The developments in the US are of great concern to India. For the past 10 years, the linchpin of the policy of the governments led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his successor Manmohan Singh has been to use America’s outstretched hand, to get a leg up for India on to the high table of the world’s great powers. In turn, India aligned its policies, be they towards China, Iran, Pakistan or Afghanistan, closely to that of the US. An increasingly dysfunctional US has important implications for the world, but especially so for India. We are already witnessing some of the consequences of this unfolding crisis in the growing incoherence of US policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And this is just the beginning.
Obama and House Minority Leader John Boehner during a recent meeting where the President debated healthcare issues with a gaggle of Republicans
In the past year we have seen Barack Obama, The One who was expected to take it out of the free fall begun by George W Bush (with a little assist from Osama bin Laden), come a cropper. His popularity ratings at 47 per cent are at the lowest for any president at this point in his term. The key figures in the polls are revealed by Rasmussen Reports, a tracking poll going back to the day he took office. At the time 44 per cent of the people “strongly approved” of him, and only 16 per cent “strongly disapproved.” Over the past year, the figures have not reversed, but are close enough to that— 27 per cent “strongly approve” of Obama and 40 per cent “strongly disapprove.”
It was always fashionable in Left circles to run down America and see capitalism collapsing at every turn. But the recent performance of the US has been so dismal that some commentators are wondering whether China’s “soft authoritarian” model is likely to prove superior to the market-driven liberal democratic system of the US and the west.
But why blame the President? The Congress’ approval ratings are abysmal, but in all fairness they have always been low—70.2 per cent disapproval and 22.4 per cent approval. More than the presidency, it is America’s vaunted Congress comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate that needs a fix. The first suffers from the problem of electionitis— all Representatives are up for election every other year. What happens when you are constantly in election mode is something Indians understand well, though the problem here arises from the fact that one or the other state of the Union, or the entire nation is in for elections almost every year resulting in a populist skew to the policies of big parties like the Congress.
Just how the Senate works, or doesn’t, is apparent from the fact that despite having a comfortable majority, the Democrats are hamstrung and need a 60-40 majority to get any work done. The device of filibuster is well known—a Senator or a group of them can speak for as long as they like on any topic, unless 60 out of 100 members vote for cloture. Though the US Supreme Court has said that the rule can be changed by a simple majority, the current rule requires 67 votes for a rule change.
Lesser known, though equally potent is the “hold” through which a Senator, or Senators, can stop temporarily and sometimes even permanently, floor consideration of measures or matters to be scheduled by the Senate.
Last week, Senator Richard Shelby a Republican from Alabama placed a hold, (lifted this week), on all Obama Administration appointments which have to be ratified by the Senate. He was seeking a contract for the setting up of a refueling tanker for the US Air Force and an FBI explosives lab in his state. As Paul Krugman pointed out, the Senate approved the appointment of Martha Johnson as the head of the General Services Administration (the American equivalent of CPWD) after nine months because Senator Christopher Bond, Republican senator from Missouri, wanted to pressure the government on a building project in Kansas City.
Besides institutions, the parties themselves are in questionable health. The Democratic predicament is evident from its massive defeat in its heartland where it lost the seat of the sainted Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts to a Republican neophyte. Suddenly the bottom seems to have dropped out of Obama’s platform.
The Republicans can take little comfort from the victory considering how deeply they are divided between the rabble-rousing Sarah Palin fans and its conservative wing. Had the divisions been ideological it would be one thing. But the reality is that the divide is based on religious affiliation, race and fixed ideas that may not even have a basis in reality.
Though US parties tend to be election coalitions that take shape during elections, in recent years, the ideological positions within the parties have hardened to a point where they contribute to the political gridlock, rather than resolve it. The problems with the US healthcare system is one such instance. Almost everyone is agreed that the US needs to reform its bloated healthcare system which, if not reformed, will not only deny many Americans healthcare, but also further enhance the cost to the people who are entitled to it. Yet, as the Obama experience shows, there is no agreement on what should be reformed and how.
The dysfunctionality of the US system is most apparent with regard to its fiscal health. The US budget deficit for fiscal 2010 is expected to be $1.6 trillion. Obama has projected a growing economy to argue that the deficit will come down by 2014, but most experts disagree and say that with the current gridlock in the US political system, the situation will, if anything, worsen.
It is not as though the Republicans have any clear strategy to deal with the problem. Indeed, the party did not make much of a fuss when George W Bush decided to fight two wars through public borrowings, and by slashing rather than raising taxes. Given current trends, the US economy will be in far greater trouble by 2020 than it is in today.
The US is still the richest and most militarily powerful country in the world, with the best education system you can think of. But China is moving fast to catch up, and doing so systematically across a range of areas. The rise of authoritarian China and the decline of democracy’s great champion America, pose the question (with apologies to Churchill): Is democracy really the least imperfect way to govern people?
Those who argue for democracy have one major point to make—it is a self-correcting system (and less murderous). But the big question that we must confront is whether the ossified arteries of the US will be up to coping with the political medicine required to cure it of its multiple ills.
This article appeared in Mail Today February 11, 2010