It’s been a rough couple of years for incumbents around the world. In May 2010, Britain’s ruling Labour Party got walloped by the Conservatives, losing 91 seats while the Tories picked up 97; Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave way to David Cameron. In February 2011, Ireland’s ruling Fianna Fail won barely 15 percent of the vote and was replaced by a coalition of rival parties. In June, Portugal’s Socialists were routed by the center-right Social Democrats. In November, Spain’s People’s Party crushed the ruling Socialists, winning the biggest parliamentary majority in 30 years. Earlier this year, Socialist Francois Hollande upended Nicolas Sarkozy in France. The leaders of Italy and Greece were forced out of office in favor of technocrats.
But Tuesday, in case you missed it, Barack Obama not only beat Mitt Romney, but his party picked up two seats in the Senate.
It is hardly possible to overstate the tidal force of the global economic crisis on the politics of the West. Nearly every incumbent who ruled during this period has been ousted — the left by the right, the right by the left. And, in most cases, the margins were of historic dimensions. Of course there were local factors: the utter contempt with which so many French voters had come to regard Sarkozy, the British weariness with Brown’s grim visage. But it’s hardly surprising that the worst economic crisis in 70 years brought down the men who presided over it. And whatever else may be said of Obama’s reelection, we need to regard it in this extraordinary light.
Why did Obama win when all the others lost? First, of course, because he wasn’t in office when the crisis began; polls have found that many Americans still blame George W. Bush for the recession. Obama also benefited from a weak opponent who stirred no passion and had little appeal to new voters who had swelled the rolls since 2008. And the Democrats had a better ground game than the Republicans.
All true; and yet none of these factors fully account for Obama’s success in overcoming such a powerful trend. The same forces that wreaked havoc across Western Europe led to massive job losses in America’s industrial heartland. And yet it was just those states — Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania — that ensured Obama’s victory. The reason that happened is because job loss wasn’t the final story: Thanks in part to actions taken by the administration, including both stimulus spending and the auto bailout, unemployment numbers steadily dropped, both in the industrial core and elsewhere. By the time the election was held, the economy had begun to recover, and more Americans thought the economy was improving than the other way around.
The United States chose a different path out of the recession than did most of its Western partners. The bond market left eurozone countries, especially weaker ones like Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, little choice but to adopt austerity policies in order to shrink the deficit and attract investors. Those states have suffered negative growth. But England, which was under no such pressure, chose to make deep budgets cuts to restore fiscal balance. And the result has been that while the United States has returned to pre-crisis levels of growth, England’s economic outlook remains “bleak,” according to European Union forecasts, with 0.9 percent growth projected for 2013 after a 0.3 percent drop this year. (There are, of course, many other factors.)
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. economy is expected to grow at a rate of about 2.5 percent this year while the eurozone will be virtually flat; and unemployment in America will run (as it typically does) 2 to 3 points below that in Europe. The harsh limits on government spending imposed by EU rules and bond investors was, of course, precisely the policy that Mitt Romney was urging on American voters. The numbers show how wrong he was.
Given the deep sense of disappointment over what Barack Obama could have been and was not, we need to remind ourselves how profoundly adverse was the situation which he inherited — economically and politically — and how much progress his administration has made in stabilizing the situation. And because that is true, Obama now has the chance, as other Western leaders do not, to pursue the goals he laid out when he first ran for office. As the economy continues to improve, and the effects of healthcare reform begin to be felt, it’s even possible that, as Obama has put it, “the fever will break,” and he will enjoy the kind of broad public support that will make it difficult for Republicans in Congress to continue to obstruct him at every turn, as of course they will seek to do. The announcement of the death of hope and change may turn out to be premature.
James Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation. He writes “Terms of Engagement” for Foreign Policy.