By John Rapley
You'd probably have to go back to the 1980s to find an election in which the choices offered to Americans are so starkly different as those this year. Whereas American politics during the placid 1990s clustered around a right-of-centre consensus, the 2012 election presents a clear choice between the activist government proposed by Democrats, and the minimalist state beloved of Republicans.
But political visions will clash with hard reality the day after the presidential election. Whoever wins will have to dial back some of the expectations he created during this bruising campaign. The plain fact is that the fiscal space to either expand social programmes or cut taxes, the trade-off presented to Americans, is and will remain extremely limited in America.
In yesterday's edition of The Sunday Gleaner, Lawrence Powell drew up a scenario in which Mitt Romney could win the presidency, while Congress retained its current configuration: a Republican House, and a Democratic Senate. Whereas just a few weeks ago, President Obama looked like he was headed towards re-election, as Larry revealed, the race is now up for grabs.
Should Mitt Romney step into the Oval Office next January, he won't be able to cut taxes across the board and boost America's military spending, as he says he'll do. He will face a tough decision. He will either have to proceed with spending cuts, which he reassures Americans they don't need to worry about, or he'll have to give his base the unhappy news that he won't, after all, cut taxes across the board. Shortly after his inauguration, therefore, he'll anger some of the people who voted for him.
As for his pledge to reinvigorate the economy, his prospects may be mixed. Happily for him, he may inherit an economy which has already begun healing. In this respect, his fortune resembles that which Bill Clinton once had, when he came to office in 1992 with a fresh economic wind to his back that then carried him through two terms. With the housing crash now apparently through the worst and employment slowly ticking upwards, Romney may similarly have a few more options to deal with.
However, candidate Romney has pledged to create 12 million new jobs in four years. Good luck with that. With the world economy in sketchy health and America yet to avoid its impending fiscal cliff, it's not clear where such a dramatic economic rebound will come from.
This leads into the pressing matter which may further complicate Romney's eventual inauguration, namely: the dreaded fiscal cliff. At the end of this year, an automatic set of tax rises and spending cuts will kick in, unless the president and Congress agree to a new spending package. But the president who will deal with this issue is not Mitt Romney, but Barack Obama. He remains in office until January.
Congressional Republicans, like Romney, would like to cut taxes across the board. Romney would prefer his colleagues to negotiate a one-year deal with the outgoing president, thereby affording him time to put together his own economic programme. But for the moment, President Obama says he'll have none of it. His officials have indicated that he will veto any legislation which doesn't raise taxes on the richest Americans.
Of course, should Romney and his fellow Republicans win convincing mandates, he might back away from his threat. But if he doesn't, and if Republicans hold firm, then the country will go over the fiscal cliff in the New Year. Sweeping tax rises and spending cuts will prompt a recession, giving Romney a rotten start to his mandate.
More likely, Congressional Republicans will cave, holding their noses and raising taxes on the rich. Romney could then work with them to reverse those tax rises once he comes to office. But making tax changes retroactive is complicated, and could take time to be effected.
So the likely scenario of Romney's first day in the Oval Office would be inheriting an economy which is more difficult to mend than he has suggested, and in which many of his promises will need to be rolled back. Should he become president, Romney won't get much of a honeymoon.
John Rapley is a foreign affairs analyst. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.