Current Issue #488

Letter from America

Letter from America

Talk about a miscalculation. I was in New York on UN business recently and found myself at a spare end for the weekend.

Talk about a miscalculation. I was in New York on UN business recently and found myself at a spare end for the weekend. I decided I would go to Niagara Falls. I’ve always wondered if they are as magnificent as they sound. So I hired a car and set off. Now, Niagara Falls are in New York State so it couldn’t be too far, I judged. I judged wrong. Very wrong. It took me seven-and-a-half hours to get there and – in a storm and rush hour traffic – nine-and-a-half to get back to Manhattan.

Approaching Manhattan in torrential rain I had a Bonfire of the Vanities moment. I took the wrong turn and ended up in the Bronx. Filled with anxiety I asked a petrol station attendant the way to Manhattan. He didn’t assault me. He just politely showed me the way.

The point is, I had around 17 hours in a car so I did what we’d all do. Listen to the radio. And, being a political junkie, for most of the time I tuned in to public radio. I heard every utterance by Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and their acolytes that had been made over the previous week; speeches, press conferences, radio broadcasts, interviews. The lot.

Hasn’t Barack Obama changed? Four years ago he was inspiring. He told us all there was a better way. He promised “change we could believe in”. Wars would end, debt would be paid off, jobs would grow in new parts of the economy like clean energy and the world would be more in harmony. Within months of assuming the presidency, he was given the Nobel Peace Prize. Not for what he’d done but for what he promised.

You can debate his record. But the public reaction to the Obama presidency is profound disappointment. Wars go on, Guantanamo Bay wasn’t closed down, unemployment is higher not lower and so is debt. How, as they say, is that hopey changey thing going?

So this time around, Obama has struck a very different tone. He’s turned negative. The president himself is attacking Romney for his record as the CEO of a private equity firm, Bain and Company. It’s sad to hear the stunning promise of four years ago being reduced to base party politicking of the kind we are all familiar with.

Let’s face it. The Bush administration presided over the collapse of the financial system. It may not have been all Bush’s fault – the causes went back for years. By the actual crisis occurred on his watch. So Obama only had to watch the economy grow to look good. Instead, he went on a spending spree. These days, what seems to separate left wing from right wing economics is the left think solutions lie in spending and the right sees solutions in saving.

Obama is of the left, so spending it was. A trillion on a health plan, 700 billion on “stimulation programs”, more foreign aid and so on. Which was all very well if it was affordable. But it wasn’t. Up went government debt and down went confidence in the economy.

Mind you, the Obama team is claiming some pretty fancy foreign policy achievements. The Arab spring, reform in Burma and the end of US involvement in Iraq. Well, in truth you can credit Obama with one of those three: the withdrawal from Iraq. It came at the right time and was well managed. But the other two were unrelated to US foreign policy.

So there I was, driving boring mile after boring mile down Interstate 87 listening to all this and sharing the thoughts you all have: Obama is a cool dude – fit, good looking, a great voice but not much to boast about.

But there again, you should always be skeptical about politicians who say they can change everything. If it were so easy it would have been done already.

So that brought me to Mitt Romney. I listened to him and his supporters for hours. I’m sorry but they hardly inspire. There’s the usual stuff about creating jobs and reducing taxes and debt. That’s hard to do as anyone can see. Reducing both debt and taxes means big cuts to government programs, which is always hard to do.

But still, this was all predictable meat and veg from the centre right. What was disturbing was his rhetoric about protectionism and China. The centre right of politics is usually in favour of free trade. Romney talks about protecting American jobs from the ravages of the world market. And he wants to start what would amount to a trade war with China, the world’s second largest economy.

No wonder the American public is disillusioned. My prediction is plenty of them won’t bother to vote. But of those who do, a small majority will re elect Barack Obama. Why? Because Romney just doesn’t sound convincing.

And if ever you want to go from New York City to Niagara Falls, take a tip from me: fly.

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