The current U.S. presidential election ratings showing Barack Obama leading his Republican challenger Mitt Romney by seven percentage points among registered voters and only three among likely voters reveal the uncertainty surrounding the whole election. As President, Mr. Obama faces new challenges in West Asia and North Africa, with public anger spreading throughout the region over the inflammatory internet film Innocence of Muslims. Washington’s strategy has been shaken by an attack in Benghazi, in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three colleagues were killed. The attack may have been a premeditated one by al Qaeda and not a reaction to the film as had initially been assumed, underlining the fact that U.S.-led interventions from Afghanistan to Libya have not produced the sort of outcomes the American people were promised by their leaders. In addition, the risk is worsening of a confrontation with Iran and possibly Russia over Syria. As for the U.S. economy, unemployment may have fallen by about a fifth during Mr. Obama’s presidency, to 8.1 per cent, but that does not include those who have stopped seeking work, and the August job-creation figure of 96,000 was below the symbolic 100,000 mark.

Mr. Romney, for his part, faces an even messier picture. Eminent Republicans want him to state his policies so that voters might at least have some idea about what he would do in office, but the gaffe-prone candidate seems unable to come up with anything but gaffes. His criticism of the President over the Benghazi attack has been seen as all but anti-national in a time of crisis. Secondly, he has given the Democrats a gift by saying at a closed-door Republican donors’ meeting that the 47 per cent of Americans who would vote for Mr. Obama “no matter what” pay no income tax and believe they are “entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it”. The President instantly replied that Mr. Romney had written off half the population. As if that were not enough, Mr. Romney’s aides in Madison, Wisconsin, called the police when workers at an Illinois factory funded by Mr. Romney’s former company Bain Capital tried to deliver a 35,000-signature petition asking it not to outsource jobs to China. Even Mr. Romney’s strategists are apparently divided, with the senior campaign organiser Stuart Stevens being blamed for a lacklustre party convention a fortnight ago. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama seems unable to make political capital out of the Republicans’ discomfiture. With an opponent like Mr. Romney, this election is his for the taking. Yet the gap between the two contenders is too close for comfort.

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