Talk of decline is overstated, as Obama's second term will showby Bill Emmott / November 14, 2012 / Leave a comment
Obama’s second term could see “America’s domestic difficulties become smaller and its economy stronger” (photo: Getty Images)
It took some chutzpah for Barack Obama to repeat in his victory speech one of Ronald Reagan’s favourite lines, that for America “the best is yet to come.” It took even more to reprise some of his own old lines about bipartisanship, about uniting rather than dividing, after such a bitter presidential election campaign in which he himself led the way in the use of negative, demonising tactics. Admittedly, he had beaten Mitt Romney more cleanly than most pundits expected, and his Republican foes had had a disappointing night in Senate races too, so a bit of over-optimism is understandable. Yet it is perfectly possible that he could be right.
It doesn’t look that way to the 23m Americans who are unemployed, nor to the hundreds of millions in the “squeezed middle” who have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in recent years while the rich—and especially the super-rich—have been accruing new private jets and luxury homes. Nor will it feel that way if, sometime during President Obama’s second term, China overtakes America as the world’s biggest economy, which it might well do on measures that adjust economic output according to domestic purchasing power.
That moment would be purely symbolic and of no underlying economic importance. But symbols do matter, both to international credibility and to domestic confidence. Slower Chinese growth, or faster American growth, might defer the day into the first term of the next president, but nonetheless it will most likely happen, quite soon, and when it does the moment will be pored over by journalists and analysts all around the world. For it fits a convenient and simple narrative: that America is in decline, accompanied by the rest of the west which it leads. The American century, proclaimed by the founder of Time magazine, Henry Luce, in 1941, is considered over, almost three decades early.
If you take Obama’s victory speech literally, he was promising to prove that narrative wrong, even if he didn’t quite follow Reagan by saying it was “morning in America.” There are as usual good grounds for cynicism. For a start, it is a mistake to take politicians’ speeches too literally. Moreover, an odd feature of a presidential system, especially in our personality-focused age, is that…