Posted by: Andy Reinhardt on January 12, 2012
There’s no way the euro zone crisis was going to help Europe’s image in the rest of the world. But exactly how much reputational damage has occurred was highlighted in the victory speech given by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney after he won the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10.
Romney used the opportunity of his speech (seen here on PBS via YouTube) to besmirch the Old World—and tie President Obama to its woes. Of course, some of this is standard Republican rhetoric: The GOP has played the patriotic and nativist cards for decades, appealing to the sense of American exceptionalism and love of the free market.
Thus, it was hardly out of character among right-wing politicians when Romney declared 6 minutes and 35 seconds into his speech:
He [Obama] wants to turn America into a European-style social-welfare state. We want to ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.
Nor when, 13 seconds later, he declared:
This president takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe. We look to the cities and towns across America for our inspiration.
Being an admirer of anything European is anathema to red-blooded Americans, smelling as it does of effeteness and elitism. Truth is, Obama does not plan to turn the U.S. into a European-style social welfare state. And while the President might enjoy a nice dinner out in Paris with Michelle, he doesn’t appear to be taking his lead from Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel or David Cameron.
In any case, these oratorical flourishes from Romney—who served as a Mormon missionary in France as a youth—reflect the old view of Europe. The new one, courtesy of the sovereign debt crisis, crept in near the end of the speech when Romney urged his listeners,
I want you to remember when our White House reflected the best of who we are, not the worst of what Europe has become.
No question, the U.S. carries a huge burden of sovereign debt, equal to more than 94 percent of GDP, according to the IMF. Which occupant of the White House is responsible for getting America to that point is open to some debate, but the Republican one before Obama clearly bears part of the blame. As for what Europe “has become,” it’s worth noting that among the troubled peripheral nations (aka the “PIIGS”) only Greece and Italy have government debt burdens significantly higher than that of the U.S., while those of Ireland and Portugal are roughly comparable and Spain’s is far lower, at 60 percent.
A Jan. 11 Bloomberg View column by Clive Crook suggests a more nuanced mutual understanding. In “Europe Learns From U.S., So Why Not Vice Versa?,” Crook spells out some of the differences between the U.S. and Europe economic systems and asserts that Democrats “do want to move the U.S. in a European direction.” But, he adds, that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. “Europe has things to teach the U.S.—and the U.S. has plenty to teach Europe. Looking abroad for guidance is no cause for shame.”
Americans might not want to seize upon Greece as a model of fiscal rectitude or look to Spain for labor laws. But last summer’s near-disaster in Congress over extending the U.S. debt ceiling (a game of “political brinkmanship” in the words of Standard & Poor’s, as it cut the country’s AAA credit rating for the first time) demonstrates that neither Europe nor the U.S. has mastered the complex intersection between politics and budgets. Were Romney to be the next U.S. president, he’d no doubt find managing America’s fiscal problems as challenging as Obama has. In that regard, there’s nothing unique about America.
Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images