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Why the world is watching

America is picking its leader for the next four years, but it is also picking a global leader.
Last modified: 4 Nov 2012 18:15

As we travel around the USA with the presidential candidates, there is a fascination with the fascination of the foreign media in the process.

I’ve just stepped off the trail with Mitt Romney in a trip which took me from the southern part of Virginia, to Wisconsin and Ohio, then on to New Hampshire.

I’ve covered his campaign rallies in Nevada and Iowa and places in between. Normally there is a large contingent of US media outlets: the TV networks and news stations; the influential and not so influential newspapers and the must read websites. And then there is the ‘foreign media’. Obviously there are global channels like ours, but in the past few days we’ve been joined by South Koreans, Brazilians, the French, Italians and British and a plethora of stations from Central and South America.

Standing in an engineering factory in Ohio, a mother of two asked which channel I was from. I told her and was pleased to see a flicker of recognition. Her son watches us online. She then asked where others were from and as I ran through the list, she asked why so many people were interested in the race to the White House.

The winner will have to handle a poor financial situation; a difficult but improving unemployment problem and a growing national debt. They will have to address the stalemate in Congress where Republicans and Democrats spend so much time demonizing each other that little gets done. That’s reflected in the pitifully low approval ratings for Congress. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate in 2008 and a long time senator from Arizona described it as the "worst Congress ever." He’s right. This latest Congress was the least productive in modern history, passing just 80 bills and laws, the lowest number since they began keeping records in 1947. And if you add the time spent in debates, the number of reports produced and the votes takes by members of Congress and senators, then less was accomplished in 2011 than any other year in American political history.

But that is all very domestic, and doesn’t quite explain the international interest in the US presidential election.

The idea of the American president being "the leader of the free world" is perhaps anachronistic. The US has stayed well away from bailing out European countries in financial crisis. Mitt Romney often spits out that he doesn’t want the US economy to become "like Greece." Developing-world economies are more closely linked to events in China than the US. The idea that US influence will eventually bring Arabs and Israelis together to hammer out a Middle East peace deal seems to fade with each passing day.

Yet the president is still in charge of the world’s biggest economy. When America hit problems in in 2008, it almost sunk the entire global economy. A growing American economy will help global trade.

Often the tone of the approach to international crisis is set by the USA. When the French president talked about intervention in Libya, it only happened when the Americans jumped in. Conversely, if the White House decided to intervene in Syria tomorrow, other countries would troop in behind. America has pushed, cajoled and dragged other countries into imposing sanctions on Iran and its nuclear programme and it has led the way into bringing Myanmar back from international isolation.

One poll conducted by Gallup in 30 countries found that 42 per cent of people wished they could vote in the US election, a number which grows substantially for young people. Nearly two-thirds of people said the US president has a great impact on their lives in their own countries. Polls show most Europeans believe it is ‘desirable’ to have American leadership in worlds affairs.

There is, across the globe, a great love and a great resentment of the USA. Once in Pakistan I had a taxi driver who spent 20 minutes berating and criticizing the USA for its global foreign policy, then asked me if I knew any way he could get a visa to America because that is where he wanted to live with his family: "So much opportunity," he told me.

The reality is America is picking its leader for the next four years, but it is also picking a global leader. And the world is watching.