The Diplomat

By Adam Lockyer

The U.S. Presidential Election is easily the most followed election on the planet. Citizens of other countries, who may pay little attention to their own politics, take a genuine interest in it. This is especially true of Australians. As a consequence, on Election Day, every Australian television channel will be running continuous coverage or inserting regular news updates into their normal programing.

Although hooked on the theatrics and peculiar customs of the primaries and general election, many aspects of the campaign continue to confuse Australians. Australians frequently assume they intrinsically understand America because both countries share a settler history, multicultural society, language, and democratic political traditions. The large amount of American culture that Australia consumes only adds to the sense of familiarity. But it is often a false familiarity. There are some major differences in the political culture between the two countries, and these often led to misunderstandings.

Currently, by far the biggest issue that Australians are scratching their collective heads over is why it is such a close race. To many Australians, Obama should be easily winning.

There are five reasons why Australians are confused by reports that the 2012 U.S.Presidential Election will be a nail biter.

The first reason is that President Barack Obama remains incredibly popular in Australia. Earlier this year, the Lowy Institute published a poll showing that 80 percent of Australians would prefer to see Obama continue as U.S. president compared with the 9 percent of Australians who favor his Republican challenger. This was actually an increase from 2008, when 73 percent reported supporting Obama compared with 16 percent for the then GOP nominee, John McCain. Obama would clearly win in a landslide if he ran in Australia so Australians have difficulty understanding why it is neck and neck over the other side of the Pacific.

Second, American political culture is to the right of Australia. Australia has three main political parties: the Liberal Party, which is center-right; the Labor Party, which is center-left; and the Greens, which are on the far left end of the Australian political spectrum. Yet, as is often pointed out, all three Australian parties would fall under the broad umbrella of Obama’s Democratic Party if they were in the United States.

Much of the conservative rhetoric radiating out from the Republican Party would not be considered mainstream political discourse in Australia. There is no question that one can find many of the Republican Party’s positions on issues like abortion, social welfare, gun control, law and order and taxation being expressed in Australia; however, they are frequently among the most extreme positions to be found within the Australian parliament. As such, it is safe to speculate that the 9 percent of Australians that support Mitt Romney would be among the most Conservative wing of the Liberal Party. With this in mind, it would be impossible for an Australian Prime Minister to be elected on this support base alone. Consequently, in the minds of many Australians, the conservative rhetoric radiating out of the GOP would disqualify them from the nation’s highest elected office.

Third, cultural misunderstandings also exist between Australians and Americans over the policies that Obama has pursued. Obama’s first term policy agenda appears far less radical to Australians than it does to many Americans. It is a truism in Australia, for instance, that private health insurance is only viable when young and old both purchase premiums. Private health providers cannot possibly be viable selling premiums solely to the old and the sick without charging excessively high prices. As such, it has long been accepted in Australia that government has a role in encouraging younger and healthier people to acquire private health premiums through tax breaks and over incentives. This is a central tenet of “Obamacare.”

About 50 percent of Americans, however, have continually opposed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), or “Obamacare” as it is more commonly called. In addition to the perception that the health-care reforms will be harmful to the economy and business, there are also deeper philosophical issues at play. Many opponents of “Obamacare” view any governmental regulation as a challenge to their personal liberty and freedom. They ought to be free to decide whether they purchase healthcare or not. Obamacare is therefore an unjustified government intrusion into their personal liberty, an example of the worst excesses of a bloated federal government.

Fourth, through Australian eyes, Obama is more than just a politician. He is also a symbol of the best of America. Obama, as the first African American U.S.president, still holds special significance around the world. There remains a feeling that Obama proves that America remains a country where anything is possible. Yet, the symbolic significance of Obama has much greater traction outside the United States than within it. From within the United States, one gets the impression that there is a greater sense that this milestone has been achieved and, as such, Obama is now judged as just another politician. The irony here is that the excitement that many Australians felt about having their first female Prime Minister has now virtually disappeared.

Finally, and arguably most important, the current economic conditions are vastly different between Australia and the United States. America’s unemployment rate is currently 7.9 percent; and August 2012 was the first time that the unemployment rate had dropped below 8 percent since February 2009. Although corporate America has largely recovered after the global financial crisis (GFC), jobs and economic growth are yet to reach the real economy. There are three reasons why corporate America is not rapidly rehiring all the workers it laid off in 2008-2009: 1) demand remains low, 2) companies have discovered they do not need as many workers as they had thought before the GFC, and 3) political uncertainties continue to be a major drag on the economy. In contrast, the Australian economy was largely untouched by the GFC. Australia is close to experiencing full employment. Since 2007, the Australian economy has grown by 11 percent compared to the United States’ 1.75 percent growth during that time. Australians are not feeling the same strains as Americans, and thus do not fully comprehend the widely held discontentment with the current political leadership.

If Obama loses the election, a great number of Australians will be transfixed watching their television screens in disbelief and puzzlement.

This article was originally published by The Diplomat