Republican Mitt Romney (left) and United States President
Barack Obama. Photo by Reuters.
It would be a mistake to write off the significance of
the 2012 presidential election.
Like or dislike it, the United States remains a key actor in
the contemporary era.
It has the biggest economy in the world, possesses more
military capabilities than the next leading 10 countries
combined, and is the pre-eminent player in the production of
At the same time, the idea of exceptionalism is deeply rooted
in the culture of US political life.
hard to affect in the US political system
This assumes the US is not only different from other nations
but that it provides an exemplary political model for the
rest of the world.
If the past 12 years demonstrate anything, it is that the
role of leadership in this extraordinary country matters
greatly. After September 11, 2001, the George W.
Bush administration declared a war on terror, launched bloody
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spent more than $US4
trillion ($NZ4.84 trillion) on bolstering US national
Such massive expenditure was financed almost entirely through
borrowing and this, in turn, helped create conditions that
led in 2008-09 to the worst global economic crisis since the
Great Depression of the late 1920s.
In contrast to the Bush era, the Obama leadership reasserted
the link between the domestic economy and American global
Almost immediately, the Obama Administration managed to get a
$US789 billion stimulus Bill passed.
The bleeding of jobs was stopped.
Since October 2009, US unemployment has fallen from a peak of
10% to its current level of 7.8% and modest economic growth
has been restored during the past three years.
At the same time, Mr Obama ended the US combat role in Iraq,
masterminded the elimination of America's No1 enemy, Osama
bin Laden, began the process of disengaging from the war in
Afghanistan, and supported popular uprisings in Tunisia,
Egypt, Libya and Syria without deploying US troops.
There is a lot at stake in the 2012 presidential election.
Fundamentally, the contest between Barack Obama and his
Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, is a clash of visions and
policies for the US in the years ahead.
Mitt Romney believes the United States "is the hope of the
earth" and that his brand of strong leadership is essential
if it is to remain so. He argues that the country is going in
the wrong direction under the Obama Administration.
Mr Romney has pledged to cut taxes by $US5 trillion and to
reduce the role of the federal Government in the economy.
Among other things, he has pledged to overhaul the 2010 Wall
St regulations and scrap "Obama care" which extended health
insurance to more than 40 million citizens previously denied
According to Mr Romney, these measures will reinvigorate the
country's free enterprise system, create 12 million new jobs,
and eliminate the $US16 trillion deficit.
In foreign relations, Mr Romney believes it is vital that the
US use its power "to shape history" - not to lead from behind
- and has promised to spend an additional $US2 trillion on
the Pentagon over the next decade to ensure this.
Accusing President Obama of being an apologist for the US, Mr
Romney had championed a foreign policy that takes a tough
line towards Russia, China and Iran, distances Washington
from its European allies, and bolsters the alliance with
In contrast, while Mr Obama maintains that "America continues
to be the greatest nation on earth", he rejects the idea the
US alone can meet the challenges of the 21st century, and
argues that the country must look to multilateral
co-operation to exert leadership and effectively protect US
interests in a globalising world.
Mr Obama argues that the US has made real progress during the
past four years in extricating itself from the disastrous
economic and security legacy of the George W. Bush era.
And the Obama camp loudly complains that Mr Romney's economic
plan lacks specifics on how it can be paid for and runs the
risk of exploding the US deficit, rekindling global market
uncertainly, and creating conditions comparable to the
financial meltdown of 2008.
In Mr Obama's vision, the competitiveness of the US economy
will only improve if there is greater government investment
in the country's education, infrastructure and clean energy
That means the country will continue to run a deficit and
probably have to tolerate higher taxes for the wealthy to pay
for this, but it is argued those investments are the key to a
sustainable 21st-century economy.
As for foreign policy, Mr Obama has pledged to maintain the
strongest military in the world but believes after a decade
of war, the US must nation-build at home and lead by force of
example rather than the example of force.
For the Obama team, history does not need to be "shaped"
because it already offers a clear and positive verdict for
United States values and interests.
In an interconnected world, it is the ideas of democracy, not
dictatorship and political fundamentalism, which have mass
Thus, the Obama-Romney election will help decide whether the
US becomes a more or less inclusive society, and also the
degree to which it presents a constructive face to the world.
Whatever the outcome, the results will be difficult to
• Robert G. Patman is professor of international
relations in the department of politics at the University of