Pakistan's View of the U.S. Election

Commentary | October 18, 2012

Writing for Pakistan's The News International, EWI board member Ikram Sehgal considers the international significance of the U.S. presidential election.

Even though most cannot really explain why, who the US president will be seems to really matter to the rest of the world. The US presidential debates therefore excite much interest, more outside the US see them within the US. A young, buoyant John Kennedy got the better of a seemingly tired Richard Nixon in the live debate in 1960. Since then instant perception influencing the elections has come to make a huge difference.

Ronald Reagan was decidedly trailing the meticulous Jimmy Carter in 1980, but his self-deprecating, laidback “there you go again” spiel took the incumbent president off his feet. Al Gore squandered a considerable lead against George W Bush by his ponderous debating style. Though Obama did not land any knockout blows against John McCain in 2008, his enhanced debating skills easily outscored the much older senator. In the mass aspirations for change public perception ignored Obama’s relative inexperience in government.

A record US audience of nearly 70 million viewers, second only to the Super Bowl, watched the first debate on Wednesday, October 3. By the end of the evening President Obama had blown his comfortable lead in public opinion, the Republican contender clearly scoring over his seemingly listless opponent. It was a dramatic 67 percent victory, according to a quick CNN poll after the debate. To quote The New York Times, “voters want someone who can stand in the public square and not only sell themselves but the power of their ideas.”

Within days voter sentiment in the polls had swayed 4-6 percent in Romney’s favour, turning the race into a statistical dead heat. One may forgive the rest of the world for being mystified as to how in one single evening the tide had turned enough for the momentum to go with the feisty Republican aspirant for the presidency. Obama’s problems notwithstanding, the tracking of countrywide polls show Democrats retaining their narrow lead in the US Senate in close races, even doing better in the US House of Representatives presently controlled by the Republicans.

The Democrats have done far better in the voter’s registration drive, maintaining an average majority of 6-8 percent in the swing states among registered voters. The commensurate registration of independent voters constitutes an average of 25 percent in each state. A majority leans towards Romney after the first debate. Not enough in the six battleground states, but combine these with the so-called “Reagan Democrats” who tend to vote for Republican contenders and you come up with a whole new ball game, a huge difference in the Southern states and a wide swath across the Midwest. The counter-balancing is achieved with New York and California having many electoral votes, definitely going for Obama.

For someone from the Third World it was a privilege to gauge at first hand the reaction of a cross-section of US citizens of some standing during my current visit to the US. Their perception of a generally ineffective president was reinforced by Obama’s rather strange and inexplicable performance during the first debate. Even then, informed outside observers can never really comprehend how the US voters can forgive the Republicans for squandering the fiscal surplus generated by Clinton and not give credit to Obama who inherited this horrendous economic situation for containing further economic damage.

His major mistake was in opting to give “Medicare” rather than the economy the pride of place in presidential attentions. Disappointment over his performance, and even dislike, one can understand, but the virulent hatred that seems to overwhelm dislike was a shock. Even more surprising: given that the financial stimulus by the federal government generally profited the elite one percent, why will a major portion of the less than privileged (including Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe) still vote against him?

To quote from a recent article: “The O-Man, Barack Hussein Obama, is an eloquently tactical empty suit. No resume, no accomplishments, no experience, no original ideas, no understanding of how the economy works, no understanding of how the world works, no balls, nothing but abstract, empty rhetoric devoid of real substance.”

It goes on to say: “He has no real identity. He is half-white, which he rejects. The rest of him is mostly Arab, like his first two names, which he hides. Obama is not the descendent of slaves, he is the descendent of slave-owners, thus he makes the perfect liberal Messiah. Thank heavens the voting majority of Americans remain ‘Christian’ and are in no desperate need of a phony saviour. His candidacy is ridiculous and should not be taken seriously by any ‘thinking American.’”

This was not written by an extreme white racist supremacist but by a respected former Reagan advisor who devised the “Star Wars” strategy that brought the Soviet Union down to its economic knees. This “thinking American,” Dr Jack Wheeler, represents the diehard whites never coming to terms with a black in the White House. Governor Romney may not be their favourite, but any alternative to Obama is acceptable to this lot.

In 2008 nearly 65 percent whites voted against him. While the black vote remains rock-solid, Obama will lose more of the white vote. His appeal to the Hispanics who voted for him in 2008 in strength is somewhat suspect. He may well lose the popular vote but to be ousted as president he has to lose in the rather complex Electoral College system. Here Romney has a real problem.

In crucial swing states with big electoral counts like Ohio and Florida, Obama seems to be holding onto his portion of the white vote, the Electoral College mathematics giving him enough to retain the presidency. The joker in the pack could be former Republican New Mexico governor Gary Johnson as the Libertarian Party Candidate, taking away crucial votes for Romney similar to Ralph Nader’s erosion of Al Gore’s vote bank in 2000. The Republicans allege that the Obama campaign machine put Johnson up to it.

Much depended upon the vice-presidential debate between incumbent Biden and challenger Ryan. Ryan held his ground against Biden’s experience, his youth giving him an image advantage over the much older Biden on TV. A virtual draw gave heart to the Democrats but did not entirely stem the Romney momentum. The second TV debate on Tuesday, therefore, assumed enormous importance, Obama needed to erase the memory of his last performance. Otherwise he could forget being re-elected.

The dilemma: how feisty could he get without turning off the voters by seeming to be rude and losing the presidential high ground? Romney just had to imitate Ryan in not losing his cool and contain Obama’s frontal attack without crossing the failsafe line of good behaviour and manners one expects from a would-be US president. The incumbent had to somehow stem the challenger’s surge or anything could happen in the presidential stakes. Obama was a different man last Tuesday, a quick CNN poll giving him 49 percent to Romney’s 46 percent. The race may go down to the wire but the question is: does it really matter to us in the Third World who is chosen as the leader of the greatest nation on the face of this earth?

Click here to read this column at The News International.