Obama's interactions with Europe have been clumsy and ineffective where they haven't been petulant. The British, the only European power on which Americans can rely through thick and thin, have been left with the impression that he sees them as the yesterday land, the dreadful old colonialists of his father's Kenya. Sending back the bust of Winston Churchill to the British Embassy in his first week was a symbol so petty it should have been beneath him.
Obama appears to see the French in much the same way except he knows they are unreliable. He has tried to forge a close relationship with Germany's Angela Merkel but she is a chancellor who sees everything through the prism of German politics. She has listened courteously to his repeated appeals to sort out the euro crisis in a way that doesn't plunge most of Europe into recession (and doesn't damage U.S. financial interests) but has then ignored him and pursued short-term German political and financial interests.
Above all, Obama has launched a strategic shift of U.S. power and interest to the Asia-Pacific region, downgrading Europe in American priorities and bruising an already battered European self-esteem. This would be no bad thing, if it could influence the Europeans (French and British partly excepted) to take their own defense and foreign policies seriously. But don't expect Europeans to like it.
Nonetheless, the fond memories endure of the charismatic Obama of the 2008 campaign. There is also a lingering political correctness, which thrills to the thought of a man of color in the White House. His speeches on Islam have been well-received.
And the British were somewhat mollified by his successful 2-day state visit last year, despite his gaffe at starting his toast to the Queen before the national anthem had finished playing. Nobody else raised a glass until the Queen did so when the music stopped.
So in what might be seen as a triumph of hope over experience, Europe wants Obama to win. Part of this is fear of the unknown Mitt Romney, a bemusement at his Mormon faith and bafflement at his shape-shifting from Massachusetts moderate to Tea Party fire-eater and back to moderation again. Another part of it is alarm at the fundamentalist economics of his running mate Paul Ryan and Romney's own background in private equity.
Most of the alarm is based on some of Romney's statements, that he would on his first day in the White House denounce China as a currency manipulator, block U.S. funds from going to international family planning organizations that provide abortions and start dismantling Obamacare. Europeans also fear that Romney's passionate pro-Israel and anti-Iran stance could lead to a war that would send energy prices soaring and plunge Europe into a deep recession.
More thoughtful Europeans, and those who have some understanding of the complexities of the U.S. political system, have concluded from the opinion polls that we are close to a dead heat in this election. That means that the U.S. Senate will retain its Democratic majority, frustrating a Romney presidency, and the House of Representatives will remain Republican, frustrating an Obama second term.
In short, whoever wins this election, political gridlock is likely to continue in Washington, with a great deal of posturing from both left and right and very little room in the center for compromise.
In the short term, Europeans dread this fundamentalism in U.S. politics leading to a lemming-like collective plunge over the fiscal cliff at the end of the year. This ignores the proven capacity of even this congressional generation to concoct fiscal fudges that fend off disaster, at least for a while.
In the longer term, Europeans fear an American self-incarceration, a United States so hemmed in by debt and political gridlock and domestic squabbles that it becomes increasingly isolationist in practice, if not in rhetoric.
"This is not Clinton's America, nor it is Reagan's or Kennedy's or Eisenhower's," an eminent Swiss banker told this columnist over the weekend. "It is an American we have not seen since the days before Roosevelt."
"It's worse than that, it's back to Jimmy Carter with no Cold War to focus their minds," commented a leading German financier with strong connections to the Berlin government.
But having made their quips, the two men then agreed that the dominant American reality of the next presidency is likely to be a very strong U.S. economic recovery starting in 2014. They saw it driven by the long-delayed recovery in housing, by the shale natural gas boom that is putting the country on the path to self-sufficiency in energy and revitalizing the U.S. petrochemical industry.
Whoever wins the election, they concluded, will be riding a buoyant tide of economic growth. And if it is to be President Romney, than his re-election in 2016 would be a very good bet indeed. If Obama gets re-elected, then the Democrats will quickly launch a bruising internal contest over the choice of his successor.
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