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James Downey: A second term will prove Obama's worth as leader

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MITT Romney won the Iowa caucuses, if only by eight votes over the runner-up, and he will probably enjoy a sweeping victory in the Republican primary election in New Hampshire next week.

But will he be the Republican candidate who stands against Barack Obama in the presidential election in November? There is a long, long way to go, with primaries by the score, real and invented controversies, dirty tricks and the mental and physical exhaustion inseparable from a 10-month campaign.

Romney should cope with the fatigue better than most. He is in his mid-60s but looks no more than 50 -- the picture, indeed, of health and clean living. Being a Mormon, he doesn't drink tea, coffee or anything alcoholic. Doubtless his diet and exercise regime conform to the commendable practices of the American upper classes.

Trouble is, he just isn't exciting, unlike the candidates he beat in Iowa and especially the man who ran him so close.

Rick Santorum is too exciting for comfort. He thinks that the United States should scrap corporation tax, allow individual states to ban contraception, and teach "intelligent design" instead of Darwinism in the schools. He equates homosexuality with bestiality, and believes that global warming is not man-made. He would like to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities.

Someone like that could not be taken seriously on this side of the Atlantic. But a great many Republicans take him seriously and contrast him, to his favour, with Romney.

A third candidate, Newt Gingrich, denounces Romney as a moderate. Quite a feat, to turn the word "moderate" into a term of abuse. The English language has taken many hammerings from politicians in recent times, but this must set some kind of record.

However, Gingrich and others -- probably a majority -- in the party have a specific strike against him.

As governor of Massachusetts, he introduced a healthcare scheme for the state, similar to the one that President Obama has brought in nationwide. Right-wing Republicans regard this as heresy and will use it against him again and again as the campaign rolls on.

Powerful stuff, when the issue is the Republican nomination. It's a different story when it comes to the presidential election. Whatever Newt Gingrich may think, American voters, like voters almost everywhere, tend to vote for centrist candidates.

The rich and powerful people who pull the party's strings and supply the party's money must shrink from the thought of running someone with Rick Santorum's views. Romney is their man. Assuming that they prevail, has he got a real chance of denying Obama a second presidential term in November?

That depends, in the first place, on the money. It has been calculated that the Democrats will have a war chest of an amazing $1bn at their disposal. That will enable them to overwhelm the voters with 24-hour television advertising, lauding Obama's virtues and his achievements, real and imaginary.

Secondly, it depends on the state of the economy. Lately there have been some small signs of improvement, but in general the country's economic position, like that of most other countries, is pretty wretched.

And the voters will not be impressed by arguments that the crisis is a global crisis or that it has been caused, in part, by daft policies pursued by Obama's predecessor, George W Bush. Bush is history. Obama has to answer for his own tenure.

Thirdly, the merits or otherwise of the candidates in November. Assuming that Romney wins the Republican nomination, the advantage clearly lies with Obama. His admirers have suffered many disappointments in his first term, but nobody, and perhaps least of all Romney, compares with him as an orator.

The Democrats will try to make the most of his record in office. To what achievements can they point? Healthcare, obviously, on which the average voter will have a very different view from Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum. Anything else?

The withdrawal of American troops from Iraq? Premature, of course. They have not left a stable situation behind them. And they are bogged down in Afghanistan. Still, "bringing our boys home from Iraq" must have some traction.

But if the voters look -- most of them will not -- at the broader picture, they will find little comfort.

Obama has had the misfortune to accede to the presidency at a time of relative American decline. The world balance of power has changed, much to the United States' disfavour. And it cannot be rectified by any snake oil peddled by the Republican right wing.

Half a century ago, John F Kennedy spoke of "interdependence". That term has greater meaning now than ever before. The US can no longer solve its economic and other problems internally. It is still the world's biggest economy and leader in military might, but it has to regard other power blocs as collaborators more than competitors. It is massively in its interest that Europe should return to stability and that China should avoid a financial crash and stave off social unrest.

Any sane American president must look at both with deep anxiety and intense scrutiny of policy.

Supposing Obama gets his second term, he will most likely devote it chiefly to foreign policy -- linked, of course, with his place in history. It hardly needs saying that, here in Europe, we will observe his performance with far more interest and apprehension than when we sleepily watch titillating events in Iowa.

What is good for the United States is, by and large, good for everyone else. The best result in November will be not just an election victory but an ability on Obama's part to put the setbacks behind him and prove his capacity for leadership.

He needs more than a second term. He needs a second wind.

Irish Independent