By Nayan Chanda For The Straits Times
A MEMORABLE moment of the long drawn-out United States presidential election campaign came in March when a Romney adviser explained how his candidate would switch gears once the primaries were over.
From the position of a severe conservative, he would become a moderate. "It is almost like an Etch A Sketch," he said, referring to a mechanical doodling toy. "You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again," he elucidated.
With the polling over, Etch A Sketch reveals itself as an apt metaphor for the entire election campaign. Issues such as outsourcing, abortion and petrol prices that long filled the debating stage can now be pushed to the background, revealing the more portentous issues that were inconvenient to raise earlier. The looming fiscal cliff faced by the government and the threat of global warming are two of such issues that the world waits to hear about from Washington.
Having shunned the divisive issue of global warming during the campaign, President Barack Obama raised it within hours of his victory. "We want our children to live in an America that isn't... threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet," he said.
While the campaign was on, with coal-mining constituencies in mind, Mr Mitt Romney loudly proclaimed his love for coal. Mr Obama timidly responded by affirming his support for clean coal. Even after the unprecedentedly large super storm Sandy that wrought disaster and interrupted the campaign, the candidates were mum.
But Sandy finally pushed even a mainstream publication such as Bloomberg Businessweek to drop its standard journalistic equivocation and run a cover proclaiming "It's Global Warming, Stupid".
Increasingly, many climate scientists are acknowledging the role of global warming in the frequency of mega disasters, even if these cannot be directly linked to climate change. Mr Obama's mention of the "destructive power of a warming planet" suggests that, shorn of the electoral constraints, he may be ready to call a spade a spade.
He has already taken some executive measures to curb emissions and promote cleaner energy. However, major steps to stem global warming and mitigate the anticipated ill-effects would require strong leadership and congressional legislation. It remains to be seen how much political capital Mr Obama is ready to spend to leave this legacy for "our children".
More urgent than leaving a legacy is to figure out what happens to the US economy and the world on Jan 1. During the election campaign, the question of how to avoid disastrous, across-the-board spending cuts and tax hikes that await on Dec 31 was avoided like the plague.
In the summer of last year, failing to reach an agreement on a solution, a bitterly divided Congress had kicked the can down to the post-election weeks. If, in the remaining six weeks, the Republicans and the Democrats cannot reach an agreement on how to bring down the mountain-high deficit, it would not only tip the US economy into recession but, as the International Monetary Fund warned, also have "large international spillovers".
The scrapping of tax cuts instituted by the Bush administration would raise revenue but hit the middle class hard.
Apart from the inability to compromise, the reason to put off the most vital decision for the country till the waning weeks of the year was perhaps the hope that the election would alter the power balance, making a deal possible.
But the election results offer a confusing message. The exit poll shows voters trust Mr Obama more than Mr Romney to protect the middle class, but believe the Republican candidate to be better equipped to manage the economy.
This dichotomy is reflected in the results. While Mr Obama won a decisive victory and the Democrats maintained their control of the Senate, the House of Representatives remains in the hands of the Republican Party.
Although chastened by the defeat of its presidential candidate and some radical Tea Party members, the Republican Party is not ready to compromise on its determination to prevent raising taxes on the rich. Buoyed by the Obama victory and poll results showing majority support for taxing the rich, the Democrats, for their part, are in no mood for compromise.
Had the election campaign not been an Etch A Sketch operation and allowed the candidates to openly debate the pros and cons of their positions to avoid a year-end disaster, America and the world would have been spared a cliffhanger.
The author is director of publications at the Yale Centre for the Study of Globalisation and editor of YaleGlobal Online.