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Sunday 7 August 2011

'Spoiled children' play the blame-game at fever pitch

As Obama loses appeal, one group is proposing a radical new way of electing a president, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

THERE'S been some pretty hysterical talk from American politicians over the past few weeks, but I think Democrat Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader of the US House of Representatives, wins the prize. During the debt-ceiling negotiations, she explained at a press conference: "What we're trying to do is save the world from the Republican budget. We're trying to save life on this planet as we know it today."

Life on this planet as we know it today is certainly under threat, not because Republicans have forced the Obama administration to trim its intended spending increases, but because the markets increasingly fear that many Western economies will eventually default on their debts. Global investors are selling stocks and putting their money into gold, safe currencies or under the bed. The only certain way of calming the present panic is for the hitherto cautious and frugal Chancellor Merkel to bet party and country on the survival of the Eurozone by guaranteeing the debts of Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and any of the other members who might face ruin from their own profligacy.

But even Germany couldn't do much to help out the mighty United States, which is still reeling from the bad-tempered carry-on on Capitol Hill over the past few weeks. The blame-game is being played at fever-pitch and will intensify now that Standard and Poor's has cut the US's credit rating. Fingers are being pointed at the Tea Party, Republicans, Democrats, the liberal-left, weak centrists and Obama. Even the Founding Fathers are under attack.

Maureen Dowd, columnist on the New York Times, expressed the view of the disappointed metropolitan elite when she wrote of how "the Tea Party slashers roaming the corridors of the Capitol have feasted without resistance on delicious victims and will only grow bolder". From that viewpoint, the only decent outcome would have been to hike taxes for the rich and borrow however many trillions it would take to keep public spending going and invest in job creation.

Tea Partiers retort that without them, the Republican Party wouldn't have had the guts to negotiate right to the line and impose some fiscal discipline. Republicans point out that the top 5 per cent of taxpayers already provide 60 per cent of tax receipts, that killing golden geese has proved historically to be a poor idea, that the trillion Obama threw at job creation achieved nothing and that the country cannot sustain a debt that stands at $40,000 for every citizen. Centrists -- and the majority of the American public -- are distressed that the country had its reputation damaged by the spectre of a debt default, deplore the acrimony and bitterness of public debate and generally damn politicians. A CNN poll had 77 per cent of Americans saying politicians had behaved like "spoiled children".

Obama gets a good kicking from many directions. His traditional supporters blame him for insufficient aggression (Dowd pictured him cowering under his desk as the vampires raged past), the right denounce him for having created a la-la land where utopian fantasies are preferred to harsh financial reality, and commentators of many stripes lament his inadequacies as a negotiator and persuader.

Meanwhile, whoever Obama's blaming, it's not himself. Understandable, really, when you consider 2012 is election year. Last Wednesday, celebrating his 50th birthday at a $35,800-a-plate fund-raiser in Chicago, he adopted statesmanlike language and condemned "partisan games" on the left or right. The trouble is that as a senator, no one had a more partisan voting record than the left-leaning Barack Obama. A disobliging reporter has even pointed out that he voted against or failed to vote on George W Bush's attempts to raise the debt ceiling.

As President, his inexperience continues to haunt him: he and his close circle just don't understand how Washington works, and his academic mien, pious rhetoric, caution and indecisiveness in domestic and foreign affairs annoy professional politicians of many hues.

Meanwhile, there is a school of thought that the American system of government no longer works properly and must be reformed to eliminate discord and rancour. The problem with that argument is that a lively democracy is by its nature discordant. The last few weeks may have been unedifying, but they forced issues out into the open and got the country debating.

What's more, as disillusioned voters look unenthusiastically at Obama and the uninspiring Republicans hoping to challenge him for the presidency (two out of three say they'd like another choice), a group called Americans Elect is trying to start a revolution that the Founding Fathers would surely have smiled upon. It invites Americans through online discussion to choose the key issues and the candidates and finally nominate a centrist ticket for 2012, with the winners going on the ballot in every state.

The people are mad as hell, but they're looking for constructive solutions rather than hysterical abuse. This initiative just might take off.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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