30 October 2012
Exactly one week before the final decision is reached in the US presidential election, the relative chances of success of Barack Obama and his Republication opponent, Mitt Romney, were discussed in the largest lecture hall on the campus of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). Germany would clearly vote for Obama – but what about the Americans?
The largest lecture hall on JGU's campus slowly but surely filled as the audience arrived for the evening panel discussion on the current presidential campaign in the US, while on the other side of the Atlantic Hurricane Sandy had already wreaked havoc on the east coast of the United States. The New York Times was reporting the first causalities, millions of households without electricity, public transportation paralyzed, flooding of the New York subway – for the first time in its over 100-year history. The presidential campaigning was put on hold ... And the speakers in the JGU panel discussion debated whether the hurricane could tip the scales in favor of Obama. But more on that later.
The evening had been arranged by Campus Mainz e.V., the student council of the Department of English and Linguistics, the General Students' Committee at JGU, and the "Tutors of Mainz" project of the Mainz Student Union as part of the ELECTION NIGHT series of events. For this evening, Professor Dr. Alfred Hornung, an internationally renowned Professor of American Studies at JGU, Emily Hruban, an exchange student from the University of Chicago, who used to live only 5 minutes from the Obama family, Tabea Rößner, the media policy spokeswoman for the German party Bündnis90/DIE GRÜNEN, and David Schwake, who has served as the Deputy Head of the North American Unit of the Federal Foreign Office since 2011, had all accepted an invitation to sit on the panel and be subjected to questioning by Claudia Deeg, a presenter for SWR, a German public broadcasting organization.
Has Sandy decided the campaign?
Deeg's first question was whether Hurricane Sandy represents an advantage or disadvantage for current US President Barack Obama in the current election campaign. Professor Dr. Alfred Hornung judged it as more of an advantage for Obama, because it is the president who takes the initiative in such crisis situations in the otherwise federally-organized affairs of the United States. And assuming Obama does not do what George W. Bush did after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and content himself with a mere helicopter flight over the disaster areas, "his public appearances will now be more effective than all of his campaign appearances put together," claimed Hornung. However, Emily Hruban added that the occurrence of a crisis situation just before the final vote could also pose a threat to Obama's campaign. If households were to remain without power for longer periods of time, this could quickly result in extensive criticism of Obama's management of the crisis – and cost him important votes in a close election.
Tabea Rößner pointed out that electors also had the opportunity to vote early, an option that has been heavily publicized in the US. President Obama himself has already voted. Of course, whatever happens now will have no effect on these early votes. When it comes to the rest of the electorate, one crucial factor in view of the hurricane and its aftermath could be the fact that Mitt Romney was, until recently, calling for cutbacks in and privatization of the emergency services. Of course, he is now taking off his jacket on the campaign podium to signal his willingness to get actively involved while his campaign team claims that they never wanted to dismantle FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "This could be an advantage for Obama," said Rößner.
The opinion expressed by David Schwake of the Federal Foreign Office was similar. "Romney could be in trouble if he criticizes Obama now." Even though Schwake believes that the hurricane would have only a minor effect on the outcome of the election, he added: "Every topic that is not the economy helps Obama." Because the economic crisis has hit America hard, particularly its middle classes, and has undermined confidence in Obama.
Obama would have 91 percent of the vote in Germany
The "DeutschlandTrend" survey undertaken by German TV's ARD broadcasting service shows that the situation in Germany is much more straightforward: Germans clearly favor the incumbent Barack Obama – 91 percent of them would vote for him. But in the US, however, Obama and Romney are very close in a neck-to-neck race with an uncertain outcome. "Why is this the case?," presenter Claudia Deeg asked the experts.
For Professor Dr. Alfred Hornung, the different way that the candidates are being perceived is attributable to the fact that "the German view from the outside is more focused on long-term changes in the USA and its transformation from a majority white to a multicultural society, a development that was underlined by the election of Barack Obama." Romney, on the other hand, embodies the conservative WASPs – White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who want to hold on to their power and influence on America's future.
"Obama is seen in Germany as being more genuine and sympathetic," said David Schwake. "That is also the case in the USA, but Mitt Romney has been making good since the last debate." There have been three televised debates in this election campaign, which the candidates used primarily to try to win over the still undecided voters. The last debate was, among other things, about foreign policy, especially relations with Iran, China, and the Arab world, America's claim to world leadership, relations with Russia, and the relationship between the US and Israel. The debate returned again and again to issues of domestic and economic policy. And Romney took the opportunity to reiterate his repeatedly stated commitment to create twelve million jobs once he is the new US President. A promise like that does not fall on deaf ears.
American students will vote for the lesser evil
"Young people in America represent a critical factor," said Emily Hruban. They know how to read between the lines of campaign promises an
d how to critically evaluate them. They have issues with both candidates, but "the majority of American students will most probably vote for Obama," said the exchange student from Chicago. Even though he has failed to honor some of the central promises made during his last election campaign, Obama to them still seems to be the lesser of two evils.
Tabea Rößner defended Obama, of whom people had particularly "high expectations," especially after he was unexpectedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. But, in terms of his policies, the most powerful man in the world has found himself all too often thwarted by stalemates in Congress in recent years.
Has Obama made mistakes?
Presenter Claudia Deeg put a new question to the panel: Has Obama failed to be sufficiently consistent? Has he made mistakes in the last four years? Professor Dr. Alfred Hornung considered Obama's health care reforms, his most important and also most controversial domestic policy project. What Obama has managed to do here, Hornung said, was "remarkable in the given circumstances [...] The Republicans want to undo all that." Obama stands for greater solidarity within society and recognition of those who think differently, and is thus creating new realities within American society. His 'Change for America' blueprint had been conceived as a "bipartisan policy," Hornung stated, as a "visionary program." But then the reality of the economic crisis hit home.
Building on Hornung's comments, David Schwake also counted the withdrawal from Iraq and the killing of Osama bin Laden among Obama's successes. However, failures include budget restructuring and the immigration reform promised to Latinos in particular in the last election campaign, in addition to the domestic policy setbacks. The disappointment could cost the current president important votes. "There are also Obama's unclear position on Israel and his unassertive policy in the North African conflict," said Rößner.
Romney leans toward the center
"The Republican presidential candidate has managed to present himself as being experienced and successful – apparently the right man to cope with the crisis," Heeg presented her next thesis to the panel and asked: "Will undecided voters believe his promises?" Professor Dr. Alfred Hornung admitted that Mitt Romney should be seen as a "competent businessman who has enriched himself through his own efforts", whereas Obama's 'wealth' had been "generated more or less only by his two autobiographies." According to Hornung, these two things "are not accorded the same value in American society."
Added to that is the fact that Romney has begun lean towards the political center in recent weeks. "He can do this because his nominated Vice President Paul Ryan is there to cover the concerns of the political right," Hornung explained. "Ryan is the darling of the Tea Party. Here in Germany, the Tea Party would be considered to be an extreme right-wing organization." And the Tea Party hates Obama. As an example, Hornung cited a billboard put up by the North Iowa Tea Party. This shows Hitler to the left under the words "National Socialism," Lenin on the right labeled "Marxist Socialism", and in the middle, sandwiched between Hitler and Lenin, is Barack Obama under the legend "Democratic Socialism" – all very Tea Party.
By choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate, a man who gave his daughter a gun on her 9th birthday not least to appeal to the National Rifle Association (NRA), a major lobby in American politics, Romney can afford to be more flexible. "Romney has realized that he must move to the center," said Hornung. "You cannot win an election by positioning yourself at one of the political extremes."
Is Germany to slip out of America's focus?
The panelists discussed America’s security policy, the use of drones, special forces, and aspects of cyber security, Romney's intentions to introduce cutbacks everywhere except in defense, Obama's attempts to improve relations with the South Asian region, and finally the claims of the US to be a world power, which Romney staunchly defends but which Obama would prefer to see replaced by a world power alliance.
And how does the US view Germany? "Obama talks of a 'Trans-Pacific Century'," Hornung pointed out. "China, Australia, America – that is the new constellation." For David Schwake of the Federal Foreign Office, this orientation towards Asia is apparent, but he added that the US is there simply to "enhance certain aspects of a military and strategic relationship with Asia that we simply do not have" because of the geostrategic situation. "Diplomatic visits are not evidence of particularly good relations between countries. If we were a problem for the US, the President would visit Germany more often, too," the diplomat concluded.
And Emily Hruban added: "For us Americans, Germany is Europe. Germany is powerful. Germany is Europe's voice. When it comes to the euro crisis, we look to Merkel. Not France or Italy. Germany represents Europe. And there is a long German-American friendship – it is closer and much more positive. Our relationship with Asia is more reserved, more pragmatic. The US is spending too much money provided by China and importing too many things from that country. We Americans find this worrying."
Schwake agreed with the view put forward by the American student. "America's relationship with Asia is purpose-oriented." To be able to keep pace, "Europe must also take a more empirical approach in the future. For example, we must achieve security and stability in the Balkans. If we can't manage this, we will become increasingly less important."
Is the American Dream still viable?
Professor Dr. Alfred Hornung outlined a major difference between attitudes in the US and Europe. Even in crisis situations, "Americans retain the belief that they can improve things. They have not yet abandoned the American Dream. In Europe, on the other hand, people tend to ask: 'Who will help us, who will help me?'"
"And yet," SWR presenter Claudia Deeg interjected, "Americans are beginning to doubt the American Dream. Self-confidence is crumbling." David Schwake also claimed that the middle classes are beginning to lose faith in the American Dream because there is not now automatically a job waiting for them when they leave college or they might even need two or three jobs to maintain their lifestyle. There is a strong fear of social decline, something America has not known before.
"You see the American Dream from a purely economic viewpoint, in terms that are far too narrowly defined," Hornung argued. "Nowadays it’s no longer so easy to rise from rags to riches – there's no doubt about that." But for Hornung, the American Dream represents more, and he went on to introduce the concept of "transnational interconnectedness." He gave an example: The majority of Nobel Prizes in the sciences are awarded to researchers working at American universities. These are Europeans and Asians who are contributing towards the American Dream by working at American research institutions. "This is research and knowledge as capital, intellectual capital," said Hornung.
But even though the American Dream is not dead, there is already considerable insecurity among Americans. "'Our children will not have it as good as we did' – this is what Americans fear and what defines the present crisis situation," claimed David Schwake. "The US may continue to take the lead in research ... but what about everything else?"
Invitation to the JGU election party
At the conclusion of the panel discussion, which was eagerly followed by the audience of approximately 700 people present in JGU's largest lecture hall, Tabea Rößner described a few of her first-hand impressions of the election campaign that she had gained during her trip to the US in September 2012. And Professor Dr. Alfred Hornung explained the campaign message that Obama, with his intact African American family, wants to send to the traditionally disadvantaged ethnic groups in American society, i.e. African Americans, Latin Americans, and Native Americans. The outcome is still too close to call. But the result will be revealed during the election party on November 6, 2012 in the Kulturcafé on the campus of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.