Chris Tufton, Contributor
Barack Obama's presentation to the Democratic National Convention was electrifying. The likely envy of any current or aspiring politician, he was articulate and convincing about the case for an Obama re-election. A week before, the Republican candidate Mitt Romney had his say in Tampa, Florida, and he was emotional and pointed as he exposed Obama's economic performance and its vulnerabilities. That's the nature of America's rich democratic tradition.
So far, the American voter is seemingly unconvinced about a clear favourite from either side. Most polls, up to late this week, show a narrow margin between the two candidates, and no clear indication yet as to who will be president, even while Obama seems to have a slight advantage. For political watchers, this is likely to be an exciting finish to the November 6 elections.
Here in Jamaica, as we cope with our local challenges, like the unfortunate police killing last weekend in St Thomas, as well as the economic uncertainties surrounding an International Monetary Fund agreement, Jamaicans would have wanted to see the excitement of the two US national party conventions over the past two weeks.
Those who took time from our own challenges to notice, either for the theatre or the substance of what is at stake, could not help but appreciate the cut and thrust of political ideas advanced by articulate men and women characteristic of the American way.
Speech after speech was characterised by few consistent themes. The evolution of the key personalities involved moving from humble upbringing to fame, success, and fortune, and why this journey was synonymous with the American dream.
America has been built by ethnic origins that are far and wide, and attempts by both parties to show racial tolerance, a reality some Jamaican politicians should learn to accept. There was also a sense of hope around the future, despite the current challenges, and a reaffirmation by participants that America is still, and will continue to be, the greatest country in the world.
Both conventions were well choreographed, with speakers carefully chosen to focus on specific points and themes, ultimately selling their respective candidates and parties. This was good TV and would have been even better if one had the opportunity to have a seat on the conference floor.
SAME BUT DIFFERENT
The posturing by either party should be expected in a rich, exciting democratic tradition. The realities don't normally reconcile with the rhetoric at times, however. The truth is that America has challenges, and both parties have a different ideological perspective on the way to manage those challenges, even while the objectives appear the same: to reduce the debt and deficit, create jobs and economic activities, and protect the rights and freedoms of the American people. But even so, the differences in approach are quite clear.
Generally, the Democrats support greater government intervention and support for economic and social welfare policy directions. Health-care reform, or Obamacare, as it is pejoratively described, is viewed by the Republicans as too state-interventionist and should be repealed.
On international issues, the Democrats are of the view that military intervention should be based on negotiations rather than unilateralism, and on immigration issues, support should be given to accept and encourage integration. Philosophically, the Democrats support the right to choose, which includes pro-abortion and gay rights.
The Republicans generally believe and advocate for personal responsibility and the value of free enterprise to create expanded economic opportunities and jobs. They oppose big government and feel intervention in economics and welfare policies is less efficient than deregulation of business and medical support programmes.
The Republicans are conservatives who normally subscribe to traditional moral teachings that are anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion. On defence and immigration, they support strong and forceful intervention to protect American interests and are less likely to encourage accommodation for illegal immigrants, who they interpret as threatening American jobs and opportunities. The Republicans are pro-gun rights but usually anti-gay marriage and abortion.
There are shades of grey to these philosophical positions, and in this case candidates have deviated, from time to time, to the Right or Left based on pragmatism or even political opportunism.
Mitt Romney, for example, a second-time challenger for US president and former governor of Massachusetts, is described by some as a pragmatic centrist who has been willing in the past to support stronger state intervention in areas like health care, as he did through supporting legislation in Massachusetts as governor.
IT'S THE ECONOMY
When all is said and done, this election will be determined by the voters' interpretation of the state of the economy, its current and future prospects for citizens and the confidence in either candidate to improve personal well-being.
The US economic statistics have not been encouraging, even while there are signs of gradual improvement. Unemployment is at 8.3 per cent. There has been a growing debt of US$16 trillion. Any talk of a recovery can only be described as slow.
In their defence, the Democrats argue that they were dealt a bad hand when they took over four years ago and have had to deal with the worst recession in seven decades. Under these circumstances, they argue, they have done a good job to cauterise that free fall, including saving, through bailouts, critical industries like auto and finance, resulting in fewer job losses and further economic fallout.
Democrats have justified their re-election bid by pointing to a slowing of job losses, and gains in health care, immigration and the taming of al-Qaida through the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden.
The Republicans have focused on the economic challenges facing Americans as their trump card for wooing voters. Mitt Romney's most potent quip during his acceptance speech in Tampa was a question he posed to the delegates and the American people asking them if they felt they were better off than four years ago. The Republicans are hoping that most voters will say no, and that that will translate to votes on election day. At this point, the political pundits cannot predict how things will turn out.
For us here in Jamaica, how much does it matter whether the Democrats or Republicans are in the White House?
It does, but not in the way political watchers have traditionally surmised. A Democratic or Republican president after November 6 will likely be focused first and foremost on the US economic recovery. In this respect, there is likely to be greater caution exercised towards any policy that does not encourage American jobs and preserve and build American wealth and interests.
This will likely see inward-looking policies that address those concerns but also targeted outward-looking policies that encourage the stability and security of American interests abroad. Europe, the Middle East and the rest of Asia will continue to be the focal points of American foreign policy in support of economic and strategic interests overseas, but particularly linked to the stability and security of the American economy back home.
In this context, Jamaica's fate is primarily hinged on the pace of recovery of the American economy and not on any specific initiative that the US may chose to support for Jamaica specifically.
A thriving US economy will likely create opportunities to benefit from trade in goods and services in key areas such as tourism, remittances and agro-processed exports. Jamaica should not expect too many goodies in aid from the future president, as this does not fit into their immediate strategic objective as a country.
Ultimately, we have to find our own solutions to our challenges, and the world will only cooperate if we find a way to create value as customers or suppliers. Our interest is best served by taking a world view to our own recovery and sustainable development. This means exploring markets and collaboration wherever common interests can be served, even while we preserve those long-standing relations with main trading partners like North America. This calls into sharp focus the need for our own foreign policy that is strategically focused on opportunities, including but beyond our main trading partners.
In wishing the American people well in these presidential elections, we should also wish for ourselves the resolve to align our expectations with US's realities and chart a course that expands our horizons.
Dr Chris Tufton is a senator, opposition spokesman on foreign affairs and trade, and investments, and co-executive director of CaPRI. The views in this column do not necessarily represent those of the above-mentioned entities. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.