IF you have nails, prepare to bite them now. If you are concerned, that is, by the outcome of the presidential contest in the United States. Or worried about the consequences of Hurricane Sandy, which was bearing down on the US East Coast as these words were being written.

A week from today, the damage wrought by Sandy will be manifest. So will the election result — unless there is a repeat of the 2000 scenario, when the loser eventually won, thanks to the Supreme Court.

A week out from election day, most opinion polls give Mitt Romney the edge, albeit narrow enough to be within the margin of error. It was the other way around until a month or so ago, before President Obama sleepwalked through his first televised debate with his opponent. The impression he gave was of someone who really couldn’t be bothered with four more years, although the tactic was presumably intended to convey an impression of effortless superiority.

If so, it backfired disastrously, and the incumbent’s supremacy in the two subsequent debates did not quite succeed in restoring his lead.

Of course, Obama may not have had to rely to such an extent on performing well on TV had his performance as president been largely above reproach. In several respects, it hasn’t come close.

The problem for him is not so much the mindless fanatics who question his eligibility on the basis of his birthplace or, laughably, demonise him as a Marxist. It is those who, back in 2008, expected his presidency to be transformational. Inevitably, that concept meant different things to different people. That most of them cannot muster the enthusiasm they exuded four years ago speaks for itself.

Sure, some of the disappointment can be attributed to the unreasonable expectations raised by the vague promises of hope and change. Following the supremely idiotic and uncommonly disastrous presidency of George W. Bush on both the domestic and international fronts (with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina probably resonating more than the Iraqi catastrophe), any hope of change struck a popular chord.

And although the McCain-Palin ticket sought to steer clear of close association with the eight years of Bush, it wasn’t an easy task, especially given that Sarah Palin, whenever she opened her mouth, was able to trump Bush in the idiocy stakes.

To a certain extent, Romney has gone the same way as John McCain in picking an out-there, rabidly rightwing running mate. That’s largely because many diehard conservatives weren’t convinced of his sincerity. After all, even by American standards, Romney has been a remarkably malleable politician, willing to change colours as eagerly as a chameleon to suit the popular mood. Which leaves plenty of room for doubt about his preferences if he’s elevated to a post he has long aspired to.

A colleague in his venture capitalism firm Bain Capital quotes him as having said in 1994, when he unsuccessfully challenged Ted Kennedy for a Senate seat from Massachusetts, “Dad says first you go into business and make a lot of money, you give the church half of it, and then you go into public service. And then you become president of the United States.”

The church in question, mind you, is the particularly cultish one devoted to Latter-Day Saints such as the founding hucksters Joseph P. Smith and Brigham Young, and Romney in his youth was a dedicated Mormon evangelist.

That dream might come true next week, and Goldman Sachs, for one, has put all its eggs in that particular basket, in the hope that Romney will be even more gracious to Wall Street than Obama, who at least tried to introduce token constraints on the money men.

The Republican contender has also given notice of a $5tr tax cut — which would mostly benefit the rich — and intends to repeal Obama’s modest healthcare reform, which falls well short of the universal healthcare coverage that is the norm in most developed states, but is nonetheless an improvement on the status quo, wherein private health insurers have no qualms about fleecing the vulnerable, and those without coverage can be effectively condemned to death.

Those Americans who vociferously oppose ‘big government’ evidently have no fear of being managed instead by huge corporations whose primary goal is monumental profits. Is there any country where false consciousness is more rife than in the US? Well, I guess Pakistan is a contender — as the only country out of 21 polled by the BBC where respondents favour Romney. Whereas scepticism about the drone-prone Obama is understandable, enthusiasm for the available alternative can only be rooted in ignorance (of which there is plenty in the US, too). Romney, after all, has no issue with the Predator terrorism indulged in by his nation, and would in fact funnel more resources into the Pentagon (instead of healthcare and education, where he’s happy to see the private sector take its toll), and he’s marginally more hawkish on Iran, Syria and Palestine.

Domestically, Obama has been anything but a civil rights president, retaining some of the worst innovations of the Bush presidency. His record on the international front is equally dismal. But yes, it could be worse — just as the unemployment level in the US and the broader state of the economy could have been considerably more deleterious but for his stimulus package.

The differences between Obama and Romney are no doubt exaggerated but, on balance, choosing the latter over the former would be a fairly dumb — and potentially disastrous — way to go. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean the marginally better man will triumph next week.



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