Jeremy Walker

High hopes of a genuine choice for the American people have faded through the two-year campaign. But the most salient point about the U.S. presidential election perhaps is this: should Americans choose Barack Obama, the U.S. will be offered a honeymoon period of goodwill.

The speeches have been given, the scandals unearthed, the dinners eaten, and very soon the polls will all have been counted. The race is now essentially all but run. The issues that defined the election have been traversed by both candidates. The outcome is apparently clear in the eyes of most commentators. America will, it seems, choose Mr. Nice Guy.

Barack Obama is the personification of change and a ready answer to those calling for a shift in American policy and the national character — a liberal intellectual with life experience of different societies, someone who advocates diplomacy rather than belligerence. His election would provide a brief catharsis for the United States after the turbulent recent past. But then what?

This has been a historic contest. It is also one that carries great significance for the future direction of the country and its international relationships. The U.S. is already embroiled in two overseas conflicts and the global financial crisis poses immense domestic challenges for the next incumbent. The concept of the unipolar world is increasingly looking like a moment in history. Nevertheless, U.S. actions will determine the shape of global politics for a long time yet and it is troubling that this election has failed to signal clearly what either a Republican or a Democrat presidency would look like.

What is certain is this: whether the victor is the unlikely maverick, Captain America McCain, or Mr. Hopeful, Barack Obama, change is coming on November 4. Either candidate would represent a shift away from the George W. Bush debacle. The question is ‘change to what?’ In the primary stages, this election looked as if it might actually have been fought on policy. Divergent candidates had real arguments about substantive issues. However, the final campaign has been based even more than most on personalities.

Faded hopes

Both candidates started the race with well-reasoned policy positions but the need to please competing interest groups has seen them dilute their arguments. The election has not been fought on contrasting policy options or even national direction. Rather, the campaign teams have produced a contest of two cardboard cutout impressions pitted against each other, both seeking to capture the majority view of positive individual character.

During the primaries, there were high hopes that Mr. Obama’s fresh views on the war in Iraq and Mr. McCain’s anti-neocon republicanism offered a genuine choice for the American people. As those hopes faded, many looked to the vice-presidential selections for a clear indication of policy direction. In the event, both nominees based their choices on the need to energise their support base and reinforce their standing in their own parties.

Tawdry attacks

The economic crisis, Mr. McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin’s as his running mate, and the inescapable fact that Mr. Obama is America’s first serious black presidential prospect have moved the election away from a considered policy contest. Mr. McCain’s admission that he is ‘not great on the economy’ has done him considerable damage. The campaign catch-call has been ‘elect me because I’m not him.’ Negative characterisations abound: Mr. Obama is denigrated as a ‘friend of terrorists’ while Mr. McCain is typecast as the next generation of the Bush dynasty. Neither characterisation is helpful to an American or a global audience trying to decide who is best for America. These tawdry attacks have trivialised politics. Both men are pragmatists, both have reached across the aisle in the past, and either as President will have to enact major reforms to deal with the economic crisis.

It is hard to say what foreign policy differences will be. Senator McCain admittedly has a more hawkish voting record than his Democrat opponent. However, both now hold similar positions on major foreign policy issues from Iraq to Kosovo to Georgia and Russia. Both vice-presidential nominees ‘really love Israel.’ And both have promised to move the U. S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (as have many previous presidential campaigns).

Perhaps the most salient point from all the posturing of the past two years is that should America choose to elect Barack Obama, the international community will take it as an unequivocal signal that Americans are moving away from the policies that have so mired the Oval Office these past eight years. This at least will provide America with a honeymoon period of goodwill.

Only after the final votes are counted and the President-elect can stop campaigning will we truly get some picture of how the next presidency will look. Nothing will be a more important indicator of this than the choice of key advisers and cabinet members. These appointments will reflect the actual mindset of the next President.

One can only hope that this result does not have to be decided in the Supreme Court or we may have to wait even longer.