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SIX months from polling day, America’s election campaign has opened with a blizzard of tendentious commercials, contrived razzamatazz and mind-numbing trivia.Was the stadium in Ohio at which Barack Obama launched his campaign on May 5th really “half empty”, as a conservative website reported? (Probably not: there were perhaps 14,000 Obama supporters in a stadium that can accommodate some 20,000 people.)
Had the vice-president, Joe Biden, embarrassed his boss by expressing support for gay marriage when Mr Obama’s own thoughts were supposedly still “evolving”? (Not for long: within days Mr Obama announced that he now supported it too.)
On May 8th Mr Obama popped up to Albany, New York, with a new gimmick. He unveiled a five-point job-creating “to do” list, which he knows the Republicans in a gridlocked Congress will not enact.
Some people love elections. But data compiled by the redoubtable Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution show that this one is unfolding against a deep gloom. Four recent surveys have found that on average only 28% of Americans are satisfied with the condition of the country, while 70% are dissatisfied. Three recent surveys have found that between 69% and 83% of Americans believe that the country is still in recession (it isn’t), and only half believe that a recovery is under way.
If voters conclude that Mr Obama has failed them on the economy, they will fire him and hire Mitt Romney in November. That is normal. Less normal is how many Americans have come to think that the country is not just passing through a rough patch but is in long-term decline. A survey of 12 swing states found 55% agreeing that the jobs being created in the recovery are of lower quality than those jobs lost during the recession. By a margin of nearly two to one, Americans expect their children’s jobs, salaries and benefits to be worse than their own. Some 35% go so far as to say that America’s best days are behind it.
America is prone to bouts of “declinism.” In the 1980s the country was in a funk about the rise of Japan and its own vanishing competitiveness. Another bout was bound to follow China’s rise, two grinding wars and the deep recession of 2008. The gloom is nourished by a fountain of declinist literature. In “Time to Start Thinking” Ed Luce of the Financial Times ponders an America “in descent.” Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of Brookings claim in a book on America’s politics (reviewed here two weeks ago) that “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.”
Yet anyone who prefers their glass half-full can find grounds for optimism. The first Boeing 787 Dreamliner has just landed in Washington, DC. It will be decades before China can make such a machine. The IMF is predicting average growth of over 2% for 2012 and 2013, not meteoric but not bad for a mature economy. America has a young workforce, with plenty of skilled people knocking at the door to come in. It still has more of the world’s best universities than any other country. It is the world’s largest producer of natural gas and its biggest food exporter. Amid the gloom, the economy is getting “Better, Stronger, Faster”, argues Daniel Gross, in a book of that name published this week.
Politics is, admittedly, a weak point. The debt-ceiling crisis last year showed it at its most irresponsible, and led to a downgrade of America’s credit rating. But whatever you think of this Congress, you cannot accuse its two predecessors of failing to get things done. Apart from passing health reform, they were able to mobilize some $800 billion for stimulus spending and billions more to stabilise the financial system and bail out the car industry. Approve or disapprove, that was not gridlock. And if you disapprove, then in 2010 you witnessed the power of America’s system to check an overactive majority. Granted, this is government by fits and starts, hobbled by the whims of voters. A Platonic philosopher-king would run America differently. But given how recently government stood accused of overreach, the evidence does not suggest that the place is ungovernable.
What about the soaring deficit? At some point, this must be tackled. But sooner or later it will be. Indeed, if Congress fails to take action before the end of the year, the “sequester”, a gun it pointed at its own head last year, will go off and produce $1.2 trillion of automatic spending cuts just as George W. Bush’s tax cuts expire, thereby bending the deficit sharply downwards. This is not an elegant way forward. In fact it is pretty stupid: some of the cuts will fall in the wrong places. But it is telling that even after the debt-ceiling debate and the credit-rating downgrade, global investors remain happy to buy American debt because they still see America as a haven in a troubled world.
The binary illusion
People tend to think in black and white. America is either in decline or it is ordained to be for ever the world’s greatest nation. Government is either paralysed or it is running amok, stifling liberty and enterprise and snuffing out the American dream. The election campaign accentuates the negative and sharpens this binary illusion. The Republicans say that Mr Obama is leading America into socialized serfdom; the Democrats retort that Mr Romney would restore the conditions that caused the recession. Little wonder that, according to polls, most voters do not believe that either man has a clear plan for fixing the economy.
Charles Dickens said of the United States that if its citizens were to be believed America “always is depressed, and always is stagnated, and always is at an alarming crisis, and never was otherwise.” On a variety of objective measures, it is in an awful mess right now. And yet America of all countries still has plenty of grounds to hope for a better future, despite its underperforming politics, and no matter who triumphs in November.
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