Thursday, October 04 16:28:51
President Barack Obama's lacklustre performance in the first U.S. election debate provoked uneasiness in European capitals today, where hopes are mostly, if unofficially, pinned on his securing a second term.
While a lot can change before the Nov. 6 vote, and Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will go head to head twice more before then, polling conducted immediately after the debate showed Romney came out overwhelmingly on top.
A flash poll by CNN showed 67 percent of viewers thought Romney had 'won', with just 25 percent for Obama. Intrade, an online prediction market, cut Obama's re-election prospects from 74 percent to 66 percent.
In Europe, where leaders and finance officials have worked closely with the Obama administration over the past 2-1/2 years trying to resolve the euro area debt crisis, there was particular consternation at Romney's singling out of deficit-ridden Spain as a poorly administered economy.
"Romney is making analogies that aren't based on reality," Foreign Affairs Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo told reporters after a meeting of his centre-right party. Leading Spanish daily El Pais highlighted the fact that Spain was the only European country mentioned, and contrasted Romney's negative depiction of it with Obama's praise for Spain's renewable energy policies during the 2008 campaign.
"Spain has never been mentioned in a presidential debate as a symbol of failure," the left-leaning newspaper lamented. "What happened last night makes history. And not in a good way." Political commentators in France and Germany registered surprise at Obama's underwhelming performance, saying the election could be much tighter as a result. "Obama showed a lack of desire to be president, which could put him on shaky ground as a presidential candidate," said liberal German news magazine Der Spiegel. "It's now clear that to get back into the White House the U.S. president needs running shoes, not flip-flops."
France's Le Monde appeared equally surprised by Obama's sub-par performance. "Where did the favourite go?" it asked on its front page, with a headline below saying: "Obama fails his first televised debate against an incisive Romney."
In private, many EU diplomats have no qualms about saying they want Obama re-elected; it is no secret that many European countries, whether led by centre-left or centre-right governments, are more broadly aligned with the Democrats when it comes to social and tax policy, the environment and a range of foreign-affairs issues.
That is something Obama has sought to exploit in the past. In the run-up to a G8 meeting at Camp David in May, White House officials firmly pressed their European counterparts to rally behind Obama's policy initiatives, according to those involved.
"It was like all of the G8 apart from Russia and Japan were expected to be part of the Obama re-election campaign," the chief of staff of one European leader told Reuters at the time.
Washington has also applied quiet pressure on Europe in recent months about the need to avoid a major blow-up in the debt crisis ahead of the election, in part so as not to rattle the U.S. economy, several EU officials have told Reuters.
Europe's leaders have good reason to go along; they want to keep a politically risky crisis under wraps, too, and they want to expand the close working relationship they have developed with Obama's administration over the past four years.
"The Europeans have a general uneasiness about a Romney presidency," said Jan Techau, the director of Carnegie Europe.
"It's not because they don't like him, but there are a lot of neoconservative policy advisers who would come back into office under a Romney presidency, and that is a prospect that a lot of European leaders are not comfortable with.
"There's a general tendency to stick to what you know and what you have been working with," he told Reuters. (C ) Reuters