- Robert G. Patman
It would be a mistake to write off the significance of the 2012 presidential election.
Like or dislike it, America remains a key actor in the contemporary era.
It has the biggest economy in the world, possesses more military capabilities than the next leading 10 countries combined, and is the pre-eminent player in the production of popular culture.
At the same time, the idea of exceptionalism is deeply rooted in the culture of American political life.
This assumes the US is not only different from other nations but that it provides an exemplary political model for the rest of the world.
If the past 12 years demonstrate anything, it is that the role of leadership in this extraordinary country matters greatly. After September 11, 2001, the George W. Bush Administration declared a war on terror, launched bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spent more than US$4 trillion on bolstering US national security.
Such massive expenditure was financed almost entirely through borrowing and this, in turn, helped create conditions that led in 2008-9 to the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression of the late 1920s.
In contrast to the Bush era, the Obama leadership reasserted the link between the domestic economy and American global leadership.
Almost immediately, the Obama Administration managed to get a US$789 billion stimulus bill passed. The bleeding of jobs was stopped.
Since October 2009, US unemployment has fallen from a peak of 10 per cent to its current level of 7.8 per cent and modest economic growth has been restored during the past three years.
At the same time, Mr Obama ended the US combat role in Iraq, masterminded the elimination of America's No 1 enemy, Osama bin Laden, began the process of disengaging from the war in Afghanistan, and supported popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria without deploying US troops.
There is a lot at stake in the 2012 presidential election. Fundamentally, the contest between Barack Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, is a clash of visions and policies for America in the years ahead.
Mitt Romney believes that America "is the hope of the earth" and that his brand of strong leadership is essential if it is to remain so. He argues that America is going in the wrong direction under the Obama Administration.
Mr Romney has pledged to cut taxes by US$5 trillion and to reduce the role of the federal government in the economy.
Among other things, he has pledged to overhaul the 2010 Wall Street regulations and scrap "Obamacare" which extended health insurance to more than 40 million citizens previously denied cover.
According to Mr Romney, these measures will reinvigorate America's free enterprise system, create 12 million new jobs, and eliminate America's US$16 trillion deficit.
In foreign relations, Romney believes it is vital that America use its power "to shape history" - not to lead from behind - and has promised to spend an additional US$2 trillion on the Pentagon over the next decade to ensure this.
Accusing President Obama of being an apologist for America, Romney had championed a foreign policy that takes a tough line towards Russia, China and Iran, distances Washington from its European allies, and bolsters the alliance with Israel.
In contrast, while Mr Obama maintains that "America continues to be the greatest nation on earth", he rejects the idea America alone can meet the challenges of the 21st century, and argues that the US must look to multilateral co-operation to exert leadership and effectively protect US interests in a globalising world.
Mr Obama argues that the US has made real progress during the last four years in extricating itself from the disastrous economic and security legacy of the George W. Bush era.
And the Obama camp loudly complains that Mr Romney's economic plan lacks specifics on how it can be paid for and runs the risk of exploding the US deficit, rekindling global market uncertainly, and creating conditions comparable to the financial meltdown of 2008.
In Mr Obama's vision, the competitiveness of America's economy will only improve if there is greater government investment in the country's education, infrastructure and clean energy sectors.
That means America will continue to run a deficit and probably have to tolerate higher taxes for the wealthy to pay for this, but it is argued those investments are the key to a sustainable 21st century economy.
As for foreign policy, Mr Obama has pledged to maintain the strongest military in the world but believes after a decade of war, America must nation-build at home and lead by force of example rather than the example of force.
For the Obama team, history does not need to be "shaped" because it already offers a clear and positive verdict for American values and interests.
In an interconnected world, it is the ideas of democracy, not dictatorship and political fundamentalism, which have mass support.
Thus, the Obama-Romney election will help decide whether America becomes a more or less inclusive society, and also the degree to which America presents a constructive face to the world.
Whatever the outcome, the results will be difficult to ignore.
Robert G. Patman is Professor of International Relations in the Department of Politics at the University of Otago.
- Richard Jackson
When Barack Obama was elected to the American presidency in 2008, there were widespread expectations that his Administration would usher in a new era. Americans - and the rest of the world - would witness "change we can believe in". As America heads for the polls again this week, few would now argue that Obama's first term has lived up to this promise. Like most people in the United States and around the world, I would like to believe it really does matter who wins the US presidency. However, barring another game-changing event like 9/11, the facts are that this is nothing more than wishful thinking.
There are several reasons why US presidential elections matter very little in real terms and why we usually find there are more continuities than differences between presidencies. First, the US political system has a series of in-built constitutional checks and balances which greatly limit presidential power and tend to mitigate against major changes in policy direction. Presidential initiatives - such as Obama's attempt to close Guantanamo Bay - can be blocked by Congress or struck down by the Supreme Court.
Second, lobby groups and special interests play a key role in US politics. As we saw during Obama's attempts at healthcare reforms, such groups can mobilise powerful opposition and pose serious obstacles to presidential plans. The reality is that any President who tries to enact policies which might threaten a change to the status quo - whether it be to the healthcare system, gun ownership, environmental issues, taxation, military spending, the homeless or support for Israel - will quickly face opposition from powerful vested interests backed up by armies of Washington lobbyists.
In addition to this, American Presidents have to try to enlist the support of a great many extremely powerful state bureaucracies, which each have their own entrenched interests and long-term goals, if they want to enact new policies or change direction. From the State Department to the Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, there are powerful internal forces working to protect their own position in the Washington hierarchy, even if this means working against presidential ambitions.
Finally, and most importantly, US politics are dominated by a powerful ideological system and political culture in which there is real bipartisan agreement on all of the most fundamental issues. This effectively makes genuine change to the present system impossible. Democrats, Republicans and the vast majority of Americans all agree on the superiority of the liberal capitalist free enterprise system, the inviolability of the constitution and its various protections, the need for a powerful military defence system, and America's global leadership role. From this perspective, the differences between Obama and Romney are much smaller than the media makes out and relate more to tactical differences rather than substance. How is public spending to be reduced? Where exactly should tax cuts be made? Is there a need for even greater defence spending? What's the best approach for maintaining American leadership in the world?
For anyone still unconvinced, a series of simple questions proves the point. Will it really make any significant difference to the millions of homeless people, the unemployed or families who live below the poverty line in the US who the next president is? Will the country's culture of gun ownership, its arms industry and its military-industrial complex dramatically reduce after the election? Will the gap between America's rich and poor, which has been increasing for the past 50 years, suddenly reverse direction and start to diminish? Will there be any noticeable difference in the lives of people in Afghanistan, Palestine or Iran - or in Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the Pacific, for that matter? Will it make any real difference to global efforts to deal with climate change, the small arms trade, or nuclear disarmament who the next president is? The answer to all of these questions is, probably not. As happened after the last election in 2008 - and for the previous decade at least - the majority of people in the US and the rest of the world will not notice any difference in their lives as a result of this election.
In the end, US presidential elections have the appearance of a meaningful democratic process, but very little of its substance. The real tragedy, of course, is that this problem is not limited to the US. Among other things, economic deregulation over the past few decades now means that markets, corporations, and other unelected special interests have more power than governments and the people they represent. This has created a serious democratic deficit and crisis of legitimacy in the political system, one which protest groups like Occupy are attempting to challenge. In too many countries, national elections are less and less capable of delivering real political choice or the possibility of significant policy change. America, with many other countries, will need to reform its system of democracy if it's to make elections matter once again.
Richard Jackson is associate professor & deputy research director at The National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.