U.S. President Barack Obama campaigned on what, in retrospect, could be looked upon as a relatively nebulous campaign of hope.
Thursday night, Republican nominee Mitt Romney did something quite similar: he announced that he was the right candidate to rescue the American economy. It sounds like a concrete objective, but given the levers a president actually has control of, and given the Western World’s abiding love of its own creature comforts, fixing the economy is every bit as nebulous as the concept of hope.
Because fixing the American economy involves resetting a huge number of basic problems. American industry has shrunk and, where it hasn’t completely vanished, it has outsourced production to nations with cheaper labour forces.
But the nation’s spending has continued to grow. At 10:13 a.m. on Friday, the U.S. national debt stood at US$15,984,441,201,649.75, growing at roughly US$3.88 billion per day. And while people talk a good game about reducing costs, debts and the size of government, you realize quickly that there are crucial caveats to those cutbacks.
Generally, people are willing to accept reduced services — but only as long as those reduced services apply to someone other than themselves. Likewise, people are willing to accept higher taxes — but only when those taxes actually apply to others. When they are talking about their own situation, they prefer the tax burden to be reduced.
Romney is, in essence, a poster child for a world where, even when you make a fabulous income, you use every means possible to ensure you don’t pay a penny of taxes that you can escape.
Put simply, people tend to be comfortable talking about sacrificing, as long as they are not making a sacrifice.
But the fact is that you can’t have it both ways.
For Romney, or anyone else, to “fix” the economy, the American focus — in fact, the entire focus of Western civilization — has to change from looking into their own wallets and at their own large-screen televisions to the good of saving the broader economy.
And there are few signs that is going to happen. In fact, the explicit question at the centre of Romney’s Thursday speech to the American public was, “has your life improved over the last four years?” Not the nation’s situation — “your life.”
Improving the American economy starts with dealing with its juggernaut debt — and with absolute certainty, dealing with that debt is not going to improve the average American’s life, at least, not in the short term. People will be laid off, services will dwindle, roads will not get the kind of maintenance they need and belts will, by necessity, tighten.
Even if a U.S. president can find the political will to follow that road, chances are senators and congressmen will not be as willing to have their voters feel that pain.
Who’s the better tonic for the American economy given the current structure of the American political system, Romney or Obama?
In some ways, they’re selling the same gain without pain.
And in both cases, it’s fiction.