European Affairs

But the Atlantic (the Pacific too, I expect) never feels so wide as during critical moments of the ever-longer process of choosing the next tenant of the White House. This time it's Obama versus Romney, unusual inasmuch as one candidate is much more comprehensible to us than the other – or than usual. Being a closet European socialist (do I mean a Kenyan one?) is one of the charges laid against President Obama in the 2012 campaign.

But there is always a muddle, always mutual incomprehension. Ronald Reagan was admired more in the former Soviet bloc than in Western Europe, Bill Clinton's private morals baffled them in France, Richard Nixon impressed the Chinese, George W Bush scared a lot of non-voters overseas as knuckle-dragging, unilateralist cowboy. “Chinese military strategists were appalled by what he did in ignorance,” I heard a retired British general say only the other day.

Why is it so painful when all of us, on both sides of the Atlantic, can enjoy the Olympics or share the merits of Dame Maggie Smith playing the Dowager Lady Grantham in TV's Downton Abbey? It's not as if the contours of our different habits are unfamiliar. On the role of the state, on health care and the welfare safety net, on sex and religion, not to mention gun control, we do things differently. We've known that forever.

So why does the problem seem to be getting worse? Why do poor American voters who would benefit most from a more socialized health care system – Canada or France offer a better model than Britain - denounce Obamacare as a threat to their freedom? Ditto on the possibility of banning ownership of a machine pistol?

But why did Europeans look down their superior noses on President Reagan, a charming and successful leader? Why has every Republican president since Ike (who rescued us from Hitler and defended us from Stalin) frightened European voters, alongside several Democrat ones. Come to think of it, why did George Bush Jr. keep a bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office when he would never have done the same for FDR?

My own hunch is that the explanation is part personal, part ideological and partly down to the larger forces at work on the world which have, for example, ended the Cold War which quietly herded us all into relatively disciplined blocs, and in Barack Obama, an elected president who was born and raised in the Pacific, closer to Beijing than Berlin.

A century ago most presidents were easterners, some resentful of old Europe but rooted in it. Fifty years ago we had to start getting used to westerners like LBJ (did he ever visit Europe as president?) and Nixon. In 2008 we watched an Hawaiian slug it out with an army brat from the Panama Canal Zone via a North Vietnamese prison and Arizona. .Not much Henry James in those CVs.

Another strange thing has happened. Since Europeans stopped killing each other in industrial quantities every 25 years or so (touch wood)  they have become less ideological and more managerial in the Brussels technocratic style so visible during the protracted eurozone crisis which has so frustrated Americans of all persuasions. At least two countries have unelected technocrats as prime ministers. Wow!

At the same time can-do American pragmatists acquired an unhealthy taste for ideological zeal, for religious fundamentalism more attuned to Saudi Arabia than to secular Europe and for baffling culture wars in which some people kill each other to defend the sanctity of life. In his memoirs Alan Greenspan argued that the civil rights acts broke up the old bipartisan Washington where liberal Republicans and reactionary good ole' boy Democrats softened the contours of ideological strife.

Foreigners can follow that, but they're still not sure why the U.S. Constitution of 1787, which expressly separated church and state should now be required to uphold creationist “science” by its most ardent admirers. Or did I get that wrong?

Yes, I know that German bankers have strong doubts about the European Central Bank (ECB) wanting to behave like a real central bank to save the euro.   But they would never have called their central bankers “traitors,” as routinely happens in the Tea Party world, let alone have killed him in a duel as Aaron Burr did to Alexander Hamilton, the Mario Monti of his day.

The contrasting style of US and European politics adds further fuel to the fire. American politics have usually been populist since roughnecks like Andrew Jackson overthrew those effete Virginians. Ronald Reagan's cowboy charm (an act like much of his life) never travelled well in Europe. How could it when it was a hard sell in New York? Nixon never wore a Stetson, yet the Yale-educated Bushes did.

It is all very baffling to Europeans whose political style remains rooted in the monarchical, aristocratic and oligarchical habits of the past. Efforts to ape American populist style usually end in tears. The French hated Sarko's jogging and much preferred the aloof indifference of Francois Mitterrand, a socialist who behaved like a monarch. Vladimir Putin's macho poses have lately been exposed as PR stunts. Angela Merkel does not do stunts, Charles de Gaulle's idea of stunts were never less than grandiose, designed to resonate with past French glory. Even the mid-Atlantic Brits were uneasy with Tony Blair's jeans and guitar.

It's another reason why – dammit, we just can't help it - Europeans and other more - dare I say it? - conservative cultures feel more at home with Obama. Not only does he not throw America's weight around (we'll ignore the drone attacks on other people far from Paris and London), but he's more reserved and outsources emotion to his stylish wife: we like that.

So, all the polls held among foreigners show overwhelming support for Obama's re-election. Abroad often prefers the Democratic candidate whose views more closely accord with our own less bellicose, more multilateral world. We can see that Mitt Romney is clearly a successful businessman, and we don't mind his funny religion (we have a few of our own), but he seems so awkward and too inclined to change his views to appease people who don't seem likely to stay appeased for long.

As for his choice of running-mate, well, let's say Paul Ryan is an improvement on Sarah Palin and leave him and his simplistic views well alone. We know that the Italians elected Silvio Berlusconi several times and that Francois Hollande's love life is as undignified as Bill Clinton's as well as being a lot less fun. We try not to throw stones from our less-than-perfect glass house, we really do. We just fail.

Why? Because we like to feel superior like everyone else. And besides, we know that whoever wins will probably make less difference than their campaign rhetoric which fools very few.  Life will go on and the U.S. will pursue its own best interests while being nicer to its allies than most top nations in history have been.

Why, I almost forgot the European joke about the modern Tea Party being just the same as the original one in Boston in 1773. They both consist of poor people being hoodwinked into helping rich people avoid paying their taxes to the government. My how we laughed at that one, but we laugh slightly less loudly than we did.

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian in London.

Perspectives is an occasional forum of The European Institute reflecting views on topical issues.