Four years ago, Americans elected Barack Obama. Not just the nation’s first black president, he stood as a symbol of “hope” and “change” after two painful terms under George W Bush.

Today, America heads again to polling stations, but this time, neither “hope” nor “change” is on the ballot.

Looking back, such optimism seems painfully naive. What did people expect? That Barack would shut down the war machine, reverse the bailouts and usher in Canadian-style health care? That America’s legendarily vicious and racist prison system would be reformed? Or maybe just that they’d be given the rights to protest over these issues, should they decide to?

Blame a non-cooperative congress, the economic meltdown he inherited or simply the colossal bureaucratic inertia of the empire he took charge of. What’s clear is his record, and it ain’t pretty.

Obama promised change. In too many ways, though, these changes were simply a continuation of the transformation which had begun under George W. Bush. The War on Terror has now become a borderless policy of drone bombings. Bailouts continued and Obama (backed heavily by bankers in 2008), and certainly hasn’t reigned in Wall Street. He repeatedly flip-flopped on the Keystone XL Pipeline. Obamacare is almost universally despised and watered down beyond comparison. Protesters were treated to coordinated, nearly simultaneous evictions of Occupy encampments in public squares across the country, coupled with mass-arrests, countless undercover operatives and the ongoing Grand Jury investigations of anarchists in the Pacific Northwest. And then there’s the explosion of arrests, detentions and deportations of immigrants, doubling under Obama.

Would any of this improve under Romney? Of course not. He’s clearly a lot smarter than Bush or Reagan, but I’m not sure switching in a puppet-master in place of the puppets is really an improvement. His career as a vulture capitalist at Bain Capital offends even die-hard republicans – what does it say when somebody might be too rich and greedy to be a conservative?

America’s two party system is a marvel of modern propaganda. They’ve taken false dichotomies of left and right to an entirely new level, institutionalizing them in so perfect a balance that a shift in support of even a few percent to any third party would tip the scales in favour of ‘the other side’. No matter how similar the competing parties’ platforms, the atmosphere is so polarized that it’s totally normal for people to speculate that the president (Obama, Bush, Reagan etc) might actually be the antichrist. Every election, therefore, becomes a nightmarish threat that a candidate representing everything you oppose might be elected, no matter how you feel about the other guy. Anybody but Bush, right?

I’ll admit, it’s easy to be impartial from Canada (where increasingly, our politicians depose themselves), and perhaps I’d feel differently from a swing state. The sad fact remains, though, that “less wrong” doesn’t make somebody right, and “voting against” rarely brings in much better.

I have a dirty secret. I love Barack Obama, and I think he’s the best thing that’s happened to America in a very long time. Honestly. People needed to see that somebody who as a thousand times the person and leader that George W Bush was could step into the same position and make all the same mistakes. People needed to have their illusions shattered. Perhaps they even needed to be tear-gassed and kettled to see that a new President simply cannot bring the kind of change they seek. Four years later, America has matured in a way which finally sees some separation between politics and petty partisan rivalries. Whoever wins tonight, nobody’s going to feel like anything’s over.