No matter the result of today's Presidential election, it will not be Morning in America tomorrow. Of course the successful candidate will talk of America's essential greatness. He will promise a fresh era of co-operation and respect in Washington (this time for real). Hope will be on the agenda and perhaps, if the final polls of this poll-driven election are mistaken, change will be too.
But neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney are well-positioned to deliver either hope or change. This has not been a happy campaign in a happy country and, regardless of the result, there will be no fresh political dawn tomorrow. The path ahead is tough and unremitting and the next President has less room for manoevre - or error - than either campaign has been modest enough to admit.
Yet the campaign - the most expensive and extravagant yet - has been illuminating too. If the long haul to the White House does anything it has a habit of revealing which candidate may be better suited to the tests of office. Four years ago, John McCain's campaign demonstrated that he lacked the judgement to be trusted with the Presidency. Choosing Sarah Palin as his running-mate was the desperate act of a flailing campaign that knew it faced defeat. But it was McCain's response to meltdown on Wall Street that really showed he was temperamentally ill-equipped to function effectively in the Oval Office. He lacked the steadiness, the judgement and, frankly, the knowledge to be President.
Say this for Mitt Romney then: he is no John McCain. But if that is a necessary condition for endorsing the Republican nominee it is not a sufficient one. Romney would probably be a respectable President but, despite being granted a great opportunity to do so, he has not made a compelling case to explain why Americans should ditch Barack Obama and replace him with the former Governor of Massachusetts.
Despite running for this office for the last six years, Romney invites the American electorate - and the watching world - to place more faith in his good intentions than is wise. He has not made a sufficiently plausible case to be elected.
Conservatives may scoff that, well, Barack Obama arrived in office on a cloud of high-falutin' rhetoric and platitudinous claims to be the kind of hope and change in which all Americans could believe. If Obama could be elected on a beef-free manifesto then why shouldn't Romney be granted the same privilege?
There is a difference, however, between an open election and one in which an incumbent president seeks re-election. Obama has not, in truth, made an overwhelmingly persuasive case for a second term but nor, again, has Romney offered an obviously better argument for his own credentials. In such circumstances the incumbent President gains and probably merits the benefit of the doubt. A second Obama term is, if you will, a Known Unknown whereas Romney offers an Unknown Unknown. Viewed from overseas, the former seems marginally preferable to the latter.
It is sometimes easy to forget just how unpromising Obama's position was when he took the oath of office back in January 2009. The financial crisis was in full, terrifying swing. Cauterising these wounds was the immediate, vital task. Keeping the patient - that is, the American (and global) economy - alive came first. Contemplating recovery and rehabilitation could come later.
No-one much cared for the $800bn stimulus the Obama administration persuaded Congress to pass. It was too small for the left, much too large for the right. Like all large bills that make it through Congress it had something for everyone to hate and not enough for anyone to like. Worse still, politically-speaking, it caused the Obama administration to offer a hostage to ill-fortune: pass the stimulus, the White House said, and unemployment will be below 8% by the end of 2009.
That target was reached. Three years later. There are two lessons here: promises you can't keep are the most dangerous promises to make and White House economic forecasts are among the worst economic forecasts in a field full of terrible economic forecasts.
Net job numbers did improve but only slowly and unevenly. (They would, mind you, have been much better if the states had not been laying off millions of employees: a consequence of the economic and political mismanagement of their own affairs.) Even so, private sector job growth - constant if also spluttering for 30 months now - barely kept pace with population growth and the unemployment rate was "artificially" depressed by the fact many Americans simply left the labour market. So it has not been a happy four years and one can understand why the Obama campaign's suggestion it would have been worse but for the measures they took has not impressed the electorate.
Nevertheless it might well have been worse but for the measures the White House took (just as, incidentally, Britain's position might have been worse but for measures Gordon Brown took in his final months in office). Here too I think the Obama administration just about merits the benefit of the doubt.
Especially since Romney has offered precious little by way of an alternative. His economic policies rely upon the famous, time-honoured War on Loopholes to make them work. Alas, Romney has not identified - or, at least, chosen to share - the Loopholes he wishes to eliminate and so this, like much else in his platform, must be taken on trust.
Similarly, Romney's tax plan offers more to the already wealthy than it does to the average American family. It is hard to believe that what the united States really needs right now is another tax cut that disproportionately favours the wealthiest Americans. Not when the Bush tax cuts have yet to be paid for. Far from offering change, Romney too often seems to be promising just more of the same. There he goes again, you might say.
Yet if things are going to remain the same they may have to change. That is, if the post-war American bargain is to be refreshed and renewed for these times then some assumptions will have to change. Does it make sense to assume that the federal share of national income should remain much the same as it was in the 1950s when so much else has changed? Or is there a case that, with the population profile changing, some taxes are likely to have to be higher than once they were?If, as Romney suggests, the Pentagon budget is sacrosanct the rest of the discretionary federal budget must be slashed. (Incidentally: the Obama administration's innovative Race to the Top programme is an example of education reform that deserves to be more widely known. It could also be a model for further state-centred reforms in other policy areas.)
Much of this is not, to be sure, an especially cheering picture. But unless the United States can put its budget in long-term balance it will face a depressing future. Which in turn means controlling the rate of increase in healthcare spending.
Obamacare may not succeed in doing that but the President's flagship domestic achievement deserves the chance to prove its merits. It was, in retrospect, an act of some audacity to hitch the President's colours to a policy that will not - could not - actually produce anything until his second term. Obamacare's provisions will not come into effect until midway through the next Presidential term. Will it work? Perhaps not. Does it deserve a chance to? Just about. Expanding coverage to all Americans is a worthy enterprise and it is worth stressing again just how much more "right-wing" Obama's proposals are than those Hillary Clinton put to Congress nearly twenty years ago.
If Romney had campaigned on his own record in Massachusetts he might have been better placed to criticise the Obama administration's record. But a useful political heuristic is that a politician who scampers from his own past and his own previous achievements in office is not a politician who should be trusted with greater responsibility. There has been one "etch-a-sketch" moment after another and this constant revisionism undermines Romney's seriousness and credibility.
So too, frankly, does his record on the automobile industry. If nothing else, I think the symbolism of bailing-out Wall Street but telling Detroit it might as well drop dead would have offered an intolerable contrast confirming that, in this respect at least, some interests enjoyed privileged status while Main Street Americans could be discarded because they just weren't important enough to help save. Never mind the economics or the purity of free-market principle, the political "optics" would have been horrible.As make-up calls go, this was a reasonable one.
Which is to say that the critiques offered by the Tea Party and the Occupy movements respectively had plenty going for them. They had more in common than they realised too. The purity of the political turf, however, is most cherished by those who never have to play upon it. Politics is often a matter of muddling-through and making-do. Such has been the Obama administration's experience.
Again, "More of the Same but This Time a Bit Better" is not an inspirational battle-cry. Yet it is what the Democrats offer this election. That and a negative campaign based upon painting Mitt Romney as the second coming of Barry Goldwater. (This, of course, is unfair on Goldwater but that's another matter.)
The Obama campaign's decision to portray Romney as an extremist - assisted by Romney's unfortunate 47% comments - was another hostage to political fortune. When that guy didn't turn up to the presidential debates - being replaced by competent, detail-oriented, plausible, reasonable Mitt - it was reasonable for some voters to wonder if they'd been sold a pup by the Obamans. Better, surely, to have reprised the Bush playbook from 2004 and hammered Romney as an incorrigible flip-flopper.
That would also have had the advantage of being true. Romney would probably not be a disastrous president but he's not offered a sufficiently persuasive case demonstrating why he needs to be President of the United States.
Foreign policy helps show why too. Romney's caricature of Obama's so-called "Apology Tour" is as pathetic as it is unbecoming of a so-called serious candidate. If Obama's foreign policy record is scarcely perfect it remains arguably stronger than his domestic achievements. From an overseas perspective there is less to fear from continuity than change here.
Obama's Drone War may be ethically dubious and questionably effective but it is not the sort of thing liable to cost him votes anywhere those votes are likely to matter. US foreign policy since 9/11 has been organised with a single goal in mind: prevent al-Qaeda from reorganising itself as a force capable of mounting a spectacular attack on the homeland. Almost all else pales beside that imperative. Judged by this measure - one likely deemed too low by whichever party is in opposition - then Obama has fulfilled his foremost duty. (And, no, an ineptly-handled local difficulty in Benghazi does not trump that.) Overdue though it was, Osama bin Laden is dead too.
Elsewhere Iran still does not have a nuclear capability and there is some reason to suppose that Obama's willingness to talk with Tehran helped the US win international agreement for tougher sanctions once Iran spurned those talks. The clampdown on the Green Revolution doubtless also helped but, speaking of that, Obama had the wisdom to appreciate American support for or involvement with the would-be revolutionaries would be the most poisonous chalice imaginable.
Relations with Russia may be strained and those with Israel even more so but in neither case is it easy to imagine how a President Romney would do better or, rather, perform in a more useful fashion. Similarly, it is prudent to keep a watchful eye on matters as different - if equally challenging - as the Arab Spring and America's relationship with China. In each instance, prudence seems preferable to bellicose rhetoric.
There are limits to even Presidential power and it does few people - least of all the American citizenry - much good to pretend that there are not.
The next four years will not be easy even though the American economy is liable to prove splendidly resilient. Obama has not said much about his second-term agenda, not least because one suspects much of it is likely to prove relatively unpopular. In this respect his campaign has been as deceitful as Romney's. Despite that, immigration reform and some kind of grand bargain on taxing, spending and entitlements are worthwhile, even vital, goals. In each case a President Obama seems more likely to achieve something worthwhile than a President Romney. More than that, however, Obama's case for a second term rests upon the proposition that it is important to prevent Romney (and the GOP House) from unraveling the achievements of Obama's first-term. This is a sober, reasonable, restrained analysis far removed form the glad tidings and absurd hype of four years ago (much of that hype stoked by the candidate himself) but it is not nothing either.
So, yes, on balance this blog's coveted, difference-making endorsement* goes to Barack Obama. The case against him has not quite been proven and he retains enough of the benefit of the doubt to merit a second term.
*Actually, were I an American and living in a "safe state" I'd vote for Gary Johnson. But where my vote might matter - New Hampshire, Virginia, Colorado or even, god help me, if I had the misfortune to live in Ohio - I would vote for Obama.