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Europe and 2012 American Presidential Election

Submitted by on 12 Jul 2012 – 11:33

Dr Alan DraperBy Dr Alan Draper, Professor of Government, St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY

Obama is our most European president. People in Europe attribute qualities to him that they see in themselves. They perceive Obama as diplomatic, urbane, articulate, worldly, and cultured in contrast to his predecessor, George W. Bush, who was regarded as more typically ‘American,’ in terms of his provincialism, nationalism, and bellicosity. While Obamamania may show signs of wear in the U.S., his charisma still attracts in Europe. He is the most popular American president among Europeans since John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Obama could use the love as the 2012 elections approach because Europe—its policies and its symbolism—may be the source of his undoing.

Obama’s re-election depends, to a large degree upon economic performance, reducing unemployment and increasing economic growth. But austerity programs throughout the Eurozone endanger his administration’s efforts to stimulate the American economy. Consequently, the Obama administration has sent U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on multiple missions to Europe to urge his counterparts to spend more now and worry about debt later. But Europeans are unwilling to take lessons from Americans whose reckless economic policies precipitated the deep recession and, they believe, got them into this mess in the first place.

But austerity policies that threaten to reduce markets for American exports and contribute to unemployment is only part of the European dilemma for Obama as he prepares for the 2012 elections. Another problem that Europe poses to Obama is guilt by association. Republicans argue that Obama’s policies will turn the U.S. into a Europe whose governments are groaning under debt, whose citizens can’t find work, whose tax rates are too high, and whose welfare state costs too much.

A vote for Obama, it is alleged, is a vote to end up like Greece. For example, at his victory speech following the New Hampshire primary in February, Mitt Romney asked voters to “remember when our White House reflected the best of who we are, not the worst of what Europe has become” and then he contrasted Obama’s policies that “would turn America into a European-style welfare state” to his that would create a “free and prosperous land of opportunity.” The use of Europe as a proxy for the European nanny state that Obama would introduce was mocked by the president himself at the White House Correspondent’s dinner in April. He showed a fake ad in which his Republican opponent Mitt Romney permits dogs to “feel the wind in [their] fur” while strapped to the roof of car—which Romney had done to his own Irish setter on a trip to Canada—in comparison to “European dog socialism” in which “man’s best friend has been forced into government-controlled automobiles.”

Republicans have tried to identify Obama with Europe and what it represents, which, reputedly, is in opposition to authentic American values. On the one side you have European state dependency, indolence, and a fondness for appeasement, and on the other side American values of freedom, opportunity, and a taste for rough justice.

The use of Europe as a metaphor this election season goes beyond what we have seen previously because American politics increasingly resembles what occurs on the Continent. American political parties have become more ideologically coherent and polarized, just like their counterparts across the pond. And party discipline in Congress now approaches what occurs in European parliamentary systems. Worse, Americans have nothing but contempt for their political institutions today. They have led to deadlock and dysfunction. Consequently, the more U.S. political institutions resemble those in Europe, the more scorn Americans attach to Europe as a symbol.

Europeans regard Obama as one of their own. Obama fears many Americans may, too. To counter this, he doesn’t need Europe’s moral support. He needs them to open their wallets. A shift in European economic policies from austerity to growth will do much to offset the use of Europe as a metaphor against him.