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US Politics

The American Dream and harsh realities

Kevin Rafferty wonders whether Obama can bridge political chasm

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 1:17am

US President Barack Obama was back to his best form when he made a teary-eyed victory speech to his supporters last week and promised that the best was yet to come, and he would fight for all Americans to create the land of their dreams and of the American Dream.

But there is a growing cataclysmic chasm between the promise that he was offering and the tough reality that he and America face today. "We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet," he declared.

It is tempting to say, "Dream on". There can be no doubt of Obama's good intentions, but his first four years in office proved that fine words and promises don't get you far. He proved singularly inept at the politicking and infighting necessary to get things through an obstructionist Congress.

The reality of the past decade is that America's underclass has been growing. The richest 1 per cent, and particularly the richest 0.1 per cent, have continued to enrich themselves, while the 99 per cent have struggled and seen their incomes drop, their jobs under threat and their children uncertain of getting jobs at all. Social and economic mobility, once the centre of the American Dream, is now lower in the US than in tired old Europe.

Meanwhile, the government's ability to act is savagely constrained by continuing deficits and the overhang of debts, which the squabbling parties are making worse by their refusal to accept tax rises, on the Republican side, or cuts in entitlements, on the Democrat side.

Paul Volcker, a former Federal Reserve chairman who defeated inflation by his tough-love policies, writes in the current issue of the New York Review of Books that America's view of itself as a great country is being threatened by its dependence on capital flows from abroad, its miniscule savings and flat household income. "These are not the characteristics of a country willing and able to prolong its global leadership," he writes .

America is a nation of immigrants, but its immigration policy is in a mess. Newcomers are viewed with suspicion.

Obama continued: "We want to pass on a country that's safe and respected around the world, a nation that is defended by the strongest military on earth and the best troops this world has ever known, but also a country that moved with confidence beyond this time of war to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being."

That is rhetoric stretching far beyond reality. Ask in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even in Japan where rogue US soldiers have attacked teenagers, how they see American military might.

Foreign policy was supposed to be the centre of the final presidential debate, but both Obama and contender Mitt Romney kept circling back to domestic issues. It was an exercise in American narcissism.

Neither man mentioned Nato, the European Union or the euro-zone crisis, or India, Indonesia or Japan, or climate change, hunger, poverty, drug violence, or water and energy shortages - the real challenges to any 21st-century leader.

The excuse, of course, is that all eyes were on the electorates in swing states like Ohio and Florida, so the issues were seen through their eyes. But are Americans so self-absorbed?

Obama, version 1.0, started off with fine promises about peace in the Middle East, talking to Iran, building a new relationship with rising China. He ended with a tinderbox Middle East; Iran hell bent on its nuclear ambitions; estranged Afghan and Pakistani civilians damning US drone strikes; and a sullen relationship with China, which rightly or wrongly perceived Obama's "pivot to Asia" as further proof of hegemonic America's determination to prevent China's rise.

All of which means that Obama 2.0 must go beyond rhetoric and discover the ways of political persuasion, or the US will head rapidly to the sunset that faces all empires.

The tragedy for America, and potentially for the world, is that the US empire, however evil it is seen to be, is still more open, more generous, freer and welcome to new ideas and newcomers than the once and future empire in waiting.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator