United States is only one player, albeit an outsized and powerful one, struggling in the global economy along with the rest of us, searching for the right policy and institutional mix to address 21st-century challenges.
Barbara Falk is a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington this fall.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.