Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are slugging it out over the economy, but the world may have a trick or two up its sleeve.
- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
The prevailing political wisdom is that the economy — not foreign policy — will determine who becomes the next president of the United States. When voters were asked in a Washington Post-ABC News poll this week what the single most important issue was for them in choosing a president, 52 percent said jobs and the economy (and they’re evenly split on whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney would do a better job on the latter). To put that figure in perspective, the second most-cited issue was “Health care/repealing Obamacare” at a mere 7 percent, while foreign-policy issues such as terrorism and the war in Afghanistan each mustered a measly 1 percent of responses. In January, the Pew Research Center concluded that the American public is more concerned with domestic policy than at any point in the past 15 years.
But every politician lives in fear of that 3 a.m. phone call that can upend the best-laid campaign plans. Here are five global events that could send the U.S. election careening along a very different path than the one it’s traveling down today.
A SHOWDOWN WITH IRAN
World powers are currently wrapping up a second round of contentious nuclear talks with Tehran and the European Union is preparing to roll out an oil embargo on Iran in July. But if this diplomatic tack fails to wring meaningful concessions from Iran, there’s an outside chance that Israel — or, in a less likely scenario, the United States and its allies — will conclude before November that military action is the only way to halt Iran’s nuclear advances (some have even suggested that it’s in the interests of Israeli leaders to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities in the run-up to the U.S. election). Americans see Iran as the country that represents the greatest threat to the United States, and a recent Pew poll found that 63 percent of Americans are willing to go to war if necessary to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons — a measure that Romney has promoted more aggressively than Obama, though both candidates have said that all options are on the table.
Some market analysts estimate that a military conflict with Iran could push gas prices in the United States to between $5 and $6 per gallon, alienating voters and jeopardizing the country’s fitful economic recovery. And there’s a reason why the National Journal‘s Charlie Cook has dubbed Iran the “wild card” this campaign season: The last five times gas prices have spiked during a U.S. presidential campaign, the incumbent party has lost the election. As the New York Times put it in January, the standoff with Iran presents Obama “with choices that could harm either the economic recovery or his image as a firm leader.”
A EUROPEAN NOSEDIVE
The prospect of a Greek anti-austerity party winning new elections in June has sparked widespread fear that Greece will default on its debt and exit the eurozone, which could spread contagion in southern Europe and plunge the global economy back into recession. But there’s a debate about the extent to which the European debt crisis will influence the U.S. election.
If a Greek exit precipitates the collapse of the eurozone, Brookings Institution scholar William Galston argues in the New Republic, it will be disastrous for Europe and the United States. But he adds that U.S. GDP growth would probably slow and the unemployment rate would likely stagnate even if the European monetary union remains intact after Greece’s departure. “These developments would make it harder for Obama to argue that we’re heading in the right direction, and … I suspect that economic growth at these depressed levels would mean victory for Mitt Romney,” he writes. Or, as the Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein noted earlier this year, Obama’s reelection “will be largely decided by the state of the economy. And the state of the economy will largely be decided by events in Europe. And Europe’s not looking so good.”
A CHINESE ECONOMIC SLOWDOWN
China’s slowing economic growth — which dropped to a nearly three-year low of 8.1 percent in the first quarter of 2012 — has prompted Chinese leaders to pledge new measures to stimulate domestic demand and commentators to warn of an impending economic crisis in the country. This week, the World Bank cut its growth forecast for China and cautioned that a recession in Europe could take a heavy toll on the Middle Kingdom, which in turn could stifle growth in other East Asian nations.
But when Beijing sneezes, does Washington catch a cold? China’s sluggish growth poses a “substantial risk” to the United States as the general election approaches, Campbell Harvey, a professor at Duke University, told CNN on Wednesday. “You don’t need a lot to knock us out of recovery.”
A DOMESTIC TERRORIST ATTACK
The United States has not suffered a major terrorist attack during Obama’s presidency, and the administration has foiled several plots — most recently an attempt by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to bomb a U.S.-bound plane. The president has taken out several high-profile terrorists through drone strikes and touted the killing of Osama bin Laden as one of his signal achievements — much to Mitt Romney’s chagrin. But an attack on American soil could instantly shatter the armor Obama has built up on national security, reverse the public’s declining concern about terrorism, and transform the campaign. And such a scenario isn’t out of the question. Two of the most high-profile attacks in recent years — the Christmas Day bombing attempt in 2009 and the Times Square bombing attempt in 2010 — were thwarted by luck as much as anything else, with the perpetrators failing to detonate their explosives (and, in the case of the Times Square bomber, a street vendor spotting a smoking SUV).
As the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake recently pointed out, foreign policy has proven pivotal in only one of the last five presidential elections: the 2004 contest, which was the first race after the worst terrorist attack on American soil in U.S. history. And we all know how that one turned out.
THE UNKNOWN UNKNOWN
There’s a reason we call the “October surprise” what we do — sometimes (though admittedly not often) we simply don’t know what will tilt the results of a race until Election Day is upon us. The term “October surprise” dates to 1972, when National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger declared less than two weeks before the presidential election that peace was “at hand” in Vietnam — comments that were credited with helping President Richard Nixon resoundingly defeat George McGovern (though in truth, Nixon didn’t need much help). During the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan’s campaign worried that President Jimmy Carter would strike an eleventh-hour deal to free American hostages in Iran (instead, they were released shortly after Reagan was sworn in as president). In 2004, John Kerry blamed his loss to George W. Bush on a video released by Osama bin Laden just days before the vote (“We were rising in the polls up until the last day when the tape appeared,” the Massachusetts senator lamented).
In others words, we have a ways to go until November, and anything from security in Afghanistan to violence in Syria to elections in Venezuela (ominously scheduled for October) could emerge as a potential game-changer. When the 2008 presidential election got underway, everyone assumed that foreign policy — specifically the war in Iraq — would be the dominant issue in the campaign. And then the global financial crisis hit, propelling the economy to the top of the agenda. It’s too early to rule out the reverse happening in 2012.