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Us Election: the end of America’s exceptionalism?

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President Obama won reelection. That was not much of a surprise – the polls in the last week, following hurricane Sandy, were going in that direction already. Obama had regained the momentum. However, according to most polls, the election was supposed to be a very close affair. Instead, at least as far as the electoral college is concerned, Obama seemed to have won handily. 

In reality, it was still pretty close. The popular vote was only 2% different and four of the battleground states who gave Obama the presidency were hard fought. So it was not a landslide or even a convincing win. It was just a win – which is exactly what Obama aimed for. His campaign was nasty, brutish and efficient. A win is a win, in a divided nation. But now is time to govern – and the President needs to change some of his attitude, otherwise the next four years may be a replay of the last two. The US cannot afford that – they need to make important decisions. 

The one element which has become clear is what the electorate has decided with this election: a) they do not want change – in this time of difficulty they prefer the devil they know; even if the President did not offer any vision or solutions for the next four years, it was felt better than the solutions offered by the opposition; b) short term considerations trump long term implications – Obama promised to continue the spending spree and the disbursement of favours to certain political groups without addressing the long term structural issues that will make America poorer in the next few decades. As these consequences are going to materialise mainly after 2016, Team Obama did not care too much as they will be someone else’s problem and with some good ‘marketing’ effort and the help of the media future people will not trace them back to Obama but will blame the next president. Voters also seem not to care as they are pocketing the promises now and worry about the consequences later. Reality will kick in though – and it may be sooner than expected. In which case it may still become Obama’s problem – we will see whether Americans will end up rueing this week’s vote. 

In the end though the reelection of Obama means the end of American ‘exceptionalism’. Both in domestic economic terms but also internationally. Under Obama, in his eight years, America will have moved closer to the European model: larger government, higher taxes, higher debt, and slower economic growth. All in the name of ‘fairness’, more equality (of outcomes), and a larger welfare state. Some will say this is a worthwhile trade-off – others will disagree. Whether this is what the voters really wanted to say on Tuesday is unclear, but this is what they will get. The problem with this is that once such changes are locked in they are very difficult to reverse – hence the job of future Republicans may simply be to stop the trend or working around the edges of it, though the core of the new welfare state will remain. As more and more people will buy in the new system, the more difficult it will become to convince them of the need for a change. Democrats will gain a natural advantage as defenders of the status quo – in fact, that was the Democratic strategy all along and they manage to achieve it, not by a huge majority (which, considering the size of the shift, would have been wise to obtain) but through the good old 50% +1 thin majority. 

In the international stage America will also become less exceptional. Firstly, because it will have less money and less economic clout (due to the changes outlined above). Second, because the new strategy is the ‘leading from behind’ approach. Which in most cases means no leading at all. We will end up with a leaderless world. How can the international liberal order be maintained without American leadership it is an open question. 

These are the possible and probable consequences of this week’s election. America has spoken – despite the crisis in Europe they seem have decided that an European-style economy and society is what they want. Or at least a 51% of America has decided that that is what they want. The end of America’s exceptionalism is the natural consequence of it and whether some of those 51% will regret their choice is the big question. The task now is to manage the change in the best possible way. We hope both Obama and the Republicans in Congress will become more amenable to compromise and chart a sensible path ahead. 

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