“Is this presidential election really the most important in our lifetime?” That was the question asked, in so many words, by a concerned Brit at a discussion in London a few days ago. His words were directed at Larry Sabato, the American political analyst, whose countenance had been beamed onto a screen in a conference room like some giant electronic guru. Sabato didn’t blink. “This presidential election,” he replied, “is definitely the most important since 2008.”
Appreciative laughter followed, but the audience wasn’t entirely satisfied. For the British—as for most other Europeans, and indeed most other foreigners—that aspect of this election is extremely hard to understand. Is the 2012 presidential race “important”—that is, will it mark a momentous change in American foreign policy and American attitudes toward the world—or will its result make no difference at all?
The source of the confusion is clear. Shards of harsh rhetoric from this nasty campaign do drift across the Atlantic, and many Europeans are aware that some Americans think Barack Obama is a Marxist-socialist bent on destroying America, while others think Mitt Romney is a vulture capitalist who will rob the poor to feed the rich. The British in particular like to “ooh” and “aah” over the stacks of cash Republicans and Democrats are spending in the apparent belief that the outcome matters a great deal.
At the same time, this election has received less serious coverage abroad than any I can ever remember. Foreigners were intrigued by Bill Clinton, and indulgent of his peccadilloes. Every word that George W. Bush uttered on the campaign trail was repeated with fascinated horror. Barack Obama’s biography was discussed in lavish detail all through 2008, along with the inevitable question, “Will Americans vote for a black man?” (I told them we would; they didn’t believe me.)
This time around things are different. Until recently, Romney largely functioned in the British media as the punch line for jokes, thanks to his ill-favored visit during last summer’s Olympics. Only lately has anyone begun to grapple with the amazing fact that he might become president—though the possibility that Obama might lose isn’t causing a lot of heartbreak. Although he remains the favored candidate in most of the world—Europeans prefer the current president in ranges of 60 to 70 percent—no one lost a lot of sleep over his poor performance in the first debate.
There are multiple reasons for this indifference, starting with the fact that no one believes, as many once did, that an American president can solve all of their problems. Neither Obama nor Romney would be in a position to do much about the euro crisis. Neither could create effective governments in Egypt or Libya. Neither can render Russia less corrupt or China less nepotistic. The myth of America as an all-seeing, all-knowing superpower does persist in a few places—ironically, one hears it most often in the Arab world—but most everywhere else it’s long gone.
Perhaps outsiders have also begun to understand something that not all Americans yet realize: The American president is also limited in his ability to shape events in his own country. One wouldn’t know that from listening to the campaigns: It’s always in the incumbent’s interest to take credit for everything good in the world—and in the challenger’s interest to blame him for everything bad. As a result of this kind of talk, the American president—any American president—is nowadays held personally responsible for everything from oil spills to the security of consulates. Though they like to think otherwise, many Americans have lately come to expect far more of their government than they once did, and some of those expectations now rest on the White House.
And yet—as the dead-heat polling illustrates—the United States is still a 50-50 nation. Either president is therefore likely to face a split Congress, which therefore means he will not have a free hand with the budget, with health care, or other major programs. Around the world, either man would face the same unenviable policy choices in Afghanistan, Syria, or Iran. Either will find it difficult to deal with the prickly leaders of China and Russia. Neither will have an unlimited defense budget, unquestioned authority to make peace in the Middle East, or unchallenged control over the U.N. Security Council.
Above all, neither will find that his election has, all by itself, had much of an impact. The election of President Obama did not automatically make America more popular all over the world, and the election of Mitt Romney would not automatically make America more respected, more powerful, or more hated either. So does this election matter? Yes, of course it does. It’s the most important presidential election since 2008.