Following what may well have been the fiercest election contest in US history, the votes have now been counted in the US presidential election. US President Barack Obama has achieved his ambition to serve a second term, making him the second Democratic president to do so since World War II.
Although it is not unusual to have a US president serving a second term, opinion polls in the run-up to this election showed support for the candidates of the two main parties to be closer than ever, with one candidate sometimes leading the other and vice versa. This made the vote count in this election particularly suspenseful.
Prior to the election, CNN and Agence France-Presse came up with opposite predictions of the result. Obama’s tearful plea on the eve of the election for voters to give him four more years in office, was a sign of the unprecedented pressure he was under. What was at stake was not just personal success or failure, but the question of whether the social policies that Obama has strenuously pursued over the last four years would be curtailed and give way to what his Republican rival Mitt Romney called “real change.”
As Obama appealed to his supporters by highlighting the progress his administration has made so far and tweeting: “After all we’ve been through together, we can’t stop now,” Romney struck back by saying that a new direction was needed to solve the US’ problems.
In the end, the majority of US voters chose to let Obama go on pursuing his liberal ideals. Will this be a help or hindrance to the nation’s efforts to revive its sluggish economy and maintain its status as the world’s top power?
The US public will have to judge for themselves.
For Taiwanese, observing the election from an Asian standpoint, there are many aspects from which to view the result.
In the field of international relations, the result of Obama’s re-election will not necessarily match the hope expressed by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛), who jokingly said: “Of course, we hope that someone who supports China will win the election.”
Nevertheless, the current state of affairs is likely to continue with little change. In this respect, the next item worth watching is the forthcoming general election in Japan.
With regard to governance, this US presidential election has provided Taiwanese with a demonstration of how a mature democracy works. During the campaign, each side attacked its opponent and defended its own position on the basis of clear-cut policies, sticking fast to the different positions of the two main parties as to whether the country should move to the right or to the left. Obama pilloried the Republican administration that preceded his own for cutting taxes for the rich, saying that the price of the tax cuts was more than the nation could bear.
He criticized past governments for encouraging businesses to move abroad in pursuit of profits, taking job opportunities with them, and blamed the Republican Party for relaxing government regulation of banks and insurance companies. Obama said that a series of wrongheaded policies had led to falling incomes for people in the US and caused ever-rising government deficits.
However, Obama’s administration also has some weak spots that are vulnerable to attack by its opponents. Foremost among them is the state of Medicare — the federally funded program that guarantees access to health insurance for elderly and other eligible US citizens.
Medicare expenditure is forecast to grow quickly, to the extent that by the year 2024 the program will no longer be able to cover medical costs in full. This is clearly a cause for financial concern. Obama’s proposed reform is to reduce expenditure by cutting direct payments to doctors and hospitals, rather than rethink and adjust welfare provision. This situation has provoked a strong backlash, and a form of class warfare has broken out between opposite sides.
Obama won the presidential election, but there was only a 2.6 percentage point gap between the two candidates in the total popular vote. The Republican Party still has a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, showing the divided state of public opinion in the US.
The toughest challenge facing Obama in his second term is the question of whether his government can salvage the US economy. The annual US government deficit has exceeded US$1 trillion for the last four years, and the total national debt surpassed the US$16 trillion benchmark not long before the election.
Following on from the shock that financial services company Standard & Poor’s caused last year when it cut the US’ sovereign credit rating from “AAA” to “AA+,” Moody’s Investors Service is now warning that it will also downgrade the nation’s rating if the economic situation does not improve. If that happens, it will naturally have a big impact on investor confidence around the world, and that will not be a good thing for the US economy.
The problem is a thorny one. Former US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan says that reforms cannot be implemented without pain and that it is essential to raise taxes and cut expenditure. However, doing those things will not be good for economic growth.
There is still no consensus between the Democrats and Republicans on how to resolve the debt crisis. It is certainly going to be a big headache for Obama. Whatever happens in the US will inevitably influence the whole world, with Taiwan being no exception.
It is worth noting that US voters want Obama to be tough in pushing through economic reforms. Obama has declared that he will not allow the nation’s manufacturing industry to be handed over to other countries, and this of course refers principally to China. He wants to turn the US into a new-generation center of manufacturing and innovation, and this slogan is sure to appeal to the many US citizens who are unemploymed.
Obama has gone so far as to call for changing tax laws in such a way as to discourage businesses from moving jobs overseas. Instead, he wants to reward companies that create job opportunities within the US. If Obama can persuade Congress to pass the laws he is proposing, it will not just allow him to demonstrate his effectiveness in government, but also have a further effect around the world, even though Obama’s foreign policies are not as hard-line as Romney’s would have been.
We now know who will govern the US for the next four years. Taiwan only has one option, which is to strengthen its overall interaction and communication with the US.
The nation needs to increase the overlap between its own interests and those of the US so as to avoid being harmed by matters that are only in the interest of the US.
Taiwan must be alert to international developments and seek to occupy the most advantageous position to ensure its own sustained peace and development.
Translated by Julian Clegg