A bad year for American democracy

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 28, 2011


The year 2011 is ending with more negatives than positives for the United States. The economy remains stagnant. Unemployment has barely receded, after millions have given up looking for new jobs. Gridlock in Washington trumped all modest efforts at bipartisanship. The new Republican majority in the House blocked President Obama’s initiatives, but failed to impose its own conservative agenda. President Obama failed to show sufficient leadership to rally Democrats and moderate Republicans behind reasonable compromise. Americans ended up justifiably fed up with the political process. The bad news is that, at least on paper, things should get worse before they get better in 2012.


The Republican victory in the November 2010 midterm elections represented a big blow to President Obama. Two years after capturing the imagination of Americans, Obama started 2011 facing a hostile Congress and with his approval below 50 percent. There were few signs of economic recovery ahead. Given the circumstances, Obama fared relatively well in 2011. He was not able to push his agenda, but he held ground against an empowered Republican party. The state of the economy did not worsen. Obama was even able to win a few victories. The killing of Osama bin Laden, the end of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military and the formal end of the war in Iraq were a few bright spots in an otherwise defensive year for President Obama.


For Republicans, the year ended less auspiciously than it began. After having regained control of the House, Republicans had the opportunity to use their legislative muscle to influence new legislation. However, the party chose to be obstructionist rather than compromising. The rift within the party transformed the Republican primaries into an exercise of pleasing the vocal conservative base. All candidates know that they will need to adopt centrist and moderate policies to be competitive against Obama in November of 2012, yet they also know that they first need to prove their conservative credentials to diehard Republican primary voters. If Obama was on the defensive, Republicans were actively but ineffectively on the offensive. They attacked, but they failed to score goals against Obama. Moreover, because of their extremism and internal divisions, Republicans scored a few goals against themselves.


For the rest of the nation, 2011 was a year full of bickering and political disputes, but little progress. For different reasons, Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning Americans feel that the country is going in the wrong direction. Independents sense the country is going nowhere and that valuable time is being lost and opportunities are missed.


Americans fear that the country is falling behind as emerging economies, and particularly China, keep on moving forward. As passengers in a plane with a couple of failing engines—and a pilot and crew more concerned with blaming each other than safely landing the aircraft—Americans are afraid of the future and frightened by the present.


Unfortunately, things do not look very promising in the near future. 2012 is an election year. Normally, politics become more polarized during campaigns. The primary season, due to start next week, will make it even more difficult for Washington to move beyond partisan bickering. When the primaries are over—probably in late March or early April—the campaign will further distract President Obama from his obligations and will set the entire country in an election mood characterized by a blame game more than by sensible ideas to restore growth and increase employment. Because both parties cater to their constituencies, candidates will avoid saying the hard truth to voters. If the United States is to recover, there first must be tax increases (an anathema for Republicans) and spending cuts (a no-go for Democrats). Even if there are selective tax cuts and increases in infrastructure spending and education, the US government must begin to live within its means. Sacrifices must be made by those who oppose taxes and those who resist cuts. Failing to compromise would be the equivalent of the airplane pilots and crew not agreeing on where to land the troubled aircraft. Given that the plane is going down anyway, the political leadership ought to put aside their differences and agree on a landing strategy.


The economic problems the US faces are less complex and less dramatic than the political problems. The US economy is not on the verge of another recession. However, the inability of the political class to work out agreements sends the wrong signals about the direction the country is going and the appropriateness of the road map. In fact, as 2012 arrives, the political landscape should turn even grimmer. That will inevitably have negative repercussions on the economy.


The one bright spot is that the November 2012 presidential elections will result in a mandate for the winner. The US does not need a painful, divisive and costly electoral process that will further deepen the perception that the country is a troubled plane with no emergency plane, no pilot and no crew in charge. However, based on what happened in 2011, the prospects for the US in 2012 are not very bright.