For several weeks before the recent U.S. election, there was much nervous speculation among Europeans as they watched the fluctuations of the poll numbers. Now that the results are in, Europeans are perplexed by this turn back toward the politics of the Bush-Cheney era.
Like the rest of the world, Europe cheered the election of Barack Obama as a change from the economic and foreign policy disasters of his predecessor. Yet just two years later the US government is returning to Bush-lite. How could this be, Europeans are wondering? The American electorate is looking like a coyote with its leg caught in a trap, chewing its own leg off to get out of the trap.
Europeans are puzzled by the success of the populist Tea Party movement, which seemingly wants to roll back the last two years and return to how things were at the end of the Bush-Cheney years. Even conservatives in Europe are scratching their heads over their transatlantic allies -- "Americans don't want health care??? How can these Tea Party people say ‘Get government out of my Medicare' -- don't they know Medicare IS a government program???"
While participating in a conference in Budapest in September, where prominent conservative leaders and thinkers were in attendance, including the president of the European Parliament and two prime ministers, some of the most eye-opening comments had to do with new perceptions about America. One speaker, Christian Stoffaes, who is chairman of the Center for International Prospective Studies based in Paris, stated the "United States is in disarray, extremely polarized. It is practically a civil war there, and you can't count on it."
This theme was echoed by others speakers, who went even further. One said "We need to shift our emphasis eastward (towards Asia) and not wait for the Obama administration." I found these statements to be surprising, and even vaguely alarming, given the importance of the transatlantic relationship in the post-World War II era. But there was a widespread view that the US is being consumed by the severity of the Great Recession, brought on by a broken Wall Street capitalism, as well as by the quagmires of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and an inability to change course.
Previously, Obama's failure at the Copenhagen summit on climate change to deliver a serious commitment to that agenda, and instead to strike a deal with the Chinese to do next to nothing, was a real wakeup call to the Europeans. It was as if they suddenly "got" it, that it wasn't George W. Bush who was the problem, but something more profound about America's broken political system that prevents any leader, even one as talented as Obama, from delivering. That political system is marinated in money, is paralyzed by a "filibuster-gone-wild" Senate that has allowed a minority of Senators to obstruct all legislation, and is hamstrung by a sclerotic, winner-take-all, two-party electoral system that has left voters poorly represented and deeply frustrated.
Keep in mind that these were the conservatives of Europe venting at this conference, who currently are in control of the European Parliament, the European Commission, as well as the governments in Germany, France, Britain, Sweden and elsewhere. The European right is nowhere near as conservative as the Tea Partiers or GOP Congress members. Indeed, in most ways the European right is to the left of the Democratic Party, which is fairly startling to contemplate. If European conservatives were allowed to vote in America's November 2 election, there is no doubt how they would have voted.
Now, in the aftermath of the recent election, the European media landscape is screaming with headlines like: "Is the American Dream Over?", "A Superpower in Decline," "Deep divisions across political map," "Power gridlock looms between parties," "Washington turns into a battleground," and "Elections tarnish Obama's world image." The recent move by the Federal Reserve to jumpstart the U.S. economy by taking steps that will result in the devaluing of the dollar has been met with great skepticism in Europe. Germany's Finance Minister Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has said the Fed's action shows U.S. policy makers are "at a loss about what to do." The American growth model, he said, is stuck in a deep crisis. "The USA lived off credit for too long, inflated its financial sector massively and neglected its industrial base."
The predictable American reaction has been, "Europe is one to talk. Have they gotten their PIIGS back in the pen yet?" Certainly Europe has its own challenges. But to the extent that the election of Barack Obama represented an American rejuvenation in the eyes of the world, this recent election represents a further loss of American mojo. Americans may shrug their shoulders and say, "We don't care what the rest of the world thinks"-- but that will only reinforce what the rest of the world thinks.