The battle for the White House is developing into a bitter and divisive feud and shows how fragmented US society is, writes Volker Depkat for DW's Transtlantic Voices column.
Volker Depkat is Professor of American Studies at the University of Regensburg, Bavaria.
Shortly after Super Tuesday in March, I was sitting in the sun on a campus in Southern California, trying to order shoes on the web. Working my tablet computer through the online ordering process turned out to be rather complicated, as I was using my German credit card for the payment that needed to be verified by a pin code sent to my German mobile phone, which did not have service at this particular moment.
Anyway, as I was sitting there in the warm spring sun, deeply immersed in online shopping and the pleasures of the cyberworld, a young man approached me, handing me a flyer with some religious message and saying that he would like to talk about God with me. When I said that I refuse to talk about God in public and to persons I did not even know, he seemed dumbfounded and, after a while, asked in evident despair: "Are you a professor, sir?"
Why am I starting out an essay on the current presidential election with this little episode? Well, it strikes me as very telling in terms of which problems both presidential contenders will be facing in the race for the White House, which has begun in earnest, now that Mitt Romney has emerged as the Republican nominee. The story of the Christian student, who obviously thought that somebody unwilling to talk about God must be a professor and as such synonymous with being liberal or evil, actually shows how deeply divided America is. US society is fragmented into multiple socio-moral milieus that are increasingly less able and willing to talk to each other in order to find common ground. This not only holds true for the great political divide separating Democrats and Republicans from each other. Rather, the two political camps are deeply divided among themselves.
The current race for the Republican nomination has been so bruising a battle, defined by ferocious infighting, uncounted negative ads, all sorts of nastiness and personal attacks, that former First Lady Barbara Bush felt it to be the most disgusting primary season ever. The last months have revealed that the heart of the Republican Party beats for a conservative diehard like Rick Santorum. It was, however, the mind that told Republican voters to opt for the more moderate Mitt Romney, as he appeared as the candidate more likely to win the elections in the fall, which will be won in the middle after all. Still, the Republicans have not really warmed to Mitt Romney, who, while greatly outspending his competitors and pursuing a pragmatic course of strategically collecting delegates for the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida this summer, has not gotten round to formulating political visions capable of uplifting the conservative soul.
It remains to be seen what long-term effects Rick Santorum's relentless portrayal of Mitt Romney as an opportunist only strategically committed to conservative core values will have on the further course of the presidential campaign. With Santorum out of the race and the last five primaries won, Romney is faced with the cardinal problem of having to reach out to the moderates in the US without alienating the conservatives increasingly radicalized by the Tea Party Movement. The only thing that upholds the fragile truce in the Republican Party at the moment is the shared hatred of Barack Obama and the willingness to drive him from the White House. This is hardly enough to build a campaign on
What does this mean for President Barack Obama and his re-election bid? So far, he has largely confined himself to watching the Republican contest from the sideline, and until recently, he could afford to do so because the Republican candidates were so busy damaging each other that they simply forgot to engage the President. Still, Barack Obama is faced with his own set of problems in America's divided house. In the eyes of many a Democrat, he has not turned out to be the inspiring leader of the country that he promised he would be and that many millions all over the world were willing to see in him.
As President of the United States, Barack Obama has not pursued a coherent and inspiring agenda capable of uniting the country behind him. He has his own record of flip-flopping on key issues, watering down laws in some areas, and avoiding other issues altogether. While some moderate Democrats think that his policies went too far, many left-leaning Democrats think that they did not go far enough. All in all, the President Barack Obama did not produce the kind of substantial 'change' that the presidential candidate Barack Obama promised to his voters in 2008.
From a German perspective it is hard to understand how divisive Barack Obama's health care legislation is to this very day, how controversial his environmental policies in the wake of the oil spill in the Mexican Gulf are, and how much hate-driven criticism Obama's advocacy of - in European eyes truly modest - government interventionism are able to unleash in today's America. Not every Democratic Congressman up for re-election this fall is keen on being identified with President Obama's policies too closely. Obama's problem thus is that he has to reach out to the middle without further alienating the more determined liberals in his own camp.
Currently, it looks as if the upcoming presidential elections will be decided by domestic problems and economic issues. While there are signs of recovery, America's economy is still sluggish. Gas prices - although still ridiculously low compared to German standards - are rising, and many American families are strongly affected by the economic depression that began in 2007. With Mitt Romney apparently determined to turn the race for the White House into an "it's the economy, stupid!" contest, recently even blaming the high gas prices on the President's environmental policies, Barack Obama will primarily have to find answers to the pressing economic problems the United States faces. He could use this as a way to address the larger issue of what kind of society Americans want to live in. All in all, therefore, the path to re-election for Barack Obama is long and winding. Should he need a new pair of shoes, I know how to help.
Editor: Rob Mudge