It’s said that a week is a long time in politics. It’s now four years this November since the historic election of Barack Obama, elected on a wave of euphoric optimism that stretched across America. A lot has changed.

The energy that radiated from his 2008 campaign has now dissipated, corrupted by the slow, unproductive nature of politics on Capitol Hill. Four years, Obama argues, was not enough. Bitterly disappointing employment figures, a reduced credit rating and sluggish growth in GDP have cast doubts upon a once untouchable figure. Restricted by Congress’s partisan bickering, Obama has had to pick his battles wisely. Prioritising healthcare and the economy over other pledges such as closing Guantanamo Bay, and the introduction of major immigration reform has inevitably led to disappointment amongst his followers.

It also leaves some Democrats privately wondering whether political capital would have been better spent elsewhere – especially when considering that his healthcare bill only scraped through the Supreme Court’s verdict and unemployment rates are dropping slower than expected. Both candidates promise to revive the struggling labour market, ‘reawaken’ America’s moral code and consolidate the nation’s place within the international scene – but present very contrasting ways to do so. Romney’s path can be described, at its worst, as a throwback to 19th Century intolerance and anti-Federalism and, at best, patriotic self-determinism. Obama’s vision, on the other hand, signals government at its most bloated and excessive – but has also been viewed as the beginning of the end of so-called ‘vulture’ capitalism.

The electorate’s dilemma is that no-one is blameless. Under Reagan in the 1980s, the Republican Party introduced ‘trickle down’ economics that contributed to the deep-rooted economic problems surrounding the recession some 30 years later. For the last term, however, Obama has presided over a lethargic recovery that, month by month, threatens to smother the middle class. Americans must cut through the political rhetoric and finally decide between two very opposing economic models on offer:

Obama’s model presents the case that growth can only be created by investment from central government at a time when private companies are unwilling to invest. By giving small businesses tax cuts while raising them for higher earners, Obama hopes to encourage enterprise and reduce the deficit. Romney, however, argues that general tax cuts and more deregulation is needed to create jobs and industry. The problem is, while the former Massachusetts Governor faces a plan that has so far failed to produce, it is still preferable to his tired laissez faire approach. Many voters are also disillusioned with the Republicans for stubbornly rejecting bills that were hoped to encourage growth, leaving Obama with a weak majority following the 2010 Midterms.

Further, what remains a seemingly rigid barrier for Romney is personal popularity. There appears to be a ceiling to how far the GOP candidate’s support can stretch, stirred by suspicion over his private equity company, Bain Capital. Voters are concerned Bain Capital would take over still-profitable companies, downsize them, sell the assets and outsource US jobs to competitors in Asia. Moreover, Romney has attracted scorn by refusing to release his tax returns beyond the last two years. To the American public (two-thirds of whom are in favour of politicians publishing their tax records) his evasiveness comes across as unpatriotic and, worst of all, an admission of guilt. Although many believe he has a better chance of resolving the economy than his opponent, this won’t necessarily translate into votes. The fact that the U.S. has chosen the more personally popular candidate in the previous five elections, is a sign Romney will be unable to pass Obama in the polls.

The Republican Party’s shift to the right hasn’t helped either. Having already laid into Romney during the primaries for his comparatively moderate stance, the evangelical heart of the party now risks alienating potential voters. It begs the question: was Romney right for a party in transition? Enlisting ultra-conservative Paul Ryan as Vice-Presidential nominee and adopting his plan of a deregulated free market only highlights how far the party has moved from moderate Republicanism. Perhaps because of this, he is already backtracking on his earlier stance on ‘Obamacare’. He now plans keep parts of the legislation after it became apparent that losing the state of Florida, which has a disproportionately aged population concerned about his proposed cuts to Medicare, would be near fatal for his campaign.

The result of the election could have a huge bearing on the direction of some of the more polarizing social issues that ignite debate in the states. The Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States, is currently split between four conservatives, four liberals and one judge, considered the ‘swing vote’ for tight decisions. This fine balance could be disturbed in the next term as four of the judges near retirement, meaning whoever is elected President effectively decides whether the court has a liberal slant or a conservative one. This may prove influential as issues such as abortion, voter ID discrimination and the finer details of Obama’s healthcare plan are likely to be contested in certain states.

Should Romney win, we could witness the re-emergence of a more intolerant America as he plans to decentralise power from the federal government, giving states carte blanche on immigration, abortion and same-sex marriage. But his disregard for minorities, LGBT groups and women limits his support in the key battleground states. He recently polled an incredible 0% among black voters, is losing 2 to 1 with Latinos and has a 11% deficit on women to make up. Equally, Obama is leading in 9 of the 10 states considered to be swing states – and if the election was held tomorrow the President would almost certainly win. The nature of these territories means this could change after the three televised debates in October, although polls so far have remained fairly stable with neither candidate gaining much ground following their respective conventions.

In the end, the efficiency of local campaigns will decide the victors in the tightest states. On a regional level, the Romney camp will focus on a ‘one size fits all’ approach by concentrating purely on the economy – the only area in which Romney outpolls Obama nationally. Obama, meanwhile, is prepared to be more selective in his advertising, playing on fears over Republican policies on Medicare in Florida and immigration in Nevada, while defending his record in the comparatively stable (and electorally vital) state of Ohio.

It’s unfortunate that at such a vital crossroads in U.S. politics, the choice is between two disappointing candidates. As it stands, the electoral maths is firmly in favour of Obama and now polls see him pulling away in the popular vote as well. Bar a horrendous gaffe, a major development in the economy’s fortune or an election-altering pledge, the final few months of campaigning are unlikely to change the outcome. Despite Romney’s best efforts, his campaign remains irrevocably scarred by infighting and poor management that eliminates any trace of recovery.

Regardless of which path is chosen, the opposition will always talk of the road not taken. One thing is for sure: November will be a decisive moment for Washington.

Tom Rees

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