“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 here a few days ago. His words were directed at the political analyst Larry Sabato, whose countenance had been beamed onto a conference-room screen 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 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 U.S. foreign policy and 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 drift across the Atlantic. Many Europeans are aware that some Americans think Barack Obama is a Marxist-socialist, bent on destroying the United States, 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 remember. Foreigners were intrigued by Bill Clinton and indulgent of his peccadillos. 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 throughout 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 functioned in the British media largely as the punch line for jokes, thanks to his ill-favored visit just ahead of the Summer Olympics. Only lately have people begun to grapple with the amazing idea that he might become president — though the possibility that Obama might lose isn’t causing a lot of heartbreak. Obama remains the favored candidate in most of the world — Europeans prefer the president to Romney in ranges of 60 to 70 percent — but I can’t find anyone in London who lost much sleep over Obama’s poor performance in the first debate.
There are multiple reasons for this indifference, starting with the fact that people no longer believe, 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 could render Russia less corrupt or China less nepotistic. The myth of America as an all-seeing, all-knowing superpower persists in a few places — ironically, one hears it most often in the Arab world — but most everywhere else it is long gone.
Perhaps outsiders have also begun to understand something that not all Americans yet realize: The U.S. president has limited ability to shape events in his own country. One wouldn’t know that from listening to the campaigns: It is 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, any American president nowadays is held personally responsible for everything from oil spills to security of consulates. Although they like to think otherwise, many Americans have come to expect far more of their government than they used to, 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. Whoever wins on Nov. 6 is likely to face a split Congress, which means he will not have a free hand with the budget, health care or other major programs. Around the world, either man would face the same unenviable policy choices in Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. Either will find it difficult to deal with the prickly leaders of China and Russia. Neither will have unquestioned authority to make peace in the Middle East or unchallenged control over the U.N. Security Council.
Above all, neither candidate will find that his election or reelection has, all by itself, much of an impact. The inauguration of Barack 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. So, does this election matter? Yes, of course. It’s the most important presidential election since 2008.