by Riccardo Alcaro,
December 10, 2012
There is little doubt that Europeans overwhelmingly hailed Barack Obama’s re-election as US president. According to public opinion polls, had the election been held in Europe, Europeans would have given Obama a record 70-90% of their votes.
Europe’s Obamania has been widely ridiculed by pundits on both sides of the Atlantic. After all, did Obama not display a cool attitude towards Europe in his first mandate? Did he not articulate US foreign policy in full autonomy from Europeans, much like the widely despised (in Europe) George W. Bush used to do? Have Europeans failed to notice that Obama has openly described himself as America’s first ‘Pacific president’, ostensibly meaning that he considers Asia to be much more important than Europe for America’s future? As it happens, pundits might have failed to see the forest for the trees, as the old saying goes. The European public may certainly have a partial and less informed knowledge of US politics and foreign policy, but nonetheless its massive leaning towards Obama owes more to substantive reasons than pundits are apparently ready to admit.
A first reason for this concerns the effects that US policies have on the EU economy (undoubtedly Europeans’ main concern nowadays). Europeans are generally aware that an enduring recovery in the US can help pull them out of the economic hole they are currently stuck in. Economic platforms of US presidential candidates rarely matter for Europeans in normal times, yet they might have played a role in orientating their preferences in these dark days. This might have been the case particularly for Obama’s Republican contender, Mitt Romney. While not going into details, Romney had been clear that he would have cut public spending (particularly welfare benefits), kept tax rates at the lowest level since the 1920s, and obstructed the Fed’s expansionary policies. Romney went the extra mile to insist that his economic policies would be a recipe for growth and jobs, but Europeans had well-grounded reasons to question the wisdom of his plans.
The effects of public spending cuts – the main component of the austerity drive that has swept across the EU since the outbreak of the Greek crisis – have given EU citizens few reasons to be positive about them: the unemployment rate has gone up, wages have been frozen or cut, consumption has diminished, and social turmoil has ensued. Furthermore, the European public has been regularly reminded that the inability of the European Central Bank (ECB) to back eurozone members’ troubled finances with a robust intervention in the bond market is a key weakness of the EU response to the crisis. Such inability is arguably the price to pay for ECB’s independence, itself a guarantee against excessively lax fiscal policies by eurozone governments. Europeans – at least some of them – may agree with this in theory. Yet, in practice, the lesson for crisis-ridden Europeans is that more expansionary monetary policies would have helped. Romney also insisted that the US economy would have thrived by keeping taxes low for everybody – including top incomers. However, this could hardly impress Europeans, not least because Obama supported tax hikes just for the richest 2% of the population. In short, seen from Europe, Romney’s tax plans were too close to Obama’s and his spending cuts and monetary policy preferences bore too much resemblance to the austerity measures that many Europeans have come to despise.
It is impossible to determine how deep the European public delved into such considerations – most likely, very few took the time to dissect Romney’s or Obama’s economic proposals. Yet, the impact of austerity policies in Europe is such that everything that even vaguely resembles these is regarded with perplexity, concern or contempt. This is true even for EU austerity supporters, who view austerity more as a guarantee to correct the eurozone’s specific imbalances (the different economic policies of member states, or the impossibility to print money to support troubled eurozone economies) than a one-size-fits-all economic recipe. All Europeans, south and north of the Alps alike, were and are interested in a strong US economy. From this point of view, Obama was perceived as a safer bet.
It is not all about the economy, however. High-profile international issues have also been a factor, perhaps the decisive one, behind Europe’s fondness for Obama. While Romney would have in all likelihood been a more moderate president than what seemed to transpire from the election campaign, Europeans who followed the news were clearly reminded of the policies pursued by Bush II when hearing Romney’s foreign policy utterances. Accordingly, they believed that Obama was a better choice than Romney also in this regard.
Consider an issue that, at first sight, seems to contradict this assumption: Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’. Thanks to pundits themselves, the European public is perfectly aware that the US’s strategic shift towards the Asia-Pacific is inevitable, given China’s rise to superpower status and the absence of any strategic competitor to the US on the Atlantic front. So the issue has never been that of choosing between a more ‘Pacific’ Obama and a more ‘Atlantic’ Romney, simply because Romney would have been as ‘Pacific’ as Obama if not more. Hence, the issue at stake for the Europeans was who of the two candidates offered greater guarantees of better managing US-China relations. As said, Romney would have probably been a ‘different animal’ (a more moderate one) once in office, but still during the campaign he indulged extensively in chest-thumping American exceptionalism. After all, the only thing Europeans could hear him saying about China was that he would have declared it a ‘currency manipulator’ on the very day of his inauguration. You need not to be an expert to anticipate that such a move would have strained US-China diplomatic relations and potentially done harm to the crucial US-China economic relationship, with severe fall-outs for Europe too. By contrast, and irrespective of the substance of his strategic shift to Asia, Obama championed, or at least was perceived as championing, a more modest and nuanced approach to international politics. This difference in tone and approach legitimately led Europeans to believe that an Obama II would be more in their interest than a hypothetical Romney I.
Broadly speaking, pundits on both shores of the Atlantic seem to overestimate Obama’s talent for politics and underestimate the importance of his personality when inquiring about his unabated popularity in Europe. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Europeans are much less hypnotized by the man of hope (the key word in Obama’s political ascendancy in 2008) than they are comforted by his being a man of reason. In short, Europeans dot not feel so much inspired by Obama as they feel reassured that a prudent and reflective man, by no means inclined to take hasty decisions and only willing to take risks if they are thoroughly calculated, sits in the Oval Office. Attesting to this are Obama’s decision to pull out troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan, his low profile approach to the war in Libya, and his evident reluctance to pre-emptively commit to taking-up arms against Iran should sanctions or diplomacy fail to solve the nuclear dispute. On all these issues Obama is closer to Europeans (governments and publics alike) than Romney. This is true also when Obama’s proximity to Europe is far less evident, for instance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (where many Europeans feel uncomfortable with Obama’s unwillingness to put pressure on Israel) or on global issues such as the fight against global warming and nuclear disarmament.
Pundits have long argued that Europe is less important for the US than it used to be in the past – a hardly disputable statement. Obama’s recurrent expressions of faith in the value of transatlantic relations have consequently been dismissed as more rhetoric than substance. But ‘less important’ is by no means equal to ‘not important’. Since Obama addressed a jubilant crowd in Berlin during his first election campaign, he has consistently presented his vision of the transatlantic relationship as a more balanced partnership, wherein the Europeans should do more and the Americans listen more. The war in Libya has shown that the US president is willing to support initiatives of relatively low strategic importance for the US, if Europeans take the initiative (notoriously, the US security and military establishment did not consider Libya a priority). For Europeans, Obama’s call for Europe to take on greater responsibilities is not a sign of neglect, but rather of a calculated interest: a more autonomous Europe can better contribute to US foreign policy objectives, but can also ask for more in return. The terms of the ‘offer’ were more or less clearly spelled out by Obama, while Romney was never heard saying anything of the sort.
There is a final point to emphasize. Europeans see Obama as a politician and a statesman whose social and economic agenda is much more in line with their preferences and history than Romney’s. The political debate in today’s America is infinitely more polarized than is the case in Europe. Any European party campaigning on Romney’s agenda of repealing a healthcare reform that has extended insurance coverage to almost everybody, turning social security into a voucher system, keeping tax rates for the wealthiest 2% of the population at historical lows, while at the same time increasing defence spending and doing nothing against climate change, would face electoral annihilation. Europeans were concerned that a Romney victory in the world’s most important country could discredit a political-cultural agenda which, for all differences between EU conservatives and progressives, contributes to defining their own identity and interests. It was not Obama’s message of change that solicited European support, but rather the perception that an Obama second term would be more in line with their own interests and values.