Sunday, January 27, 2013

America, a can't do nation?

Jan 27, 2013

The US political system seems incapable of solving many of the problems the country faces
By Chua Chin Hon Us Bureau Chief In Washington

From a lonely field in Pennsylvania where one of the hijacked Sept 11 planes crash-landed to the small Illinois city where Mr Barack Obama launched his presidential ambition, my job has taken me to some uncommon parts of the United States in the last four years.

The one place I remember above all is a quiet corner of West Virginia called Huntington.

In June 2010, my wife and I spent a week there in an attempt to understand why it had come to be known as the "fattest city in America".

What struck me as our interviews wore on was not so much the severity of the problem - a third to about half the adults were obese, depending on which report you believe - but the sense of resignation in the community.

Even Pastor Steve Willis, one of the city's staunchest health advocates, was conflicted about whether Huntington could genuinely do anything about the larger socioeconomic forces driving the problem - local poverty, entrenched social habits and problematic national policies (government subsidies for corn instead of vegetables or fruit), to name a few.

"I would say that we are not divided on the fact that something needs to be done," he told us in an interview at his church. "I think we are divided on whether there is something we can do to make it better. And many people have told me there isn't something better we can spend our time on because we can't fix this."

This "can't do" attitude that Pastor Willis talked about strikes a deep chord with me because it resonates with much of what I've experienced in Washington, where political dysfunction has sunk to new depths.

Congress and the White House, for instance, somehow cannot agree on new or even modest ways to jumpstart the economy despite four years of unacceptably high unemployment and knowing that at least 12 million Americans are out of work.

A jobs Bill proposed by President Obama in September 2011 went nowhere. Republicans appear to have no new ideas beyond their standard proposals to cut taxes and reduce government regulations.

Meanwhile, efforts to rein in the country's worrying fiscal deficit have become a farce. Mr Obama commissioned a high-powered bipartisan panel in February 2010 to find new ways of addressing the problem, only to distance himself from the report when it was released later that year.

A "super committee" was later formed to produce legislation that would cut government spending by US$1.2 trillion (S$1.5 trillion) over 10 years. The effort failed, and in turn triggered a series of automatic spending cuts due to kick in from this year.

But fearing a new recession, lawmakers passed new measures on New Year's Day to postpone the cuts by two more months. It is unclear what they will eventually do about the spending cuts.

The most frustrating example of this "can't do" attitude in America is the one involving gun control. Even after 20 children and six adults were gunned down in cold blood in a Connecticut school last month, the prevailing view is that Mr Obama's efforts to rein in gun violence will go nowhere.

The National Rifle Association, the pro-gun lobby group, is simply too powerful, many say. Others insist there is insufficient public support for a ban on assault weapons or that Republicans and right-wing groups can never be persuaded to go along with putting a limit on Americans' constitutional rights to bear arms.

A similar vein of excuses runs through other tough issues on the horizon, from climate change to immigration reform.

Yes, democracy is slow and often messy in a big and complex country. I also realise that the US political system is designed precisely to prevent big changes from being rushed through.

But isn't America the country synonymous with the "can do" spirit? I had assumed so.

In fact, I moved from Beijing to Washington four years ago precisely because I was drawn to the idea of travelling around America to cover stories about how the country would reinvent itself following a deep recession and a historic election.

I found the reality check all the more jarring, given the country's undiminished strengths and relentless drive elsewhere, such as in top-class research.

Between 2008 and 2012, arguably the rockiest patch for the US economy in recent memory, the country still managed to produce a total of 31 Nobel Prize winners, more than several of the next best performing countries combined.

The top American companies, from Apple to Google to Facebook, also continued to be fiercely competitive and innovative, churning out products like the iPad that consumers around the world crave.

So what makes Washington uniquely incapable of solving problems?

For starters, that is not what preoccupies both parties most of the time.

When I was covering the presidential campaign last year, it quickly became apparent to me that the cutting edge of American politics was not in the business of governance but in electoral warfare.

Take Mr Obama's campaign team, which faced a near-impossible mission of helping to get an incumbent re-elected in the face of four years of high unemployment and rising public disgruntlement.

They responded by bringing in some of the country's top behavioural scientists to help the campaign figure out how best to counter malicious rumours about Mr Obama and compel their own supporters to turn up at the polls.

A crack team of 300 digital, technology and data experts was assembled in the Obama campaign's Chicago headquarters to try to predict the behaviour of millions of American voters, develop in-house software, and analyse a growing mountain of electoral data.

By some accounts, the Obama campaign's analytics team ran 66,000 simulations each night to try to predict who would prevail in the battleground states.

The Romney campaign did not do any of this cutting-edge technological stuff. But it was exceedingly adept at raising big dollar donations.

Both campaigns raised a record US$2 billion to wage round-the-clock political battles on the airwaves and the Internet, a Herculean feat considering the tough economic times.

Some thought things would change for the better after last year's election since Mr Obama could not run for a third term, thereby removing a key source of anxiety for the Republicans.

Mr Obama famously said last year that he thought the Republicans' all-out opposition to his agenda would break like a fever after the election.

But the signs are that temperatures in the Republican camp are going up, not down.

At a private luncheon last Tuesday, just a day after Mr Obama's second inauguration, Republican House Speaker John Boehner said: "We are expecting here, over the next 22 months, to be the focus of this administration as they attempt to annihilate the Republican Party.

"I do believe that is their goal - to just shove us into the dustbin of history."

Translated, this means Mr Boehner and his Republican colleagues are already gearing up to protect their turf and perhaps launch new offensives for the 2014 and 2016 elections.

This bodes ill for the Obama administration's plan to introduce immigration reforms and tighter gun control laws, to say nothing of even tougher tasks such as entitlement reform.

These days, I wonder whether Washington is still the best place to observe the future of US power and influence, given the endless rounds of futile political posturing and brinkmanship.

As a result of Mr Obama's decision to "pivot" towards Asia - a new foreign policy strategy whose success will depend much on whether the US can get its own fiscal house in order - the view of Washington from Singapore, Beijing or even Naypyidaw might prove far more interesting.

I am looking forward to testing this proposition when I return to Asia. If nothing else, it would be a welcome return to a part of the world where election politics hasn't become a permanent fixture.

The writer and his wife, Tracy Quek, have been based in Washington for The Straits Times since 2009 and end their term this month.

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