Eurozone crisis: White House holds its breath

US President Barack Obama gives a speech in Colorado Springs, Colorado 23 May 2012 Image copyright AP
Image caption A shock from Europe could have an impact on the way the US presidential election plays out

US President Barack Obama has at least some sympathy with the eurozone leaders who find it so difficult coming up with a concrete plan that they can sell to their individual parliaments.

He said, at the end of the Nato meeting in Chicago: "I think about my one Congress, then I start thinking about 17 congresses and I start getting a little bit of a headache."

But I would not be surprised if the 17 nations at the heart of the 18th European crisis meeting end in a 19th nervous breakdown in the White House.

Bringing this crisis to a head really matters to Mr Obama. It could make the difference between "four more years" and "out of a job".

Worldwide panic

In the Justus Lipsius, the Brussels buildings that hosts the European Union summits, you can hear many languages and accents. This time a transatlantic twang may be among them.

Mr Obama may not be coming up with any cash, but his team are on hand.

"We've offered to be there for consultation to provide any technical assistance and work through some of these ideas in terms of how we can stabilise the markets there."

He really does not need this crisis turning into - well, whatever happens to a crisis when it goes beyond critical.

This really matters to Mr Obama. The upcoming election is going to be tougher than many think. National opinion polls have him just about neck and neck with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, but they are worse for Mr Obama in the states that matter.

A shock from Europe could do him in.

You could argue that even a chaotic Greek exit from the eurozone leading to a further plunge in the European economy would not feed through to America's high streets in time for November. I am not sure that is right.

It is true that any injury to the billions of dollars worth of exports to the EU would take a while to hurt. It is true that US banks are not horribly exposed.

But when markets panic, they panic worldwide and retired Americans use investment plans far more than people in other countries - these might be at risk.

An even bigger danger is that the limited amount of credit available, already harming the US recovery in many eyes, would simply dry up.

Divided by language

The real risk may be much simpler. Crisis begets crisis. Former President Franklin D Roosevelt may have been spot on when he declared: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." But markets driven by fear are never pretty.

Mr Obama must be pacing the Oval Office carpet in frustration. Time and time again he has delivered the same message. Time and time again, nothing happens.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Francois Hollande has backed common European bonds, something Germany opposes

He said it again in Chicago: "Acting forcefully rather than in small, bite-sized pieces and increments, I think, ends up being a better approach."

Americans worry that once again that they are divided from their friends across the Atlantic by a common language (although not in this case from the Brits).

They both talk of "austerity" and "stimulus" but they do not quite mean the same thing.

But above all Americans think the Europeans do not get the markets. The Washington view is that European politicians do not think their main job is to calm the markets. They regard them with distain as peripheral to the real structural crisis and rather hysterical.

The Americans do not necessarily think the markets are rational or admirable, but they do think they are real and important players. Calming them down is regarded as the first step on the road back to "normal".

They are more concerned with dealing with what they regard as the real world than making a moral point.

They point out that those who dealt with the crisis in America had long experience of the markets and knew what made them tick. European politicians do not have this background, and probably look askance at anyone who does.

Everyone is holding their breath until the next Greek election. The president of the US may be the most powerful man in the world but he seems fairly powerless in the face of the eurostorm.

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