AN ELECTORAL choice between a black man and a Mormon — both Harvard-educated — was bound to confuse Americans. A recent trip to the US allowed me the chance to feel the country’s political pulse as it prepares for the presidential election on November 6.
While Democratic President Barack Obama signed a historic healthcare bill that provides benefits to 44-million previously uninsured Americans in 2010, he has not trumpeted it forcefully on the hustings. The country’s unemployment rate — at 15%, including those who have stopped looking for work — has remained stubbornly high. Since Obama took office, $5-trillion has been added to the national debt, and 3-million more people to the dole. With such a weak economy, Obama should be vulnerable in this election.
Obama’s foreign-policy record has also been mixed. While he withdrew the bulk of US troops from Iraq in 2010, 68,000 troops remain in Afghanistan. Obama contributed to "regime change" in Libya last year; and his homicidal drone warfare has continued in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. This is clearly the worst blot on his record, and the one my liberal east coast friends did not want to talk about. I was castigated as "naive" for not understanding the "necessity" for every US president to wage war. Ironically, by the time Obama won the Nobel Peace prize in 2009, he had sent more drones than Bush unleashed during his entire eight years in office. Rather than winning hearts and minds, this policy could potentially provide fertile ground for recruiting future terrorists. At home, Obama also approved a law allowing the indefinite detention of US citizens without trial.
When I asked about Obama’s failure to conduct a Middle East peace process, a Palestinian-American friend was pragmatic. He noted that he would vote for Obama because the choice was not between good and bad but between bad and worse. The Republicans are thought to be more hawkish, with their presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, making hostile noises not just about China, but also about Russia. Romney has run a strangely wooden campaign in which he often appears more alien than human. A millionaire businessman who has been derided as a "vulture capitalist", he further besmirched his image by dismissing 47% of Obama-supporting Americans as spongers who do not pay taxes.
The tragedy of this situation is that Romney is actually a moderate Republican who sensibly governed the liberal state of Massachusetts. He now, however, leads a party that appears to have been taken over by a Tea Party-allied lunatic right-wing fringe. The Republicans have adopted such economically illiterate positions on tax breaks for the wealthy and cuts on social spending that Romney often appears trapped in a political asylum, a ventriloquist’s dummy mouthing platitudes he scarcely seems to believe. Despite the fact that non-white Americans are expected to become a majority in the country in two generations, the Grand Old Party still appears to be living in a racially nondiverse cloud-cuckoo-land in which their more radical members have managed to alienate not just black and Hispanic Americans, but also many female voters.
A third of Republicans incredibly still believe that Obama is a Muslim, despite the fact that the greatest controversy of his 2008 presidential campaign revolved around his Christian pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Many "birthers" — a quarter of Republican voters — still stubbornly believe the Kenyan-Kansan president was not born in the US, despite his birth certificate confirming this fact.
Obama has been obstructed at every turn by Republican opponents who vowed from the start to make him a "one-term president". The racism that still afflicts US society has scarcely dissipated with the historic election of the first black president. Obama’s tenure has ironically seen African-Americans growing poorer, with lower rates of employment than the rest of the population. This group remains his most loyal supporter.
During my brief US sojourn, I observed "talking heads" on TV seeking to turn this contest into a boxing match, while the candidates sought to sell their message to a consumerist society as if they were marketing products. A corporate media and compliant academic class consistently fail to educate Americans on global events, leading to the paradox of the world’s most information-rich society being one of its most ill-informed. Obama — the great candidate of hope just four years ago — was now campaigning on fear. He has effectively "defined" his opponent as a heartless capitalist who does not care about the country’s middle class, and adroitly shifted the debate away from his own failure to revive the economy. This election appears to be a classic case of the triumph of experience over hope.
• Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution and author of The Curse of Berlin: Africa After the Cold War.
• This article was amended on October 9 2012 to reverse an editing mistake that said "black Americans" were expected to become a majority in the country in two generations, instead of "non-white Americans", which includes other race groups too.