November 6, 2012 gave generations of American history students yet unborn a new standard exam question: how did one of the most ineffectual presidents in US history get re-elected?
Across the OECD countries since the financial crisis hit in 2008 incumbents have had a tough time. Britain, Spain, France, Italy Greece and Ireland have ditched leaders. How did Barack Obama buck this trend?
The pattern has been that economic realities have forced big-spending, heavily-indebted Western governments of whatever stripe to adopt some measure of spending restraint. Even when, as in Spain and France, parties have been elected in opposition to so-called austerity they have been forced into it once in office by the remorseless reality of economics.
Electorates haven’t liked this. They still appear to believe, as the current travails of Britain’s coalition and plummeting popularity of President Hollande show, that there is a magic money tree somewhere, that plenty can return and cruel financial reality be banished simply by ticking a different box on a ballot paper.
Whereas other elections since 2008 have pitched an “austerity incumbent” against a “fantasyland challenger”, in America the roles were reversed. Obama, the incumbent, peddled fantasy; his challenger, Mitt Romney, offered some semblance of reality. Looked at this way the post-2008 pattern was maintained: the fantasy candidate won.
But it won’t make any difference. The people who celebrated Obama’s victory, thinking they had saved entitlement programmes like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security from Republican cuts, are deluding themselves. America’s unfunded liabilities, including these programmes, rose by $11 trillion last year to $222 trillion. To put that in context, the entire US economy is just $15 trillion, of which $3 trillion a year is paid in tax. If you expropriated all the wealth of the richest 400 Americans, as some Obama supporters appear to suggest, the $1.7 trillion you would get wouldn’t make a dent.
Those programmes will not be saved by Obama’s waffle. They will die because there is no money to pay for them and there won’t be, no matter which box you tick. That is the lesson of the last few years and it is one the US is going to learn. The laws of economics have a habit of being enforced with the doggedness of Inspector Javert and the merciless brutality of Dirty Harry.