Americans would like to vote out Obama, but Romney makes it difficult

Mitt Romney Close Up

On the BBC a few weeks ago the New York Times pundit David Brooks explained to his British audience that American voters are "looking for an excuse to vote against the president". Spot on, I thought. Voters are disappointed in the promise that Barack Obama represented in 2008, but Mitt Romney has been making it hard for swing voters to elect him president instead.

Since then it's looked as if next Tuesday's ballot may swing Romney's way after all. But no. As hurricane Sandy roared up the US eastern seaboard, fate may have tipped the balance back in Obama's direction by showing him quietly in charge and reminding folks the government – local, state or federal – isn't always the enemy of Tea Party fantasy.

Overnight we've also learned that New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, the little guy with the sign language aide at his side, soft-spoken but reassuring and on top of the detail, is backing Obama and by implication the benign power of government.

That's quite a big deal, like Boris Johnson endorsing Ed Miliband – don't hold your breath, Ed – at the 2015 election here. Except that Bloomberg is an ex-Republican independent, a self-made billionaire who has the gravitas that Boris lacks, though he generally makes worse jokes.

Hizzoner – as Americans call their big city mayors – is shrewdly political enough to praise Romney as a "good and decent man" who has done good things. Alas, "he has reversed course on all of them", including the healthcare model he created as governor of Massachusetts, the mayor noted in a statement. But the clincher for Bloomberg is Romney's hostility to climate change.

This week's devastation "may or may not be" a result, but the risk requires "immediate action", Bloomberg concludes. That's spot on too. When I mocked CNN's hysterical buildup to hurricane Sandy here this week I got it partly wrong. The havoc and death it actually wreaked – as opposed to the spine-chilling advance publicity – was more severe than I initially grasped, as we all now know.

But one of my complaints, which remains valid, was the widespread reluctance of many Americans to concede that manmade climate change may be a crucial driver of its increasingly turbulent continental weather. The daily US weather map that most newspapers carry can be extraordinary, a Wagnerian drama which piles two feet of snow on Idaho on the same day that oranges are ripening in Florida sunshine. Floods, snow, twisters, droughts; it's never dull.

Yet it remains an article of faith with many Americans that they can master nature as they mastered their vast land – chopped down its forests, dammed its rivers, cultivated its deserts, drilled for its oil, tamed its forest fires. Herman Melville's classic MobyDick told them otherwise – the sea always wins – but it's not a message everyone wants to hear. Obama's strategy has been to let events talk for themselves.

Bloomberg knows it – if you take a look at the storm, be careful, nature is stronger than us, he warned New Yorkers this week. After all, the great port city is surrounded by water – Manhattan, Long Island and Staten Island are just that – and the East and Hudson rivers are close to the vast Atlantic swell. The Thames Barrier, a mighty undertaking, currently protects London. It would not be enough to protect New York as water levels rise.

The polarised ideological gridlock of Washington politics, far more severe than in post-cold-war Europe, exaggerates disagreements and damages politics: the failure to reach a compromise on federal taxes and spending still threatens the economic recovery, whoever wins on Tuesday. It needn't be that way. Just look at the courteous way Obama and Chris Christie, admired Republican governor of New Jersey, have treated each other in this week's crisis.

None of this plays Romney's way or the way Tea Party types want to see the world. I hesitate to say it's clinched re-election for the president. When Romney made his coarse assessment of the Democratic electoral base – the 47% of people who depend on benefits from the state – in September I suggested it might – might – be the turning point, ensuring the challenger's defeat.

So it might have done, but for Obama's strikingly feeble performance in the first presidential debate. It was precisely the sort of event which – to quote Brooks – gave wavering voters an excuse to vote him out. If he looked so disengaged that he didn't seem to want the job, why not let the other fellow have a go?

After all, he had not lived up to expectations, though in fairness to Obama a kind reader on Twitter draws my attention to this robust defence of the president's record by Jonathan Chait in the New York magazine. In the later debates Obama fought back – and now the hurricane has played to his strengths.

Does it matter who wins? At the Cambridge Festival of Ideas last weekend I heard a panel of experts on Asia – one Korean, one Japanese and one Chinese – saying there is less interest than usual in the contest on their side of the Pacific. The US focus is tilting towards China (60% of US warships are now in the Pacific, we were told) but the anti-China rhetoric – formerly anti-Japanese – over unfair trade is much quieter in 2012.

Whoever wins won't change US policy much (whatever aggressive pledges Romney is making) seemed to be east Asia's verdict. Well, maybe.

I'd still say it matters quite a lot. Romney may plan to govern from the centre if he becomes president and Republican forces in Congress and the country allow him to – as they denied much scope to Obama. But it is certainly not what he's been saying.

On climate change, denial is dominant. Republicans still want to deport millions of illegal immigrants, they would cut spending on benefits for those layabout Democrats – healthcare and stuff – while increasing defence spending AND cutting taxes for everyone. A constitutional curb on gays rights, the outlawing of abortion etc etc.

A pre-emptive attack on Iran's nuclear plants, support for more West Bank settlements, the list is a long one – and scary. What we know from the record, two Bushes and Ronald Reagan, is that Republicans are better at cutting taxes, mostly for the rich, than cutting spending the way they promise to cut it. That's why the US has a crippling debt problem, a more serious budget imbalance than our own, possible only because of the residual prestige (for now) of the dollar.

Add all that to the superior organisational power of the Democratic machine – the Obama team's better grasp of social media as campaign tools that offset the billionaire bank-rolling of Romney – together with the changing demographics of the US, and it points me to the same conclusion.

Obama's crowds are much smaller than in 2008, but they're multiracial. That's America's future, black, white, Hispanic, Asian. Indeed the insurgency of the Tea Party, which was forced to settle for Romney (Paul Ryan, a consolation prize who could prove an error), may be the last hurrah of the old all-white hegemony.

If they can't beat a disappointing incumbent, they may have to come to terms with the new realities at home and abroad. Modernisation of the Republican party is long overdue. Obama to scrape home after all.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael White, for guardian.co.uk on Friday 2nd November 2012 14.17 Europe/London

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